Constructing the Digital Universe

An open letter to the academic community online

(Here's a "get involved" letter aimed at academic types. Feel free to send this peer-to-peer, too.)

Dear colleagues,

Collaboration is powerful. Enormous collaborative efforts on clearly-defined, useful projects can be world-changing. Wikipedia demonstrates that; but it is often touted as a reference for which mainly nonexperts write. So imagine if the international community of experts were to start and manage many distributed, collaborative projects. Small projects of this sort have already started, of course, but the prospects of expanded efforts are staggering.

What would happen if massive numbers of experts of the world were to unite and, with the help of the general public, do what they do best–impart knowledge to the world, for free?

Professors, scientists, researchers, teachers, and other experts could create a general encyclopedia produced using a wiki. The result would combine the dynamism of Wikipedia with more consistently high quality. Imagine that the public were invited to contribute too, but under the management of experts and using their real names. How many intelligent people would jump at the chance to work under the instruction of experts, in a community where personal responsibility and maturity are expected? Many more than are already working on Wikipedia, I think.

Imagine that this community were to develop free, top-quality information resources beyond encyclopedias–from new editions of public domain books released by scholars, to citizen journalism led by journalists, to online forums led by policy experts, to high-quality free curricula designed by professional educators and subject-matter experts. Granted, the Internet has already made inroads on these fronts. But, frankly, I believe the principles that have made Wikipedia work so wonderfully have not been successfully applied either to other types of projects or to the expert community. By both widening the scope of our content creation and aggregating the influence of the expert community, much more could be done. This is particularly the case if we have the participation of those who can understand deeply why Wikipedia works as well as it does, and can "think outside of the box" that Wikipedia seems to have created for some people.

My claim is that experts could be mobilized online in the way that ordinary netizens have been mobilized by Wikipedia, to work on content projects far larger and more important than an encyclopedia–and that this suggestion has revolutionary potential. But if so, why hasn't it happened yet?

There are several reasons. One reason is that organizing the world's intelligentsia online might require a new way to fund an online nonprofit. To this end, ManyOne has a completely novel affinity branded ISP service, that will be resellable by nonprofits and even individuals, which will, we hope, solve this problem. (More on this in later blog posts. The first example of the ISP service–again, this is only an example of a reusable, resellable service–is the Earth Portal Internet Service .)

Now, don't get me wrong–I love online communities–but another reason for slow uptake of the collaborative Web among academics is surely that many online communities are infamous for their immature, irresponsible behavior. Such behavior is tolerated, on principle, as part of Internet culture. So, naturally, it seems unlikely that academics will adopt this Internet culture on a much wider scale. Moreover, "knowledge workers" owe their positions to a powerful meritocratic system that contrasts strongly with a hyper-egalitarian Internet. In some online contexts, one is not supposed to care whether the anonymous person with whom one is conversing is a 15-year-old high school student or a 50-year-old college professor. The typical academic or professional finds such contexts neither welcoming nor worthwhile.

But we can start a new kind of Internet culture, one that is welcoming to mature, well-educated people, and thereby liberate the collective power of online experts. I appeal to scholars, scientists, teachers, and librarians, and (emphatically) that part of the public that wants to work under their guidance: let us organize and build a new kind of Web.

The nonprofit Digital Universe Foundation will soon start a free wiki encyclopedia from scratch, managed by experts but allowing public participation. It will require the use of real names and have robust community standards. It will be just one part of the Digital Universe–an authoritative, ambitious new Web project. The software and platform that runs the Digital Universe is under development by ManyOne Networks, which will come under the control of the nonprofit ManyOne Foundation.

I have been helping to plan the encyclopedia component of the Digital Universe since spring 2005. I have some relevant experience: I was co-founder of Wikipedia, though I left the project in 2002 (see my memoir for why I left). This new project is closer to the original vision we had for Wikipedia, which involved a strong association with its more straight-laced and peer-reviewed predecessor, Nupedia.

We are now seeding new coalitions of organizations and individuals, each independent of the Digital Universe Foundation and of each other, but working together to create the greatest single information resource the world has ever seen. Potential Stewards, please register your interest (this is not a commitment–it is just a way for us to get in touch with you and find out on what terms you wish to participate). Potential public participants, please tell us how to get ahold of you and we'll let you know when our first content-building projects get started.

Regards,
Dr. Larry Sanger
Director of Distributed Content Programs
Digital Universe Foundation
Larry.Sanger at dufoundation.org

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