In the aftermath of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter late last year, the journalist Jon Levine asked him: “I wonder how much Wikipedia would cost?” Musk had recently complained that Wikipedia has a “non-trivial left-wing bias,” and a few months earlier, had commented that “Wikipedia is losing its objectivity.” But regardless of whether Musk would have liked to purchase the site, there never was any real possibility of that happening, as stated by Wikipedia’s symbolic leader Jimmy Wales: “Wikipedia is not for sale.”
Following this exchange, there were several discussions on Twitter (as it was called at the time) about whether Musk might create his own alternative to Wikipedia. In the end Musk did not make such an attempt, but approximately eight months later, someone else did.
This new online encyclopedia, known as Justapedia, is the latest in a long series of attempts by various individuals to create a competitor to Wikipedia. So far all previous attempts have either been unsuccessful, or morphed into something so unlike Wikipedia that they could no longer be considered a competitor. However, one thing working in Justapedia’s favor is that the need for such a competitor is stronger now than it has been in past years, due to several recent controversies revolving around the manipulation and/or politicization of Wikipedia, along with a widespread perception that Wikipedia has not done enough to prevent this type of problem.
Justapedia was recently publicized by Larry Sanger, who co-founded Wikipedia alongside Wales, during an interview with Russell Brand and in a subsequent blog post. This article will present a more detailed examination of Justapedia’s background, including some of the recent controversies that demonstrate why it is needed, as well as the poor record of success other Wikipedia alternatives have had up to this point. Will Justapedia succeed where most other Wikipedia competitors have failed?
I. Recent Wikipedia Controversies
Until 2021, media coverage of Wikipedia usually depicted it as an overall force for good, describing it in terms such as “the ‘good cop’ of the internet.” But within the past two years, this coverage has undergone a shift in focus, with a greater portion of recent media attention being devoted to how Wikipedia being is manipulated for reasons such as politics, self-promotion, or to propagate hoaxes. It is impossible to summarize every recent such controversy, but the following two are representative examples.
The first has received significant attention on social media, although not much coverage elsewhere. It concerns how the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia’s parent organization, uses money donated to the site. The banners requesting donations that periodically appear on Wikipedia pages give the impression that this money is being used to maintain its servers, but that comprises less than two percent of what the site’s donors actually are paying for. According to the Wikimedia Foundation’s financial report, of the approximately $169 million that the organization spent in the 2022–23 fiscal year, only $3.1 million went towards hosting. During the same year, the organization spent $101.3 million on the salaries and benefits of its employees, who have no involvement in the writing of Wikipedia articles, as that is done entirely by unpaid volunteers. More significantly, during this period the WMF gave $24.4 million of their donors’ money in awards and grants to other organizations, including some that are overtly political.
One political organization that receives money from the Wikimedia Foundation is Borealis Philanthropy, which boasts of having made “unprecedented strides in the fight for abolishing police” and more specifically of having “extracted over $840 million from police departments” from 2020 to 2021. The WMF’s grant is being given to Borealis Philanthropy’s “Racial Equity in Journalism Fund,” which the organization describes as “in pursuit of a future where communities of color are powerful as a result of the cultural change created from thriving BIPOC journalism.” On the Wikimedia Foundation’s list of grantees of its “Knowledge Equity Fund”—a special fund set aside for grants of this type—the WMF announced that it is giving this grant with the intention that the resulting antiracist journalism could then be added as source citations in Wikimedia Foundation projects such as Wikipedia.
Another recipient of money from the Wikimedia Foundation is the SeRCH (STEM en Route to Change) Foundation. This organization describes itself as “an online network and empowered community of Black and Indigenous girls, women & non-binary people of color in STEM living at the intersections and thriving on the STEM frontier,” but if one looks past such rhetoric at the organization’s actual output, the main thing it has produced is YouTube videos that promote what it calls the “intersectional scientific method.” The organization somewhat unhelpfully explains this concept in a paper published in the journal Genealogy:
In describing how #VanguardSTEM descended from counterspaces, we draw on speculative fiction to define a #VanguardSTEM hyperspace as a fluid ‘place-time’ that is born digital and enabled by social media, but materializes in the physical world for specific purposes.
According to the information on the Wikimedia Foundation’s list of Knowledge Equity Fund grantees, its grant to the SeRCH Foundation is to “leverage cultural production, including multimedia storytelling, to advance non-traditional forms of knowledge creation,” but it is not clearly explained how this organization actually uses the WMF’s funding. However, examining the projects on which the SeRCH Foundation has spent its money can provide some insight into what type of work Wikipedia’s donors are paying for. The SeRCH Foundation has itself funded other research projects that use the intersectional scientific method, with no regard for whether those projects were designed using proper research methods in the traditional respect. One such project was intended to study spatial learning in the California two-spot octopus, for which the researchers procured 12 hatchlings of this species, but then accidentally killed all 12 before the study could be completed.
The largest recent controversy to affect Wikipedia revolves around a paper published in the Journal of Holocaust Research. This paper argues that Polish nationalists have manipulated Wikipedia’s coverage of the history of Poland during World War II, downplaying the degree to which the people of Poland had collaborated with the Nazi regime. The paper also accuses these Wikipedia users of promoting negative stereotypes about Jews, of exaggerating the degree of Jewish collaboration with the Nazi occupiers, and of suggesting that many Polish Jews had been supporters of communism, and were consequently to blame for their own persecution.
Usually, the Wikipedia community’s reaction to published criticism of the site is to dismiss it, but that is not what occurred in this case. Four days after the paper was published, English Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee (ArbCom) acted entirely by themselves to open an arbitration case examining its allegations. For ArbCom to take such an action unbidden is extremely rare: under normal circumstances, arbitration cases on Wikipedia only take place when a non-arbitrator requests ArbCom’s intervention. The arbitration case eventually concluded that several of the site’s users had engaged in misconduct similar to what the paper alleged, and placed various restrictions on these users to prevent the behavior from continuing. The Journal of Holocaust Research paper also was covered in an article in Wikipedia’s internal newsletter The Signpost, which largely supported the paper’s conclusions.
This arbitration case represents the upper limit of what ArbCom is able to do about the manipulation of Wikipedia, but according to some of the media coverage that this case received, it still was not enough. The case only examined the behavior of individual users, and made no decision about problems with the articles themselves. That is because Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee does not have the authority to make decisions about article content, only about user conduct. This limitation on ArbCom’s authority exists to serve Wikipedia’s goal of being a self-governing community, but it also means that Wikipedia has no reliable way to stop its presentation of any topic from being skewed by a dedicated group of people with a political agenda. Shira Klein, one of the authors of the Journal of Holocaust Research paper, put it this way: “This is the seventh-most viewed site in the world, yet the safeguards Wikipedia has in place for battling disinformation are scarily ineffective.”
II. (More) Cognitive Distortions
In my 2022 Quillette article “Cognitive Distortions,” I described how Wikipedia editors have made a decision that “scientific racism […] has infiltrated psychometry”—the field of psychology concerned with the measurement of psychological traits—and that a large portion of this field’s academic literature can no longer be cited in Wikipedia articles. As summarized in that article, a low-end estimate is that, as of July 2022, Wikipedia editors had rejected around 85 reputably published sources related to various aspects of this topic on the grounds that they were “fringe” and/or non-reliable sources. These sources were removed from articles about topics including recent human evolution, the Flynn effect and its reversal, international test score comparisons, and topics that relate to race and ethnicity. In several of these cases, such as the “Nations and IQ” and “Dysgenics” articles, the most recent and highest-quality sources were rejected, while the sources added in their place have tended to be older or of lower quality.
In my earlier article, I described how these removals, and the justifications on which they were based, have violated two of Wikipedia’s principles of sourcing: its definition of what is a reliable source, and its “parity of sources” principle. A third rule of sourcing not discussed in my earlier article is that Wikipedia’s “Race and intelligence” article may only cite “peer-reviewed scholarly journals and academically focused books by reputable publishers.” Wikipedia users have freely violated this third rule as well, replacing some of the academic sources removed from that article with citations to newspaper articles and blog posts. Not even on articles about Poland in World War II have established principles of sourcing been rejected quite this overtly, and consequently psychometry is likely the topic that most obviously demonstrates the need for a Wikipedia alternative.
My earlier article received very little acknowledgment within Wikipedia. It is the only widely shared article about Wikipedia absent from the site’s list of press coverage during July 2022, and when one user suggested that the article “seems like it should have Signpost coverage,” this suggestion did not receive any response. This contrasts with the more typical reaction to my 2020 article “The Left-wing Bias of Wikipedia” which was covered in an editorial in The Signpost that disputed the article’s conclusions. The biography of Andrew Sullivan, one of the journalists who shared my “Cognitive Distortions” article, also went on to be modified to categorize him a “proponent of scientific racism.”
During the five months that followed the article’s publication, approximately 23 more sources were removed as “fringe” from Wikipedia’s coverage of topics including the Flynn effect (three sources removed), the Eyferth study (two sources removed), Fertility and intelligence, (three sources removed), Cognitive epidemiology (three sources removed), Biosocial criminology (two sources removed) and the Savanna Principle (10 sources removed). These rejected sources included papers published in ten journals: Intelligence, Personality and Individual Differences, Managerial and Decision Economics, the Journal of Cultural and Evolutionary Psychology, the British Journal of Health Psychology, Social Psychology Quarterly, American Psychologist, Psychiatric Quarterly, Neuropsychobiology, and Psychology, Public Policy and Law. Since the beginning of this year, another 10 sources have been removed about mental chronometry (tests of mental processing speed), fertility and intelligence (in addition to those removed earlier), and the genetic variant MAOA’s relation to antisocial behavior. These 33 recent source removals, all done by the same person, are in addition to the 85 discussed in my earlier article.
The pattern underlying most of these changes is that arguments based on sources and Wikipedia policies are given less weight than appeals to majority views among the site’s users. In a discussion from earlier this year, several users objected that these removals of content have often been based on calling sources “unreliable” even though they meet Wikipedia’s definition of a reliable source, and also that the sources being removed were overall “more recent, more numerous, and of higher quality” than those presented to support the removals. But these arguments were rejected by the administrator who determined the discussion’s outcome, who explained that such arguments are superseded by Wikipedia users’ past decisions about what ideas should be considered “fringe.” In a comment posted on March 28th, a Wikipedia user named Sennalen gave a concise explanation of the problem with this situation:
The difference between fringe and minority scientific viewpoints is murky. However, the evaluation is supposed to be guided by quality peer-reviewed articles. If any RfC [Request for Comment] or interpretation of an RfC leads to removals of sources like  it is time to pause and reflect on whether something has gone wrong. These are the kinds of sources that should be used in the first place to determine what is or isn't fringe. The fact that WP:FRINGE guidelines are being used to remove them points to deep dysfunction in the policy.
The longer-term way such arguments are dealt with is by reducing the population of people who raise them. As these users have either quit Wikipedia or been permanently blocked from editing, their objections have gradually received less attention, and some of those supporting the removals have commended how it is becoming easier to make these changes thanks to “attrition” of their opponents. When a Wikipedia administrator known as Dbachmann tried to undo the block on one of these users, he was the subject to several penalties, including being stripped of his admin powers on April 5th. Another Wikipedia administrator known as DGG, a respected figure within Wikipedia and a past member of its Arbitration Committee, had closely followed these discussions and tried particularlyhard to prevent the mass removals. Dbachmann’s demotion was among DGG’s final experiences at Wikipedia, as DGG died of heart failure the next day.
My previous article described how this pattern of changes originated on Wikipedia’s “Race and intelligence” article, and subsequently spread outward to affect other topics, including many that do not relate to race. This overall situation demonstrates a critical point: that when research about race and IQ is rejected, this inevitably produces a domino effect on other, normally uncontroversial areas of psychometry and behavioral genetics. As Wikipedia's susceptibility to manipulation becomes well-known, it is similarly inevitable that trolls and ideologues will exploit this vulnerability in order to demonstrate such points—something that already has occurred at another wiki site. But for reasons that will be explained, Justapedia has a greater chance than most wiki sites at being resistant to this type of exploitation.
III. A Brief History of Wikipedia Alternatives
All of the controversies described here have occurred or been ongoing within the past 18 months, but similar accusations of corruption against Wikipedia date back to the site’s early years. The most persistent source of these criticisms is Wikipedia’s co-founder Larry Sanger, who left the project in 2002 and eventually became its most prominent critic. In an article from 2004, Sanger explained that he considered Wikipedia’s core problem to be its lack of respect for expertise—so that, for example, any teenager with a Wikipedia account has exactly as much authority over what a Wikipedia article should say as someone with a Ph.D. in the article’s subject. Over the past 20 years, Sanger’s criticism of Wikipedia has gradually grown harsher, and in 2021 he was widelyquoted as saying that the site had transformed into “propaganda.”
Sanger has gone to greater lengths than any other individual to try to provide the world with alternatives to Wikipedia. He has assisted in the development of a few other online encyclopedias about specific topics, such as The Encyclopedia of Earth, which is an encyclopedia of the natural sciences, and Ballotpedia, an encyclopedia of American politics. Alongside these projects, he also has been behind a few of the past attempts to create a direct competitor to Wikipedia. At least a dozen alternative online encyclopedias have existed, including many created by people other than Sanger, but the following five are the most famous.
The first well-known Wikipedia alternative, Citizendium, was created by Larry Sanger in 2006. Unlike at Wikipedia, contributors to Citizendium were required to register under their real names, and people with real-world credentials in a subject were given special authority over articles about it. While these changes addressed some of Sanger’s criticisms of how Wikipedia works, they also made contributing to the site more cumbersome, and as a consequence, it never became as active as Wikipedia. By the 2010s, activity at Citizendium had entered a steady decline, and in 2020 Larry Sanger gave ownership of the site to one of its most active members. While Citizendium still exists, it has now been mostly abandoned.
A few months after Sanger’s founding of Citizendium, the conservative activist and lawyer Andrew Schafly created Conservapedia with the goal of counteracting Wikipedia’s incipient left-wing bias. While Wikipedia paid (and still pays) lip service to the ideal of neutrality, Conservapedia is an explicitly conservative encyclopedia. Consequently, it has become a magnet for anti-science views that are popular on the Right, including creationism and climate change denial. Unlike Citizendium, Conservapedia continues to be actively edited, but its trading of Wikipedia’s leftism for its own right-wing ideology has severely limited its usefulness as an alternative.
The next well-known Wikipedia alternative, Everipedia, was another of Larry Sanger’s projects. Officially launched in 2015, the goal of Everipedia was to create an encyclopedia managed with blockchain, the same type of distributed ledger that is used by cryptocurrencies. In 2018, Everipedia introduced a new type of cryptocurrency known as “IQ tokens” whereby the site’s users could be rewarded for their contributions. Partly due to this system, Everipedia’s userbase eventually came to be dominated by cryptocurrency enthusiasts, and nearly all of the new articles being created there were about cryptocurrency-related topics. In 2019, Sanger resigned from his position as Everipedia’s chief information officer, and in 2022, it was transformed into IQ.Wiki, a site focused exclusively on cryptocurrency.
By the late 2010s, Wikipedia’s leftward drift was becoming more noticeable. In one of the better-known examples during this period, Wikipedia went from stating in 2014 that “Cultural Marxism is a school or offshoot of Marxism that conceives of culture as central to the legitimation of oppression,” to stating in 2020 that “Cultural Marxism is a far-right, antisemitic conspiracy theory” (which, if true, would mean that Wikipedia had itself been propagating an antisemitic conspiracy theory in 2014). In 2017, the alt-right activist Vox Day reacted to this trend by launching yet another Wikipedia alternative called Infogalactic. Infogalactic’s right-wing bias is not as obvious as Conservapedia’s, but like Citizendium, it eventually underwent a decline in activity. For example, as of this writing Infogalactic’s article about Donald Trump makes no mention of his recent indictments, because that article has not been edited since February 2022.
Larry Sanger launched his most recent project, the Encyclosphere, in 2020. The Encyclosphere is not an encyclopedia per se, but instead seeks to build a decentralized network of online encyclopedias, including Wikipedia, Ballotpedia, Citizendium, Conservapedia, the online edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, and many other similar sites. One of the goals of the Encyclosphere is to allow users to perform meta-searches that include results from many such encyclopedias, and to rate the results against one another. The Encyclosphere thus does not attempt to compete with Wikipedia directly, but instead seeks to provide greater exposure to other such competitors. As of 2020, a direct competitor to Wikipedia, one that did not possess its own set of debilitating internal problems, had yet to emerge.
IV. Justapedia: The Newest Competitor
Justapedia, the newest Wikipedia alternative, officially launched on August 9th, 2023. Its name is a contraction of the phrase “Just an encyclopedia”—that is, an encyclopedia that resists being transformed into a political weapon, a façade for deceptive fundraising, or a platform for self-promotion. The founder of Justapedia is the photographer and writer Betty Wills, an experienced member of Wikipedia who has been active there under the name Atsme since 2011.
Prior to founding Justapedia, Wills tried for several years to push for reform at Wikipedia using the site’s internal mechanisms. These efforts included a 2020 editorial, published in Wikipedia’s Signpost newsletter, in which she expressed concern that actions by Wikipedia administrators were creating a chilling effect on discussion of some topics. While her editorial was well-received by other members of the site, Wills explained in an interview for this article that efforts like hers ultimately were not enough:
Despite these efforts, it became apparent that there were deeply ingrained challenges and systemic issues within Wikipedia that were not easily resolved through internal advocacy alone. The issues I encountered, including content disputes, ideological biases, and sometimes confrontational decision-making, persisted despite best intentions.
According to Wills, her decision to found Justapedia did not arise from any single incident, but rather from a concern that Wikipedia was drifting steadily further away from its original principles of neutrality and collaborative editing. Trends that she mentioned as factors were “increasing polarization among editors, often driven by strong ideological or partisan beliefs,” and also that “Editors were being penalized for expressing their opinions or engaging in productive discussions on article talk pages.” She further explained, “The term ‘thought police’ aptly captures the sentiment prevalent in some corners of Wikipedia, where editors who held dissenting views were subjected to undue scrutiny and criticism.” Her use of the phrase “thought police” might be referring to a 2019 essay written by a Wikipedia user known as Pudeo, which presented an argument about how Pudeo felt Wikipedia should try to operate: “Wikipedia is not a thought police.”
Justapedia’s basic approach to its articles is similar to the one taken by Everipedia before it transformed into a cryptocurrency site. Most of Justapedia’s articles were created as mirrors of articles on Wikipedia, which Justapedia’s users have begun modifying to reflect the newer site’s policies and priorities. (All content on Wikipedia is under a Creative Commons license, so to copy and repurpose it in this manner is not copyright infringement.) Justapedia’s content policies, as regards principles such as sourcing and neutrality, are also almost entirely the same as those at Wikipedia. The main functional difference between the two sites is in how those policies are enforced.
Wikipedia uses a consensus-based model of editing, in which the outcome of disputes is ostensibly based on which side can better support its arguments. However, in practice, outcomes under this system are often determined either by majority opinion or by which side of a dispute receives support from users with the greater social clout. This model of editing can allow Wikipedia’s content policies to be subverted if the dominant group are not adequately informed about a topic, if they allow their ideology to impede their commitment to the site’s policies, or if the side that has policy on their side gives up out of frustration or exhaustion. Because Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee cannot make decisions about article content, they are typically unable to address such situations. (Jimmy Wales cannot address them either, because he is mostly a figurehead with no real control over the site’s contents.)
Justapedia seeks to avoid the shortcomings of this approach by having an administration that is more closely involved in evaluations of whether articles reflect the site’s policies. Instead of an Arbitration Committee, Justapedia has what it describes as an “Editorial Review Board,” which explicitly has the authority to made decisions about the contents of articles. In this area, Justapedia has less in common with Wikipedia than with Encyclopedia Britannica, the contents of which are overseen by an editorial board and an editor-in-chief. This difference in administrative structure reflects a way that Justapedia also differs from many of the previous Wikipedia alternatives.
Both Conservapedia and Infogalactic were founded on the assumption that Wikipedia’s core problem is its political bias, and those sites’ limited success could be a result of their misdiagnosing what needs addressing. Wikipedia’s bias is likely a symptom of a deeper problem: that by allowing its content to be determined by majority views among the site’s users, and by giving the opinions of real-life experts no more weight than those of any other person, Wikipedia has made itself extremely vulnerable to ideological capture by activists. If Justapedia’s Editorial Review Board works as intended, it should hopefully be able to prevent the political views of the site’s users from pushing the site into a similar ideological niche.
Wills stated in her interview that she has several ambitious plans for Justapedia’s future. In the present, the website is available only in English, but she explained that, as the project grows, she intends for it to eventually expand to include other languages as well. The Justapedia Foundation, which runs the site, plans to host events such as writing contests, collaborative editing challenges, and debates. Finally, her hope is that, if Justapedia becomes a well-known and respected encyclopedia, it will eventually receive sponsorships and endowments from other organizations.
Whether these planned features eventually materialize or not, for the time being Justapedia’s users have been gradually restoring articles that were victims of Wikipedia’s politicization. Wikipedia’s articles about Cultural Marxism (as an actual school of Marxism, not as a conspiracy theory) and about Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence, which ceased to exist in 2015 and 2020 respectively, have been recreated at Justapedia in close to their original forms. The latter article was deleted under the premise that it would be subsequently recreated in an improved state, but the Wikipedia editors responsible for its deletion never followed through on their promise to restore it. Three years after its deletion, the promise to recreate that article has finally been fulfilled—although not at Wikipedia!
V. Will It Be Successful?
On the Wikimedia Foundation’s mailing list, the prevailing view has been that Justapedia will suffer the same fate as every past Wikipedia competitor, with one individual describing it as “just one more project that will fall into oblivion.” On the other hand, Justapedia has a few things working in its favor that other Wikipedia competitors have not. One such advantage is that, unlike Conservapedia and Infogalactic, Justapedia has no specific ideology. While Wills indicated that she is aware of Wikipedia’s left-wing bias as something Justapedia must avoid, in her interview she strongly resisted the notion that she or Justapedia should therefore be classified as right-wing. She indicated that political bias is only one of many aspects of Wikipedia that Justapedia seeks to improve upon.
Wills is correct that some of Justapedia’s attempts to improve on Wikipedia go beyond the left-right divide. An example of such a case, in which the problems with a Wikipedia article cannot be reduced to left vs. right, concerns the hacktivist “Cyber Anakin.” In 2022, Cyber Anakin launched an attack against Chinese computer networks that included government websites, satellite interfaces, and various industry- and infrastructure-related systems. In retaliation, most of the biographical details were removed from Cyber Anakin’s Wikipedia article, and the Taiwan Newsreports that this was likely done by employees or sympathizers of Xi Jinping’s regime. These removals from the Wikipedia article provoked a further round of attacks against Chinese government websites by the hacker group known as Anonymous.
To an outside observer, removing information from someone’s biography in order to retaliate against a hacker looks like an abuse of Wikipedia. But from the standpoint of Wikipedia’s internal rules, the removals were done by means of (mostly) legitimate editing processes, with the perpetrators arguing extensively on the article’s talk page for why their removals were justified. Perhaps more importantly, the quantity of text posted to justify these removals was so immense that, in the words of one outside commenter, “most editors would walk away in an instant.” For these reasons, the removals from Cyber Anakin’s Wikipedia article have never been undone. But the removed material has been added back in his Justapedia article, and consequently, as of this writing, the Justapedia article about Cyber Anakin is around four times the Wikipedia article’s length.
The other thing working in Justapedia’s favor is that dissatisfaction with Wikipedia’s handling of these types of issues is greater now than it has been at virtually any other time. Complaints about Wikipedia becoming corrupted are no longer only the domain of activists like Andrew Schafly and Vox Day, or of disillusioned ex-Wikipedians like Larry Sanger, but also of more prominent and influential figures such as Jerry Coyne, Bret Weinstein, Glenn Greenwald, and (of course) Elon Musk. At the website formerly known as Twitter, there are periodic calls for someone to create an alternative to Wikipedia with more robust mechanisms to prevent politically motivated censorship. In this context, the timing of Justapedia’s launch means that it will fulfil a very specific demand.
For now, Justapedia faces two main obstacles to its success. The first is its relative obscurity, and the resulting shortage of active users. One of the strengths of Wikipedia is that it has tens of thousands of active users. Consequently, articles on high-profile topics tend to be updated to reflect current events in a matter of hours. But for the time being, Justapedia does not have the manpower to keep all of its articles consistently updated, and so its article on the 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive, for example, is several months out of date. This limitation might eventually change as Justapedia becomes better-known and begins to attract more participants.
Due to their small numbers, Justapedia’s users have also only scratched the surface of addressing the worst problems of bias on English Wikipedia. On the topics that are most infamous for this problem—such as American politics, sexuality and gender, genetics of human intelligence or behavior, and Poland during World War II—Justapedia still contains dozens of articles that remain mostly unchanged from the corresponding articles at Wikipedia. (The Justapedia Foundation also has tweeted its own list of articles that are a high priority to be rewritten.) Along with updating articles that are out of date, addressing the problems on such topics is the most useful thing new Justapedia users can do, so long as their changes are consistent with the type of content that belongs in an encyclopedia.
The second obstacle faced by Justapedia, and the more significant one, is the privileged position given to Wikipedia by other internet entities such as Google. Google is among the customers of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Enterprise service, which gives Google direct access to Wikipedia’s content for Google to display on its own pages, such as in the “knowledge panels” that appear in search results. Less famously, TikTok includes similar information from Wikipedia in its own search results. Wikipedia is also among the top websites used as a source by AI chatbots, behind only Google’s database of patents. Even if public trust in Wikipedia continues to erode, people who make use of Google’s knowledge panels or AI chatbots may continue to use information from Wikipedia without realizing they are doing so.
These privileges given to Wikipedia are a result of its de facto monopoly among online encyclopedias. For most of the past decade, a further downstream effect of Wikipedia’s monopoly has been its shaping of medical decisions, economic outcomes, scientific publications, and judicialrulings (although the research on the last of these is disputed). Studies about these effects have been published as recently as last year, but all of the underlying research was conducted before the controversies about manipulation of Wikipedia since 2021. This makes it less clear whether Wikipedia still holds the same power in these areas, or whether that is beginning to change.
Whether Wikipedia’s monopoly will continue, or whether Google, AI chatbots, and academia will eventually recognize Justapedia as a legitimate competitor, is a microcosm of a more fundamental question: whether control of the narrative about controversial topics should be centralized in a small group of people. Despite Wikipedia’s vast number of users, any controversial topic tends to be controlled by a much smaller group. The Journal of Holocaust Research paper reports that on articles related to Poland in World War II, the majority of edits were made by only 10 users (see chart 2 in the paper). Those 10 users were able to maintain control by exploiting how the content of articles is determined by internal Wikipedia “consensus,” which does not necessarily have any relation to the views of experts or of the highest quality sources. When information is under centralized control to promote a single narrative, this runs counter to one of the principles of democracy: that voters should be trusted to make their own choice between competing ideas.
VI. The Value of Competition
There is another reason why it is important for Wikipedia to face a direct competitor. Various authors have proposed many causes of Wikipedia’s susceptibility to manipulation, including its lack of respect for real-world expertise among its contributors, the political attitudes of Wikipedia’s admins, and the fact that disputes there usually are won by the individuals who have the most time to spare for posting on talk pages. But a factor that likely underlies all these other factors is that Wikipedia has never faced any major competition, and as a consequence, it has never been under much pressure to improve itself.
Among the best parallels of Wikipedia’s recent history is the Roman Catholic Church during the Medieval and early Renaissance periods. In the absence of any competition during that era, the Church had begun to engage in corrupt practices, particularly the selling of indulgences, whereby parishioners were encouraged to pay money to the Church in exchange for forgiveness of sins. This practice was essentially a scam to enrich Church officials and raise money for cathedrals—somewhat like Wikipedia’s recent pleas that “we rely on our readers for support,” without telling donors that less of their money goes toward hosting than toward unrelated causes such as antiracist journalism and dead octopi.
Roman Catholic authorities were aware of the abuse of indulgences, and during the 14th and 15th centuries, Pope Boniface IX and Pope Martin V criticized the practice. But at that point, there had been no concerted attempt to abolish it. This attitude, too, has a parallel in recent years at Wikipedia. In December of last year, a discussion about Wikipedia’s fundraising efforts concluded that this fundraising has been conducted in a dishonest manner, yet its current (2023) fundraising message still gives the impression that donations to Wikipedia are primarily used to support the website itself. Likewise, in response to Betty Wills’s editorial about the stifling of debate, and to the summary of how sources were being misrepresented across several intelligence-related articles (discussed in my previous Quillette article’s “No source required” section), some members of Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee acknowledged the existence of these problems, but ArbCom ultimately took no action about either of them. Regardless of the era, when authority figures are unwilling to address widely-known problems, this inaction inevitably leads to efforts by reformers.
Betty Wills, with her initial attempts to reform Wikipedia and her subsequent founding of a competitor, has stepped into the role of Martin Luther, who initially tried to stop the Church’s financial abuses via internal Church processes, and went on to become the founder of Protestantism. The initial backlash against Luther’s ideas led to him being excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church and condemned as an outlaw by his government, but his eventual success provides an image of the type of outcome that can be optimistically hoped for in Wills’s case. Not only did Protestantism go on to become one of the major branches of Christianity, but the Roman Catholic Church eventually implemented its own set of internal reforms known as the Counter-reformation, which included better training for priests and an end to the selling of indulgences.
If Wikipedia is to face an equivalent competitor, the website with the greatest chance of filling that role is Justapedia. Justapedia’s luck in launching at a time when complaints about Wikipedia’s politicization are at a high point, as well as its addressing of some of the structural issues that have led to this situation, give it a greater shot at success than any other such competitor in over a decade. But its success is by no means a certainty, and hinges on whether or not it receives support and participation from the many individuals who have called for a new Wikipedia alternative. It is up to this article’s readers, as well as the more prominent critics of Wikipedia such as Elon Musk, to determine whether or not Justapedia has a future.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Larry Sanger sold Citizendium. In fact, he gave the site away. Apologies for the error.