The Future of Citizendium

I have an account and was once an occasional contributor at Citizendium, but I hadn’t been there for a while (for those of you who aren’t familiar with Citizendium (CZ), it’s an encyclopedia project, similar in principle to Wikipedia, but there is “expert oversight” of articles and anonymous or pseudonymous contributions are not allowed). The other week, I visited the site again. One of the first things that I noticed was that the Sitenotice has this big, bold message reading: “Help Keep Our Mission Alive! We have a continuing need for funds to pay for hosting our servers. Please make your donations here.” Looks like the site has some money problems. This is confirmed by reading the financial report, which indicates that, for the most part, donations are not keeping up with expenditures. Doing the math, Citizendium is going to run out of money in 12 months, give or take. CZ has been pushing towards getting a bunch of regulars on board to contribute around $15 per month or so to keep the project afloat. However, it’s not clear that too many people could be motivated to regularly contribute that much financially, especially However, when you consider that only four citizens had more than 100 edits in March 2012.

I had a look at the most recent Citizendium article that I created from scratch, which had been created in July 2010. No-one has edited it since. The number of contributors to the project seems to be so small that there’s no-one with similar interests with whom I could collaborate. But that’s okay, I enjoy sharing my knowledge with the world… except that that’s not really happening either. Since July 2010, there have been around 1,050 views of the article, which works out to less than 2 per day. Not sure whether that number includes spiders and the like, in which case the number of real people who read the article would likely be significantly less than 1,050, but either way, there aren’t that many real people reading these articles. Still, the lack of incentives to collaborate and share may not stop everyone from contributing. I like writing and may not mind putting the occasional article in a free place where it isn’t going to be altered or read too much. However, CZ’s financial issues are a disincentive to doing so (why bother creating something if the site’s going to go under next year?)

Is the project a failure? Certainly there are several different ways to fail. If Citizendium doesn’t have enough money to pay the bills and the lights go out in the near future, that’s one way to fail. Another is perhaps more subtle, but might be considered as significant a failure. Citizendium could turn itself into a blueberry muffin making company or something like that, and it could become wildly profitable, but abandoning all of its goals and objectives would be an implicit admission of failure. It’s only natural to assume there’s going to be resistance to making changes.

But there has to be some sort of middle ground, right? It should be possible to compromise on some things for the sake of project survival while holding firm to some of the more important things. The goal of Citizendium, at least as far as I recall, is that it is an online project to produce a free reliable knowledgebase under expert guidance. Now, to take Editorial Council motions as an example, many if not most of them are neutral as regards the goals of the project (except perhaps to the extent that they thwart contributors). While the motions are consistent with the goal of the project, the opposite of the motions would also be consistent with the goal of the project. There is a lot of leeway to act in many different ways, all of which are consistent with the project goals.

Another big problem is that Citizendium’s bureaucracy is quite large compared with the actual size of the project. It might be compared with a large oil tanker in that it takes time to change the course of the tanker. If an oil tanker is heading toward the coast, you need to start steering it out of the way while it’s still several miles away from disaster; if you try to wait until the last minute to steer the oil tanker away from the coast, you get a bunch of oil-soaked seagulls and tarry beaches. The coast of empty bank accounts is directly ahead of the Citizendium bureaucracy; can they steer away in time?

Although I don’t personally endorse this option, perhaps failure should be admitted, the project left to die and the contributors freed to devote their efforts to more useful pursuits. But if those at Citizendium who hold the reins don’t feel that way, then significant changes need to be made. And, since the coastline of empty bank accounts is within view, the ship needs to be steered away now in order to avert a collision.

Probably the root problem is that most successful Wikis or Web 2.0 sites succeed in the following manner:

  1. Good content attracts readers [e.g. through search engines]
  2. Some readers become writers
  3. Writers contribute good content
  4. Good content attracts readers
  5. Some readers become writers
  6. … and so on and so on …

Citizendium has two problems in this regard. The first is attracting readers through good content. CZ, being a general-purpose encyclopedia, is going to focus on the same articles that Wikipedia does, but Wikipedia is always going to rank higher in search results, causing CZ’s good content to not attract readers. The second problem is that there is a big hurdle towards readers becoming writers; the registration process is convoluted and involves verifying that your account name really is your real name. So, the feedback loop above is broken in two places. Unfortunately, it may not be possible to fix it before the project goes broke.

So, the problem that Citizendium may be forced to tackle is the immediate financial one. How do they make more money? Well, the current donations-oriented way of doing so is just not working based on the current number of contributors. It also seems highly unlikely to me that some philanthropically-minded individual or organization will come along and save Citizendium; these entities would want to see results that the project can’t currently deliver. Possibly a Psychology or Sociology department from some university would be interested in funding Citizendium so that they could study the behaviour of expert-driven online communities, but the chances of Citizendium attracting any sort of donations based on their content is nil. Obviously, another approach needs to be taken.

Citizendium still has a reasonable number of people visiting, so I think they should monetize them through advertising or other sponsorships (this would require a change to their charter so this isn’t likely to happen, but I think that’s what they need to do). Between advertising revenue and donations from the regulars, that should provide enough funds to keep the servers running, which should buy them time to make it easier to register to become an author, which hopefully should slowly fix the broken feedback loop that is preventing the project from taking off at all. Also, they’ll need to look at ways to better retain the authors that they do get.

Can the project do it? I don’t know. Whatever happens, I wish the project luck; it’s going to need it.

6 thoughts on “The Future of Citizendium

  1. Christian Liem

    Interesting article. I believe the major impediment to Citizendium is the bureaucracy. The current admins running Citizendium are the least suitable to run it. Self-serving editors who have done little but use the project to feather their own nest while excluding others who are deemed a threat to their “power”. They can hold elections but it makes little difference, as there are so few people left now to play their farcical musical chairs. I’ve stopped editing there as a result.

    1. James

      I didn’t emphasise this in the article but you are absolutely right; ignoring the upcoming financial crisis, the inappropriate level of bureaucracy is probably the biggest challenge that the project faces. It makes getting anything done time-consuming at best, and just like some real-life democracies, it’s not too hard for a small number of people to grind progress to a halt. It’s probably something that deters me from participating too; I’ve looked at some of their discussions in the past and thought, “what are these people smoking?”, followed by “if this is the way that the people running the project think, there’s really no point in me spending too much time here.”

      I think that, in principle, it’s really cool that CZ has managed to emulate a constitutional democracy in a wiki project. However, for a project with less than 30 contributors in a month, the best form of government is anarchy or something close to it.

    1. James

      Wow, David Gerard commenting onmy humble blog… I must be doing something right (-: Anyway, awesome link; I enjoyed it and found it to be humourous.

  2. Comment about Encyclopedia of Law

    Yes, you are right. In fact, the blog of Citizendum was without activity from 2010 to july 2012; so maybe the things will change.

    Citizendum advises to use specialist sources rather than general sources for writing articles (in his page adressed to wikipedians).

    Therefore, I think online encyclopedias will be probably more acurate, or at least, complete, than general ones.

    For example Scholarpedia or Lawi and the Wiki Encyclopedia of Law.

    I use the link of the last because many people do not know it in some countries.

  3. tom sulcer

    I contributed extensively to Citizendium for a few months and agree with the above comments, but wanted to add a few more problems. I found Citizendium’s article structure was overly complex; a Wikipedia article typically has one page for the article itself, plus a related talk page for discussion about that article; in contrast, a Citizendium article had several other pages, related to the main article, which I found tedious and time-consuming to try to update. While I am a non-expert, amateur contributor, my contributions in some areas were snubbed even though they were sound and based on solid references. I found myself getting bogged down with rather pointless debates over particulars. But my main dissatisfaction with Citizendium was that nobody was reading my contributions; at one point, I researched how search engine optimization works to try to find ways to improve pageview tallies, and even did an experiment by writing lots of articles on one subject — The Aeneid — with interlocking links to Greek gods and goddesses, places, and so forth — to try to boost pageviews. It had a slight effect, if any. After Citizendium, I’ve returned once again to Wikipedia and have come to appreciate what an amazing information source it has become; most of my contributions remain there, and it gets tremendous readership.


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