If online encyclopedia Wikipedia is a poster child for user-generated content, it has also been well-known for underlining some of the related risks of such an information free-for-all. The launch of a new, free, online encyclopedia called Citizendium draws attention to both the strengths and weaknesses of the form, and in the long run brings the debates about user-generated content to the forefront.

According to the Associated Press, Larry Sanger, who professes to be a co-founder of Wikipedia (there is some debate as to whether he co-founded it with the well-known Jimmy Wales or not), plans to launch the similar Citizendium with two important distinctions. One is that users must use their real names, and secondly, experts will check the accuracy of the entries.

Lots of people adore Wikipedia (I'm one of them), but there is a "reader beware" element. Because anyone can tinker with it, you can't leave critical thought at the door. There have been a few high-profile stories of mistakes, as well as cases of deliberate vandalism. On the bright side, the fact that anyone can edit the encyclopedia helps police the content for misinformation. However, Wikipedia is a hotly debated topic in some circles; for example, The New York Times recently reported that some colleges and universities chafe at its use, and Middlebury College's history department's ban on its use in citations underlines the controversy in academia. (Jimmy Wales' response was that students shouldn't cite any encyclopedias in their scholarly work. I'd add that colleges and universities should be places where they learn to think critically.)

Citizendium's differences are important. It makes sense that people may mind their manners better if their real names are attached to their entries, and it's logical to assume they'd feel more protective of their reputations for accuracy. On the other hand, bringing in so-called experts to fact-check goes against the "wisdom of crowds" idea. The beauty of Wikipedia is that it has shown that there are many hobbyist "experts" on many topics. James Surowiecki's book The Wisdom of Crowds pointed out that amateurs are often just as knowledgeable as experts. Plus, institutionalized expertise can become myopic, and fresh perspectives from non-experts can often be helpful in certain situations or debates. Collective intelligence relies on some people being able to resist groupthink. And of course, the Wikipedia model assumes many people are fact-checking entries constantly, with editors able to flag certain articles for more review, for example.

Sanger's Citizendium maneuver is even more interesting because it comes when much has been made of Jimmy Wales' planned search engine, Wikiasari, through the for-profit Wikia entity. There's been plenty of fanfare as to whether it could be a serious concern to Google (NASDAQ:GOOG); some seem to think it could be a worse development in the search space than the competition posed by Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and IAC/InterActiveCorp's (NASDAQ:IACI) Ask.com. I think it could definitely be a contender.

Citizendium v. Wikipedia will be an interesting scuffle to watch, particularly since the degree of Citizendium's success could symbolize how the crowds feel about user-generated content (and perhaps bring Wales's Wiki universe down a few notches in esteem). On the other hand, Wikipedia has an avid following, and while Citizendium may fit better into some people's more traditional comfort zones, its differences also may result in a far more rigid and less robust or accessible product.

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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.