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The next generation of online encyclopedias
(IDG) -- In 1978 Douglas Adams wrote a hit radio play for the BBC called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Its title came from a gadget described in the story as "a sort of electronic book" that "tells you everything you need to know about anything." In today's techspeak it would be called a wireless PDA. The handy electronic guide was updated on the fly by a team of spacefaring researchers and had "supplanted the great Encyclopedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom."
Adams hopes to bring this fantasy to life with his company, H2g2, which is turning WAP phones into real-world "Hitchhiker's" guides. H2g2 is part of a new breed of Internet encyclopedias that are trying to amass a repository of all-encompassing knowledge by using volunteers. Yet they yield strikingly different products.
Larry Sanger's Nupedia.com attempts to create an "open content" encyclopedia that will put Britannica to shame. And Everything2, the brainchild of Slashdot co-founder Nathan Oostendorp, strokes the egos of its contributors so they'll build an uncensored database of general knowledge.
These sites appear at a time in the Internet's history when its utopian ideals linger as tenuously as the fun money investors doled out over the past two years. Running on funds earned from successful ventures or obtained before the investment window snapped shut on oddball projects, the new online encyclopedias combine the Web's communitarian past with a strap-on monetization scheme. So far they've secured the grassroots contributors. Now the real challenge is turning fanatical enthusiasm into cash.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to Earth
Adams says he hopes that H2g2 (a U.K.-based company with around $3 million in backing from Arts Alliance, Durlacher and Intel) will become a kind of "information map of the world." An example: You're in Hong Kong and you're hungry. Call up Mobile.h2g2.com on your handheld, it looks up your list of likes and dislikes and displays a short article about a nearby Kublai restaurant, or what to expect when you order roast suckling pig. After the meal, you can fiddle with your phone's tiny keypad to write your own entry for the guide about your experience.
While eclipsing Britannica is a long shot, Adams is not your typical science-fiction novelist. His radio play turned into a string of novels that sold 15 million copies, spawned a TV series and, most important to the success of his project, a fanatical following.
As "head fantasist" of H2g2, Adams has used his celebrity status to rope in nearly 60,000 contributors from 90 countries to write these tourist tips (called "smarticles"). So far, 20,000 people use the company's mobile service each week, says H2g2 CEO Robbie Stamp. A former documentary filmmaker and television producer, Stamp says H2g2 makes money from a combination of e-commerce affiliate deals and banner ad sales. They've also struck a deal with content-provider iSyndicate to license H2g2's articles to other Web sites. But it's not enough to keep the company afloat. H2g2's biggest challenge, according to Stamp, is "looking for the next round of financing."
Adams readily admits that his product isn't quite "ready for prime time." Truly useful PDAs with location-sensing technology, phone service and color screens are "weeks and weeks away," he jokes.
In the meantime, Adams hopes 20 million Hitchhiker's fans will buoy the project. Adams isn't surprised by people's willingness to write for free. "The Net has proved good at fostering a kind of barn-raising spirit," he says.
Lawrence Sanger is more interested in bar-raising than barn-raising. As Nupedia.com's recently hired editor in chief, Sanger is overseeing an egg-headed open-source encyclopedia project with "extremely rigorous standards" that will yield what he claims are "articles that are even more in-depth and more scholarly than those in Britannica."
In May 1999 San Diego search-engine company Bomis.com hired Sanger to head up Nupedia, straight from earning his doctorate in philosophy at Ohio State University. Academics - the first to adopt the Net - are famously bad at creating winning companies. Nevertheless, with a staff of two employees and occasional assistance from other Bomis programmers, Nupedia has a goal that would make Pollyanna blush: "To set a new standard for breadth, depth, timeliness and lack of bias, and in the fullness of time to become the most comprehensive encyclopedia in the history of humankind."
The clincher is "fullness of time." Applying Nupedia's degree of rigor to writing articles has had the same effect as putting a pinhole-size spigot on a fire hydrant. So far, Nupedia has published only two full-length articles: one on the Classical era of Western music and one on atonal music. "The project is only partially off the ground right now," says Sanger. "But we have 115 articles in the hopper right now. Several dozen have been written and are undergoing the review process and another several dozen have been assigned."
Like other open-source projects, Nupedia's license lets anyone use its content for free - as long as the licensee credits Nupedia as the source and allows the site to freely distribute the content. "Anybody will be able to offer Nupedia content on CDs for just the price of production," adds Sanger. Bomis hopes to make money by selling ad space on Nupedia.com. But even if Nupedia doesn't pan out financially, notes Sanger, its open-source roots will keep it going as a purely volunteer initiative.
Sanger hopes that Nupedia's unpaid writers, peer reviewers and editors will participate for the chance to be recognized. More than 80 editors and peer reviewers, most of whom hold doctorates, have been enlisted so far.
"It's an excellent addition to their resume because it's a peer-reviewed project," says Sanger. "The sort of cachet associated with being involved in this project is going to be very high." And if that's not enough, anyone whose article is published gets a T-shirt or a coffee mug.
The Everything adventure game
Recognition of a decidedly less-tweedy nature is what fuels Everything2. Started in November 1999 by the same folks who created Slashdot, the "news for nerds site," Everything2's mission is to "catalog all human knowledge and show the interconnections between all the people, places, things and ideas." The site receives about 1,000 new user-written articles each day - how to blow up a building with a sack of flour and two rounds of ammunition, a family tree of the Greek gods and a review of the new Blair Witch movie are some examples.
Slashdot was built on an ingeniously simple idea: Build a Web site pointing to tech-related articles, and let readers talk about them in the message boards. Like talk radio - where hearing callers' opinions inspires other listeners to chime in - Slashdot has become something of a speakers' corner for all matters of geekly importance. The concept behind Everything2 is equally simple.
Nathan Oostendorp and his former college roommate Rob Malda got the idea for Everything2 after looking at deep databases like the Internet Movie Database and All Music Guide. They decided they could make a similar database that wasn't targeted to a specific subject. "Initially, we were thinking this would overtake Imdb and All Music Guide," says Oostendorp, "because it would be definitive for everything and exclude nothing." Indeed, the database filled up with entries that wouldn't make it in a standard encyclopedia, such as party invitations and musings on Razor-brand scooters.
Like H2g2, anybody who signs up on Everything2 can write articles on any subject. But on Everything2, the more you write, the more power you get. The site "operates like a Dungeons and Dragons game, except instead of slaying monsters you're writing little essays," adds Oostendorp in casting-call geekspeak. "As you ascend levels, you get experience points, you get new powers and you get access to features in the software."
Twenty-eight-year-old Jhasen Cooper, a telecommunications company employee who goes by the handle "Lawnjart" on Everything2, says the site was "the midwife of the rebirth of my desire to write." The positive feedback he gets from writing pieces for the site is more rewarding than the way he wrote before: jotting his "thoughts and poems in notebooks on sticky tables in all-night coffee joints and restaurants."
Oostendorp thrives on such testimonials. "The romance of the idea is an important aspect," he says. "There are a lot of entries on Everything2 about how cool it is. We had an idea that content would be the important thing, but we've found out people care a lot more about their friends on the site and reading the celebrity-written nodes than being able to look up facts for their homework."
It's this personal element that gives these encyclopedias their idiosyncratic appeal. And so far, there seems to be no shortage of contributors, desiring nothing in return for their entries except ego strokes and an opportunity to participate in a group activity.
But the primary difference between the communitarian projects of the early Internet and these volunteer-produced encyclopedias is what could destroy them: the need to make money. While the grassroots model can at least help build these encyclopedias, it's not enough to keep the efforts of thousands from fading away if the companies don't make a profit. Nupedia depends on the notoriously shaky banner-ad revenue model. H2g2's Stamp admits the company's biggest challenge is securing additional funding. And Everything2 is hoping the encyclopedia will serve as marketing tool for the software they developed to build the site.
Years from now, these sites may be remembered as relics of a pivotal moment in the commercialization of the Net, when communitarianism and commerce briefly overlapped. In fact, Oostendorp professes a worry that is utterly contrary to the original, utopian plan of Everything2: The very contributors he hoped to attract are becoming a liability. More people contributing to the site, he says, "just increases our bandwidth bills."
Building the world's biggest encyclopedia
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