ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Exploring the digital universe
can an alliance of scientists, academics, and non-profit organizations reclaim the web from disinterested hackers and purely commercial interests?

By Ken Korman / February 2006

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

One thing in this world is for sure: There's no shortage of content on the Web in 2006. A simple Google search routinely leads to a staggering number of choices, many of them poor. At this stage in the Web's development, the quality of the content we all consume is fast becoming a burning issue. Can we really expect any profit-driven Web corporation to make these crucial choices for us in the years ahead? And whatever happened to early visions of the Web as the ultimate tool for education on a global scale?

A new network of Web portals called the Digital Universe aims to answer these questions with technically advanced, advertising-free, expert-vetted content that is fully accessible to all. Intended to one day incorporate thousands of sub-portals and a full encyclopedia, and with developing plans for "open" content to which anyone can contribute, the open-source Digital Universe may get a serious jumpstart from its innovative "venture philanthropy" business model. It's an ambitious undertaking, and one that won't be easy to pull off. But its very presence serves a much-needed reminder that much of the Web's great potential has yet to be fulfilled.

History Lessons

It's no surprise that the Digital Universe is scarcely mentioned in the press—or in conversation—without the word "Wikipedia" trailing closely behind. This happens not only because "the contrast with Wikipedia turned out to be a valid one," as Digital Universe Foundation president Bernard Haisch now points out, but because Larry Sanger, the Digital Universe's director of distributed content, was a co-founder of Wikipedia, and actually found his way to the Digital Universe after Haisch read Sanger's now-famous online essay, "Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism." But the Digital Universe family tree extends back farther than the relatively recent Wikipedia.

As a child, Digital Universe co-founder and storied Web entrepreneur Joseph P. Firmage was so taken with Carl Sagan's '70s PBS series "Cosmos"—and Sagan's vision, borrowed from Isaac Asimov, of the Encylopedia Galactica, a future repository of all man's accumulated knowledge—that it was only a matter of time until he attempted to fulfill that vision. In recent years, Firmage partnered with Sagan's widow Ann Druyan on the OneCosmos Network, which included an Internet portal and a film production company intended to bring accessible science to the masses, just as Sagan had done. OneCosmos' venture-capital funding was pulled after the Internet bubble burst, but Firmage acquired the intellectual property rights to the company's content and revived it about a year later when work on the Digital Universe began.

Meanwhile Sanger served as editor-in-chief of Nupedia, a unique online encyclopedia for which he developed a rigorous seven-step editorial process. He was pleased with the quality of the articles generated for Nupedia, but found that he needed a process that "ordinary people would find more congenial," Sanger says. He only managed to publish "a couple dozen articles, with a few hundred more in the hopper," when funding dried up. Wikis—which of course allowed for true open content on the Web that anyone could edit—came along at this point, and Sanger proposed a content stream for Nupedia to which anyone would be able to contribute. But this idea was rejected by the Nupedia board.

As a result, Sanger and Jimmy Wales launched Wikipedia in January of 2001 under its own domain name. Sanger recalls that "the culture of Nupedia dominated Wikipedia for the first nine months to a year" but that things then started to change. Wikipedia's worldwide network of contributors had been "relatively respectful toward experts, but it became more of a free-for-all," something many would come to view as an extreme, if worthwhile, experiment in the democratization of the Web. Disdain for subject-matter expertise seemed to grow exponentially among Wikipedia contributors, and Sanger, in frustration, cut all ties with Wikipedia in 2003.

Sanger continued to follow Wikipedia's surprising success, and commented publicly on his view of the site's flaws at the end of 2004 with his "Why Wikipedia Must Jettison It's Anti-Elitism" essay. Here he argued that no matter how reliable one believes Wikipedia's content to be, "it is not perceived to be adequately reliable by librarians, teachers, and academics," which greatly limits its usefulness and effectiveness.

Sanger, like everyone we spoke to at the Digital Universe, has great respect for what has been achieved at Wikipedia, and is quick to point out that the no-expert-review approach works fine for many subject areas. But at the end of his essay he argues for a "more academic" subset to Wikipedia, with a "publicly credible review process in place," if Wikipedia is to fulfill its potential and become the kind of unimpeachable information resource so badly needed on the Web. But he adds that he does not expect his former partner Jimmy Wales to set aside what Sanger terms his "radical openness" and allow this to happen. Sanger's essay resonated with Firmage and Haisch, and Haisch contacted Sanger, hired him as a consultant, and then gave him a full-time position five months later.

Firmage's vision for the Digital Universe not only encompassed Sanger's belief in content largely created, and carefully reviewed, by qualified experts, but also identified a larger need to restore depth and meaning to the Web itself. "Joe Firmage was CEO of a $3 billion company [consulting firm USWeb] at age 26, but he was disgusted with the purely materialistic, profit-driven ethos of Silicon Valley in which he was participating," Haisch explains. "That motivated him to come up with a new way to tap into capitalism as a vehicle for starting up something that would not be the ultimate benefactor of all the profits." Instead, the ultimate benefactor would be the public, which would finally have free and open access to the kind of high-quality content originally envisioned by many for the Web.

The Digital Universe consists of three separate entities: The Digital Universe Foundation, the non-profit host for content and the home of its worldwide "stewardship" program (stewards are the expert content creators); ManyOne, a temporary for-profit company developing the software and providing technical services underlying the Digital Universe; and The ManyOne Foundation, another non-profit to which ownership of ManyOne will transfer once the project's investors are reimbursed. Firmage raised $10.5 million (including his own, unspecified contribution), which will be paid back at a fixed rate of return. "That's to assure that MayOne always operates as a public service, not a Wall Street entity that worries about stock valuations, IPOs, and that sort of thing," Haisch explains. Additional profits will be "recycled into grants for stewards, and building an endowment for the ManyOne and Digital Universe Foundations," he adds.

Business as Usual?

But how can the Digital Universe generate enough income to pay back its investors and keep all that quality content flowing? Firmage and company have a plan—and this plan is what sets the entire project apart from both its precursors, most of whom eventually failed due to revenue problems, and other content providers currently operating on the Web.

The Digital Universe will partner with what it calls "socially responsible" organizations—from museums, to educational institutions, to professional associations—to sell branded Internet service to these organizations' existing customer and membership bases. Ingenious and elegant in its simplicity, this plan would allow millions of Internet users to bypass the large media companies (who are widely perceived as adding little value to the Web while taking huge profits from it) in favor of institutions they already know and love. Haisch says the Digital Universe has contracted with Covad, a major suppliers of business communication services, to supply DSL and dial-up services identical to those the public has used for years. Profits will be divided by Digital Universe (and poured back into the endowments for content creation) and the partner organizations, all of whom are reportedly eager to test what amounts to a rare new source of revenue for their own non-profit ventures.

It all sounds a little too good to be true. But Larry Sanger, for one, believes. The business plan, he says, is what first got him excited about the project. In an informal poll, we've found that many people—once they finally understanding how the plan is intended to work—comment that they would gladly pay extra, beyond their current bills, to purchase Internet services in this manner. "Premium services," which may include email, video feeds, podcasts, teacher curricula, and online communities, will also be sold for a modest fee apart from full Internet service.

Another upside to the Digital Universe business plan is that many of these organizations are also in a position to contribute content while serving as business partners. Qualified organizations have the option of serving in either role, or both. The first major organization to serve as both content and business partner will be the Environmental Information Coalition, which brings together a variety of environmental groups and scientists and will launch Digital Universe's first major content area, the Earth Portal, this April. "We hope that's when our business model will prove itself as a viable way to finance the Digital Universe," Haisch says.

The Earth Portal will cover topics such as biodiversity, recycling, and climate change in more than a dozen sub-portals, and will feature a full Encyclopedia of Earth and "the first true environmental search engine on the Web." The Coalition is already offering Internet services (and describing its mission in full detail) at its own site.

According to Haisch, some "50 or 60" individual stewards are already in place at the Earth Portal, and 100 additional applicants from a wide variety of content areas have recently contacted Digital Universe in the hopes of signing on. A board is forming to oversee selection of stewards and provide stewardship governance as the project picks up steam in the months ahead. "We want not to do this ourselves, but to create a nucleus and structure around which the worldwide community of scholars, experts, educators, and scientists can pool their resources and present information in a credible venue," Haisch says.

A Content Vision Shared

The long-term vision for the content of the Digital Universe held by Firmage, Haisch, Sanger, and others is a truly ambitious one. "We want to create a system that classifies all of reality into a taxonomy that shows the relationship of topics to each other," Haisch says. "We anticipate a decades-long effort to try to organize information this way." The number of planned portals in the current taxonomy numbers over 1000; hundreds of thousands of portals would probably be required to fulfill that vision of organized "reality." "We may be using totally different technology in 20 years, but we'll build on what we have now," Haisch adds.

A willingness to let underlying technology—and the content vision for the Digital Universe—evolve in unforeseen ways has already begun to serve the project in its earliest stages. At launch in January, viewing the Digital Universe required users to download the site's proprietary PC-only browser, based on the open-source Firefox browser, which meant Firefox plug-ins were also required. This was intended to facilitate the site's immersive 3-D navigation and rendering, and to further distinguish Digital Universe content. But a few weeks later, what Haisch calls the "gee-whiz factor" was wisely being deemphasized. In April, around the time the site re-launches with truly representative content courtesy of the Earth Portal, Digital Universe plug-ins for all popular browsers on both PC and Mac will become available and provide full access to the site.

Another important change occurred over that time: Haisch and company altered their vision for a separate content area that would have served as a "fine-tuned Wikipedia" with content created exclusively by the public, but overseen by experts. "At the moment we're leaning against two versions of the encyclopedia," Haisch told us as we went to press.

He described a kind of hybrid approach in which the public contributes to the main encyclopedia by developing content in a private workspace overseen by stewards, who eventually decide which pages are published on the live site. This process will undoubtedly undergo further development, but the goal will be to maintain openness for those who really want to contribute while achieving a level of quality for which the Digital Universe hopes to be known. "We're going to be very attractive to ordinary participants who want to work under the direction of experts," Sanger says. "That sort of thing hasn't been tried, and I'm very excited to see how well it works."

Even more important than open content in the Digital Universe is the fact that all its underlying technology will remain open source. That means that all those stewards, and the open source community at large, will be free to improve the site. "We're hoping outside developers will come in and give it capabilities we hadn't even thought about ourselves," Haisch says. This one aspect of the project may prove key to its long-term success.

A Hard Road

There's no getting around the idea that the founders' ambitious vision for the Digital Universe is fraught with peril. Once the site moves away from science to the arts and humanities—which are not so easily organized or agreed upon—a mulititude of new issues will arise, revealing deep divisions among stewards and other contributors. And creating content on that will appeal to anyone, "from kids to PhDs" as is currently imagined, may prove exceedingly difficult (though a current plan for tagging content along these lines may help). But whether the Digital Universe succeeds or not, it's hard not to admire the scope of its underlying vision, and its obvious goal of taking back the Web from purely commercial interests who would eagerly swallow it whole.

"We're really trying to start a movement," Sanger explains. "Up until recently, the Web has been dominated by corporations on one hand, and by an essentially immature hacker culture on the other. I would like to see professionals and intellectuals getting together… for purposes of essentially teaching the world." Teaching the world is a big job. But the Digital Universe seems as likely a venue as any for idealism to make a welcome comeback on the Web.

This article was reprinted from ACM's netWorker magazine.


  • There are no comments at this time.