Introducing the encyclosphere project

Executive Summary

The encyclosphere will be the universal network of encyclopedias—an ownerless, leaderless, centerless knowledge commons. Like the blogosphere, it will be a decentralized series of “feeds,” but feeds of encyclopedias and individual articles posted anywhere online.

Data from these feeds can be aggregated by different services, then developers will use the aggregated data to build encyclopedia reader apps, with none being privileged or “official.”

The brand-new, non-profit Knowledge Standards Foundation (KSF) is organizing the discussion and formulation of the standards (technical specifications) for this system (at encyclosphere.org—right here).

The KSF will never build an encyclopedia app; instead, it will facilitate development of technical specifications and the tools needed to let others build the network.

The KSF is and will remain 100% independent of any corporation or government and is absolutely committed to other founding principles, including neutrality, credibility, free speech, responsibility, and openness.

For both technical development and funding, we rely on donations from the general public: individuals and families.

Introduction

We are fed up.

After ten years of domination by big social media—which might finally be in decline—we are tired of giant Silicon Valley corporations using us contemptuously. We still remember an internet in which we charted our own destiny.

Big Tech dominates us in social media, but Wikipedia has a similar problem. If you want to participate in the world’s largest encyclopedia, you must collaborate with a shadowy group of anonymous amateurs and paid shills on exactly one article per topic. If you are new, you will be treated shabbily. If you refuse to play their strange game, you will be summarily dismissed. Like the social media giants, Wikipedia has become an arrogant and controlling oligarchy.

Like Facebook, Wikipedia is also controlling its readers. It feeds them biased articles, exactly one per topic, and does not let readers give effective, independent feedback on articles, nor does it allow readers to rate articles. You must become a participant merely to give feedback. You thereby subject yourself to the tender mercies of this shadowy group. In this way, Wikipedia has centralized epistemic authority in the hands of an anonymous mob. This is worse than Facebook. At least with Facebook, Congress can call Mark Zuckerberg to testify. There isn’t anyone who is responsible for Wikipedia’s content. The situation is, in some ways, more dire than Facebook because you cannot effectively talk back to Wikipedia. Who can you talk to? Everyone and no one.

We do not have to tolerate this. We do not have to be at the mercy of these people.

What if all of humanity were empowered to write encyclopedia articles, and rate them, as part of a completely decentralized knowledge network, with no individual, group, corporation, or government in charge of the whole?

We could create a knowledge commons, defined by neutral, open, technical standards and protocols: a network that decentralizes encyclopedias, exactly as the blogosphere has done for blogs.

If we do this, we will not create just one website or app. We will create a truly decentralized, leaderless network of the people, by the people, and for the people. A commons, like the internet itself. As for apps and editorial policies, let a thousand flowers bloom.

But that means we the people need to roll up our sleeves and get to work making it happen.

Larry Sanger, the ex-founder of Wikipedia, founded the Knowledge Standards Foundation in the fall of 2020 to drive the definition of technical standards for encyclopedias and to spearhead an effort to network them together loosely.

The following sections explains how we can make it happen.

What is an encyclosphere?

Blogs give everyone an independent voice. All blogs taken together are called the “blogosphere,” but there is no single, central blog repository and no blogging authority. That is a good thing. Can you imagine what it might be like if all our blogs were ultimately controlled by a giant, powerful organization like Facebook, Twitter, or Wikipedia?

Technical standards for formatting, sharing, and interlinking blog posts made the blogosphere possible: the RSS and Atom specifications. The nontechnical basics about these standards are easy and important to understand. They are simply a way to format info about blog posts and to let bloggers alert the world when their blog has changed. In general, they allow for an organized type of interconnected, networked activity—blogging—without a central, controlling body.

Plenty of websites, such as wordpress.com (currently the leader according to alexa.com), tumblr.com, medium.com, and blogger.com, have tried to become the home of blogging online. But none has been able to gain exclusive dominance, because it’s just too easy to move your blog elsewhere. The existence of common blogging standards makes that possible.

We need to do for encyclopedias what blogging standards did for blogs: there needs to be an “encyclosphere.” We should build a totally decentralized network, like the blogosphere—or like email, IRC, blockchains, and the World Wide Web itself. The encyclosphere would give everyone an equal voice in expressing knowledge (or claims to knowledge), and in rating those expressions of knowledge. There would be no single, central knowledge repository and no central knowledge authority.

So, considering how RSS and Atom enabled the development of the decentralized blogosphere, we need to develop technical standards for encyclopedias. That’s where the Knowledge Standards Foundation comes in.

Writers and publishers would then be able to post feeds of encyclopedia articles (or metadata about articles, and ratings of articles). App developers would be able to collect the data from all of those feeds and use the data to construct massive search engines, and other neat features, for all the encyclopedia articles in the world. No single app would be privileged, but all would tap into—and help build—a “knowledge commons.” Ultimately there would be a massive knowledge competition to best express human knowledge on every topic and from every point of view.

There’s never been anything like this. But if we get together, we can build it. Nobody’s stopping us. We’ll never run out of runway because it’s not a startup. It’s a distributed, collective project, an open source movement that is bigger than any of us (and certainly much bigger than the Knowledge Standards Foundation, which serves only as the catalyst).

How It Will Work (Technical Details)

Read a technical proposal on a separate page.

The Encyclosphere Must Be Independent and Democratic

Let’s talk a bit about the politics of knowledge. Our new specification needs to be developed independently of any corporation or government. Why?

Knowledge is very powerful. More specifically, authoritative statements of what is known on various subjects are powerful. How? Such statements can be used to influence elections, justify policies, and articulate controversial points of view, in effect to gain, wield, build, and consolidate power. The power to declare what is known is nearly the power to rule the world. No small group—no person, corporation, oligarchy, or cadre of insiders—should wield such power.

We can imagine an encyclosphere, which does for encyclopedias what the blogosphere (powered by technical standards), did for blogs—not an app, but the encyclopedia layer of the internet. Not an app, not a proprietary network, but a real, decentralized, and distributed network defined simply by standards and protocols, just like the internet itself.

We believe in democracy: we believe that political power is best spread out, not concentrated in the hands of a few, where it is apt to be abused. We should also believe, therefore, in epistemic democracy: the power to declare what is known should also be very widely distributed.

So, it should not be concentrated in the hands of Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, The New York Times, or any such exclusive group. The history of publishing, including internet publishing, makes all too clear that the authority to declare what is known is wielded by selfish, powerful interests to advance their own agendas, which always unsurprisingly have the effect of consolidating their own power.

Epistemic power should be spread out among the public. But how?

The democratic promise of the encyclosphere is that we will spread epistemic authority out among the public by meaningfully decentralizing the publishing and rating of encyclopedic content, thereby disempowering giant, abusive corporations and totalitarian governments.

We argue that the root problem about encyclopedias and knowledge resources generally today is that they are in the hands of big centralizing organizations—even as it becomes increasingly normal to use such resources to push a political and cultural agenda. Wikipedia, for example, has become more strikingly biased as the years have passed, representing Establishment and moneyed interests, and increasingly rejecting any challenges from outsiders. But such challenges are absolutely essential to the advancement of knowledge.

Ordinary smart people and good writers are essentially prevented from participating meaningfully in, or even having significant input on, “the official story” according to most knowledge resources. What happened to the “encyclopedia anybody can edit?” It’s the world’s biggest encyclopedia. But if you want to contribute, you must work on exactly one article and negotiate about what it says with whomever is already there—anonymous volunteers frequently with enormous amounts of time on their hands, for some reason.

That’s not how it should work.

How should a more democratic encyclosphere work?

  • Writers should be able to publish their own articles wherever and whenever they want, without asking anyone.
  • Readers around the world should be given easy and unfettered access to those articles.
  • Raters—the general public, including people identified as experts—should be able to rate those articles.
  • Users should be able to sort and re-sort articles according to all ratings, or selected ratings.
  • The control over whose ratings to pay attention to should always be in the hands of the user.
  • The data is slurped up and aggregated by different databases or APIs.
  • Many competing apps, all around the world, use the aggregated data to build encyclopedia readers according to their own editorial standards. The Foundation’s technical standards will be completely neutral with regard to such editorial standards.

This way we can, in a decentralized and democratic system, do an end run around Google and Wikipedia.

What the Encyclosphere Is Not

Since so many explanations are necessary, we have placed them on a separate page.

The Knowledge Standards Foundation

Our purpose at the Foundation is to publish technical standards for encyclopedia articles and for metadata about encyclopedia articles, according to which they may be freely shared in a decentralized, neutral, and uncensored fashion as well as rated by the general public. We will host open source tools and other software—mainly for the developer community. And we will serve as a neutral public forum for the discussion of such standards.

We will confer with the leadership and technical teams of a number of different app developers, standards experts, online reference publishers, and other potential stakeholders—including, of course, anyone from the interested general public. We will develop draft standards together, while vetting them in a very public, open, civil, and moderated process. As we develop software, we will host it in a Git repository owned by the Foundation.

Join In!

We want to get everyone to work as soon as possible in what we hope will be an ever-growing encyclosphere community. On what? On activities that will move us from the initial announcement in August 2021 to a mature, constantly updated, and completely distributed and decentralized system of exhaustively catalogued and rated encyclopedia articles (the encyclosphere).

But what activities would those be? What can you do? We have ideas for lots of different sorts of participants. Let’s not call these participants “volunteers” because that implies a central nonprofit project. The Foundation is not-for-profit, and it does have volunteers, but the encyclosphere will have participants, or enthusiasts, just as the blogosphere does. You wouldn’t call a blog writer a “volunteer” for the blogosphere, so you shouldn’t call an encyclopedia article writer, who posts articles to a public feed, a “volunteer.” Such people are encyclopedists.

Anyway, we do need to get organized so we can get to work on many things.

  • Writers: start writing. Post encyclopedia articles on your blogs, an existing encyclopedia site (if they allow it), or wherever.
  • Experts: start rating encyclopedia articles (and publish your ratings on social media). If you really want to do this and to help, let the KSF know and we’ll give you feedback about requirements, things to try out, etc.
  • Social media users: share and promote using #encyclosphere. Whenever you are sharing anything related to this whole movement on social media, use the hashtag to build familiarity.
  • Media folks: interview Larry, invite him on your news program, video series, or blog. He promises to be interesting.
  • Developers: create a database (or multiple databases) of encyclopedia articles. Then let’s share both the code and the data generated (both as a downloadable database and a queryable API). Let us know if you’d like ideas for requirements. If you already have such a database, please get in touch and let’s talk next steps.
  • Connectors of all sorts: outreach to experts. If you know interested people, reach out to them and introduce them to the project and encourage them to contact the KSF. Have them subscribe to our announcement list.
  • Thinkers: discuss, discuss, discuss. We’re going to do this right. There are many deep, difficult, and important questions about every aspect of this endeavor. For this reason, the main method of deliberation about the standards will be via our forum. Our seminar will drive activity on this forum. Mutual respect and staying on-topic will be requirements for participation.
  • Encyclosphere enthusiasts generally: also get in touch. We’ll try to give you some pointers depending on what you might want to do. Write to the KSF.

Risky But Necessary: A Citizen-Funded Foundation

The Foundation faces a difficult task: to get publishers and developers to agree on a set of technical standards (concerning article formatting and metadata) that will make it possible for the encyclosphere to come into existence—but, most importantly, to do so while remaining free of undue influence by any corporation or government.

For this reason, we will not permit participation in our Board of Directors by publishers, government agents, or any others known or discovered to have a conflict of interest. Over time we intend to recruit board members from communities of technologists, retired editors, writers, academics, and perhaps others, as long as they have no such conflicts of interest.

Publishers might still, of course, become members of the Foundation in some capacity (formal or informal), because the Foundation will be serving them as well as the public. But permitting them to hold positions of leadership, or to have significant influence over the decision-making apparatus of the Foundation threatens to create a dynamic that would once again centralize epistemic authority. Therefore, the Board will not allow that.

But what about funding? He who pays the piper calls the tune, and while it seems it might be possible to get funding from a number of different competing corporate sources, those sources might seek to privilege their own needs over those of the general public. For this reason, the Foundation will reject all funding from corporate and governmental sources. We will accept funding from individuals, to be sure, and we hope individuals will form a solid base of financial support of the KSF.

KSF Goals

We have initially established the following goals, and we hereby commit our time, available resources, and all contributions to the Foundation, financial or otherwise, to accomplish these goals, establish new goals, and maintain a leading edge to assure our steady growth while also exploring new frontiers.

  • ​We will maintain our focus and dedication to this project.
  • Members of the KSF Board of Directors will be thoroughly vetted, team players with proven leadership qualities such as integrity, courage, respect, communication skills, the ability to delegate, self-awareness, gratitude, empathy, and above all, a proven reputation for honesty and free of any conflicts of interests.
  • ​We will send receipts and acknowledgements for all donations, and will publish the names of all donors upon request.
  • ​We will reject large donations ($1,000 or more) if they are anonymous. If necessary, we will suggest that such donations be given to another worthy charity.
  • ​We will vet very large donors, and we will reject any that may have a conflict of interest, a quid quo pro, or other issues. We will do all we can to ensure that the funding for the Foundation is 100% untainted.
  • ​The Foundation’s books will be opened to the public, including paid salaries, at some point soon.
  • ​We will never pay any employee more than $150,000/year total salary and benefits (based on 2019 dollar values) or otherwise allow employees to use the Foundation to enrich themselves.
  • ​We will work on a tight budget, operate in a frugal manner and never spend more than we take in. We will build and save in a manner that ensures a financially healthy and successful future. We are here for the long haul.
  • ​As more funds become available, we will hire competent specialists to work on projects that directly advance the core mission of the Foundation.
  • ​We pledge our commitment to remain true to our stated goals, and to ensure that the Foundation remains true to its founding principles as set forth below.

Founding Principles

Read our principles on a separate page.

A Concluding Appeal

Visit the “Join Us Today” page and see the above section “Join In!” for other practical ways you can become a leader in this project.

What we want to build is not a product, but a centerless network, a public knowledge commons defined strictly by standards, that will, like the internet itself, hit critical mass and take on an independent life of its own. This will empower the ordinary person and undermine tyrants. Do you want to see that happen? Then support the Foundation with your time, with your talent, and with your treasure.