Digital Universe and long odds

MSNBS is running a story on the Digital Universe. In the middle of last year, I posted about these issues, remaining quiet on the whole Digital Universe thing, since Larry Sanger requested that those he contacted stayed quiet.

But now it seems the cat is out of the bag, and so I can say: I’m worried. They have lined up some great talent, but some of the core issues surrounding Nupedia still remain: namely, how to build participation. They are offering a freely available information source (a good thing), but still hope to monetize it in some way by providing–and here it seems to get a bit strange–dial-up? The money side of it doesn’t make much sense to me, but the production side is particularly difficult.

There are already some “big name” researchers and groups associated with the project. However, it may remain difficult for the Digital Universe project not to appear as something of an arriviste, unwilling to work with academics or organizations who are not well-established, yet not really part of that club yet. I am not a name, nowhere near it, and I therefore probably am of no interest to Digital Universe. But, at the same time, they are not particularly of interest to me. Why would I publish with their project, rather than self-publishing? The claim is that creating material for Digital Universe will carry prestige–and mentions have been made about it applying to tenure, which to me demonstrates a clear case of wishful thinking. But there are plenty of prestigious outlets for such work. If I were seriously trying to reach a public audience, I could blog–which I do sometimes–or I could talk to the Discover Channel, who might actually pay me to put together something educational and interesting. In other words, I think what Wikipedia got right, far more than anything else, was the idea of micro-commitments of time. And the only way for that to really work is for there to be a huge base of people contributing continually.

Now the critique against wikipedia, that it drowns out the more informed voices with more popular voices, I think is a fair one. The anti-elitism leads to deficiencies in some of the content, I think. But this is a minor critique of a resource that simply works. Wouldn’t mutating that working model make more sense than inventing from the ground up?

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 2/2/2006 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Alex,

    Just wanted to say that I appreciated the discussion.

    “But now it seems the cat is out of the bag, and so I can say: I’m worried.”

    Don’t be. They hired me to help organize the encyclopedia and public participation. As long as I’m involved, I’ll be going to bat to make sure that there is an efficient way for anyone who can contribute positively to be able to do so.

    “They have lined up some great talent, but some of the core issues surrounding Nupedia still remain: namely, how to build participation.”

    Interesting that you should say so, because that is the very thing we’re working on now. But you are right that that is a problem to be concerned about, and to remind the leaders of the project about. But they know that.

    “They are offering a freely available information source (a good thing), but still hope to monetize it in some way by providing—and here it seems to get a bit strange—dial-up? The money side of it doesn’t make much sense to me, but the production side is particularly difficult.”

    We also have a DSL service (see http://isp.digitaluniverse.net/); and the whole point is to create an “affinity branded” ISP service that can be resold by nonprofits to their members. The nonprofit gets some of the proceeds, and the DU development project gets some of the proceeds, and the subscriber gets the joy of knowing his ISP dollars are going to things he really supports–not a corporation.

    Eventually, we’ll have enough “premium content” and services (but bear in mind that the encyclopedia and the vast bulk of content will always be open content/free) to make a “bring your own net connection” option attractive, especially to those who simply want to support the effort.

    Once you understand it, the business model is one of the most exciting aspects of the project. Quite frankly, and I am completely sincere when I say this, it is the business model that really persuaded me to get on board.

    “There are already some ‘big name’ researchers and groups associated with the project. However, it may remain difficult for the Digital Universe project not to appear as something of an arriviste, unwilling to work with academics or organizations who are not well-established, yet not really part of that club yet.”

    This is correct as stated–it will remain difficult for the DU project not to appear that way. I guess that’s an impression that we will have to work to change, and it will be easier to change once we have the structures in place that will permit public participation.

    “I am not a name, nowhere near it, and I therefore probably am of no interest to Digital Universe.”

    That’s ridiculous. You’re of considerable interest to me, Alex. I remember you from Nupedia days. We will have broadly defined roles for people at all levels.

    “But, at the same time, they are not particularly of interest to me. Why would I publish with their project, rather than self-publishing?”

    Sorry to hear that. But the answer is straightforward: the DU will aggregate intellectual influence in a way never before possible. Imagine the world’s intellectuals getting together to work in Wikipedia-like ways. The result will be revolutionary.

    Re Wikipedia: “Wouldn’t mutating that working model make more sense than inventing from the ground up?”

    Why do you think they hired me?

    We’re not inventing from the ground up. We are using what works from it and discarding what doesn’t. The first instantiation of the DU encyclopedia, an Encyclopedia of Earth, runs MediaWiki and I am a Senior Editor of Policy and Governance for it.

    All the best!

    –Larry

  2. Posted 2/2/2006 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

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