Wikipedia's co-founder eyes a Digital Universe

newsmaker Larry Sanger explains his ambition to build a reliable source of freely accessible, publicly created information on the Web.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
Sometime this month, Larry Sanger and several colleagues will launch what they're calling the PBS of the Web.

Known as Digital Universe, the project is an attempt to present a diverse collection of information on just about any topic imaginable. Some will be links to other Web resources, while some will be citizen journalism. But the highest-profile part of the project is likely to be its encyclopedia. And while its entries will be written by the general public, the project is distinguishing itself from Wikipedia by having many entries vetted and certified as accurate by subject-area experts.

Thus, the Digital Universe will attempt to become the largest and--its founders hope--most reliable, source of freely-accessible, publicly-created information on the Web. And as such, the project has already and will continue to line up a series of Ph.D.s to serve as "stewards." To pay them for their services, the Digital Universe Foundation has lined up more than $10 million in initial funding.

CNET News.com recently caught up with Sanger to talk about the project, his role and what he hopes the Digital Universe can achieve going forward. Q: Explain what Digital Universe is.
Sanger: It will be a non-commercial, free or open content authoritative information resource that mirrors reality. You can think of the Digital Universe as a set of portals, each defined by a topic, such as the planet Mars. And from each portal, there will be links to the best resources on the Web, including a lot of resources of different kinds that are prepared by experts and the general public under the management of experts. This will include an encyclopedia, as well as public domain books, participatory journalism, forums of various kinds and so forth. We'll build a community of experts and an online collaborative network of independent organizations, each of which has authority over its own discipline to select material and to build resources that are together displayed through a single free-information platform.

It will grow slowly over a couple of years, correct?
Absolutely. In fact, what I anticipate is that the sort of development that has been taking place over the past few years in terms of developing the portals that make up the Earth portal will continue. You know, one of the most exciting things about this actually is the idea that we are going to be providing a platform where experts can manage the public to work on a three-dimensional model of reality.

It is intended to become, over the next few decades, an exhaustive information resource.

Manage the public to do what?
If you can imagine people, all of the people who are used to being levels editors for a game like "Unreal," for example. Imagine the staff that a software company has working on that. Imagine that multiplied by 10 or 100 or 1,000 under the management of experts, biologists, geologists, astronomers and so forth. And developing a model of not just the digital Earth, but a digital universe down to the most detailed levels.

What is your role in Digital Universe?
My title is director of distributed content programs. I was brought on board to work on a collaborative expert encyclopedia or expert-led encyclopedia. But I was surprised to learn they had a larger idea in mind for me in that I would be also articulating some of their conceptual underpinnings of the whole enterprise. So I'm working on a very long monograph about the Digital Universe.

What was your interest in getting involved?
It started with an article I wrote, which is now infamous, at least among Wikipedia's defenders--of which I am one, actually. It was called "Why Wikipedia must jettison its anti-elitism." Joe Firmage and Bernie Haisch, Digital Universe's founders, saw it and agreed with it. At the time they were thinking about developing the content for the Digital Universe. And they thought my notion--that a radically collaborative open encyclopedia project like Wikipedia could actually be run by experts with stronger community standards of civility--was essentially what they were looking for.

And Joe presented me with the opportunity to be a key part of something that was not just coherent with the idea that I had with Nupedia and Wikipedia working together. It took that general idea of an outrageously productive, but extremely reliable resource and extended it.

Tell me about this idea that the Digital Universe is like the PBS of the Web?
The idea is that it is a single reliable source of noncommercial and ad-free information. Obviously, we don't mean that it's merely a broadcast medium, but if you can think of Yahoo, Google and MSN as equivalent to the big three broadcast networks of ABC, NBC and CBS, isn't it odd that there doesn't exist anything like the equivalent of a Web PBS or BBC?

Jimmy Wales said that he thought Digital Universe was a nice idea, but that it reminded him of Nupedia and in that sense he was a little bit pessimistic about it. What's your reaction to that?
Well, there's a couple of important ways that Digital Universe is different from Nupedia, but there's also a few ways it's similar. It's different in that it's a much bigger idea. It's not just an encyclopedia. It is intended to become, over the next few decades, an exhaustive information resource, and Nupedia was going to be just an encyclopedia. Second, the Digital Universe is post-Nupedia and post-Wikipedia. We are not going to have an enormous seven-step process that no one wants to go through. Moreover, we have a business model that has a much better chance of actually producing money to pay our stewards.

The Digital Universe Web site has a line on it that says it'll be the largest reliable information source on the Web. Is that a direct reference to Wikipedia?
You could view it that way I suppose. It's a perfectly valid point of view. There are a lot of people who have been calling for an expert review of Wikipedia.

Why would someone write an article for Digital Universe instead of Wikipedia?
I see the Digital Universe encyclopedia--which will be just one part of a much larger whole--and Wikipedia as occupying socially complementary niches. Together they will provide the broadest opportunities for people of all sorts to contribute to encyclopedias. But now, a whole new group of people, who were--for whatever reason--not willing to work on Wikipedia, might find a home in the Digital Universe encyclopedia. Wikipedia will and should always exist as a radically unconstrained alternative.

I have to say it's not a good feeling to have my role minimized on something I spent so much time and energy on.

But the Digital Universe will be more attractive to those members of the public who actually want to work with and under the direction of experts. There are many such people, I think--probably more than are willing to work in the wild-and-woolly atmosphere of Wikipedia. The Digital Universe will require the use of real names, and will be initiated under an enforceable community charter. We hope it will be a more civil project.

Who will the experts be?
We're currently initiating a peer-to-peer to campaign to attract leading researchers in every field. We will be consulting with some of the old Nupedia people--I have the ear of a third of the old roster of editors and peer reviewers--and with some of the new people who arrive, in order to determine when a "critical mass" of leading people in each discipline have expressed their interest. We will construct those leading researchers and luminaries as steering committees, and the whole collection of them will be our initial board of stewards. Each steering committee will be responsible for further attracting and aggregating individuals and organizations for a new coalition in their field.

So the short answer is that these Digital Universe coalitions will determine who the Digital Universe stewards are. It will not be up to the Digital Universe Foundation. There already is a group of very distinguished scientists and scholars, including arctic environment expert Robert Corell, the Encyclopedia of Energy's editor-in-chief Cutler Cleveland, and the organization of the well-known primatologist Jane Goodall.

And why would someone want to be a Digital Universe expert?
There are three broad reasons. First, the Digital Universe vision is of a free, nonprofit, and authoritative information resource, never before tried, and we hope that will appeal to many academics. Second, the Digital Universe Foundation will be well positioned to receive grants, and will be the recipient of monies from an ISP service; this we will pass on to stewards. Third, we expect that, once the influence of so many intellectuals is aggregated in a single place, leadership positions in the Digital Universe will quickly gain value in tenure and advancement committees. It may take time for all of this to happen, of course. But we are certainly working hard to make it happen.

Obviously, you're aware of the news that Jimmy Wales has admitted editing his own Wikipedia biography and cutting references to you. What do you think of that?
I have to say it's not a good feeling to have my role minimized on something I spent so much time and energy on. I still distinctly recall the dinner in which a friend told me about wikis, and I thought, "We should use wiki software to run an encyclopedia." Very soon after, when a blank wiki was set up, I proceeded to write the initial pages, publicize the new project in the Nupedia community and elsewhere, welcome new contributors, write and elaborate policy, and point out policy violations. In short, I started the habits that have made Wikipedia a qualified success today.