Larry Sanger, the first “editor” of Wikipedia (speaking loosely), is launching a new project to define technical sharing and interopability standards for online encyclopedias.
The aim is to create an “encyclopshere” of online encylopedias, based on the example of the “blogosphere” of online comment, and thereby route around the fairly obvious flaws with Wikipedia today.
I wouldn’t exactly buy into this project, but of course I don’t need to. Even if it is not likely to succeed, there is still a chance of it producing something valuable, either in the form of a product, or in the form of a lesson about what makes collaborative projects and search for truth work.
I’m not going to dig into it all today. It’s a large question. This post is a collection of resources, some from Sanger’s project, some from elsewhere, that I think are relevant.
Text of speech by Sanger announcing the project:
2-part post by Sanger on Slashdot in 2005 about the early history of Wikipedia:
David Chapman on subculture evolution, and Venkatesh Rao on identity
My own earliest memory of an online community becoming poisoned and dying is the Eternal September of 1993.
These are things that should be listed here but I can’t find
- Moldbug posted an idea for a site where you could basically attach commentary to articles? A sort of cross between Wikipedia and Gab’s Dissenter product (though it was long before Gab, of course). Someone actually implemented a first cut, and I used it.
- Stack Overflow set out to be an online reference of solutions to programming problems. Its founders thought quite deeply about what it would take to build the site and its community of contributors, and they were extremely successful in achieving their aims. I’m pretty sure i’ve seen a good longform account of this somewhere, probably by Atwood. This little piece gives a flavour of the way they think about things. https://stackoverflow.blog/2010/01/04/stack-overflow-where-we-hate-fun/
A few of my own pieces I think are relevant:
- Where constitutions come from and what makes them work. https://www.anomalyblog.co.uk/2016/09/constitutions/ . I really think this one is the most relevant — if you’re going to have rules (and you probably are), those rules should be about balancing parties’ competing interests, and those parties should be motivated to maintain the effectiveness of the rules
- Twitter and neoreaction. I think the technical properties of Twitter produced a particular effect for neoreaction. In this context, that’s an example of the relationship between technical features and the behaviour of users. https://www.anomalyblog.co.uk/2016/02/neoreaction-and-twitter/
- Party Leadership Elections. Odd one here, but the point is central. A group has to stand for something: if it stands only for its membership, then there’s no reason for it to be different from anything else. https://www.anomalyblog.co.uk/2019/05/party-leadership-elections-are-undemocratic/ . My first response to Sanger’s project also focused on this aspect: https://www.anomalyblog.co.uk/2019/10/decentralised-monopolies/
- Maybe relevant? “a bunch of people on the internet (1) is not an organisation and (2) is a terrible way to start an organisation. You have to _start_ with personal relationships and trust and actual resources. A real organisation can _use_ online for some purposes, but it can’t originate there” https://twitter.com/anomalyuk/status/1124333907883769862
Brief thoughts on culture & community
Each of these needs fleshing out. Some of them are discussed in the links above.
- A community has to stand for something, and have a way of making sure it will continue to stand for what it stands for. (Oh, that’s Goal-Content Integrity)
- If it’s too restrictive about what is allowed in, a few early adopters with a lot of energy will turn it into their own private club
- Conquest’s Laws
- If you let in trolls, you will end up with a community of that subset of people who are willing to put up with the trolls
- A system that works well when the real-world stakes are low will immediately fail catastrophically when the real-world stakes get high (Mtgox, arguably wikipedia)
- It would be ideal to just not have a community, just a project, but that’s not possible (one of the points from Sanger’s slashdot history)
- All the real value comes from the best contributions. But if you don’t have the mediocre contributions, you don’t have anything. Most of your project only exists in order to be the venue where the rare valuable stuff happens.
- Rules are meaningless independent of the people who follow and enforce them. Identical rules will succeed in one place and fail in another. But rules still matter.
Requirements for Encyclopedia Protocol
This isn’t remotely definitive, but I have actually tried to produce encyclopedia content, and run into obstacles I didn’t expect, so here’s some stuff to throw on the whiteboard. (“Requirements” in the technical sense of what needs the solution is trying to satisfy, not in the sense these are all definitely 100% necessary)
- Obvious stuff: rich text, embedded pictures and diagrams.
- Internal linkage. Each entry/article is a first-class sharable entity. It has a single title. It can be referenced by that title, plus source and version
- Rendering. Debatable, but personally I strongly want to be able easily to turn an encylopedia into a genuine printable format, as well as it being an easy-to-access web resource
- External links. You have to be able easily to reference external resources in a way that is compatible with standard bibiliography/citation techniques. I’ve found this frustratingly difficult.
- Revision control. You need to know who changed what, when.