The Text Outline Project: Project Summary

Contents: Definition; Goals; The projects; Benefits; The software; Governance; General policies; Relationship between Textop and the DUF

The project will be put in a "back burner" state until 2007 or 2008 by project director Larry Sanger, who has decided that his energies are better spent on a new project.

I. Definition

The Text Outline Project (Textop) will be a set of projects, managed by a strong collaboration among a global group of scholars, with the aim of organizing the information contained in books, dictionaries, opinionated essays, and news articles--and perhaps other sources--into a single outline of human knowledge.  Built by volunteers, the result will be free and noncommercial, with any financial support of staff managed by non-profits.

II. Goals

The main goal of Textop is to bring to maturity several strongly collaborative text projects under its care.  Textop is committed to high quality and efficiency.  Like other noncommercial projects under the broad umbrella of the Digital Universe, Textop is to be run as a public trust or commons, which competent scholars and others able to make a positive contribution are encouraged to augment.  Thus, a secondary goal of the project is to develop a vibrant community motivated to care for what we hope will be an enormous body of information.  Unlike many radically collaborative communities online, however, clearly-stated goals and an enforceable community charter will help ensure that quality of content remains high and level of interaction remains mature.

III. The projects

Textop will feature several sub-projects, such as these:

Input on these collaborative projects--including fundamental questions about them, such as whether they should be pursued at all--is, at this early stage, very strongly needed and encouraged.

IV. Benefits

The main benefit of all projects will be to facilitate research and learning in a way never before possible.  This is a powerfully suggestive notion: a central outline of human knowledge, based on the specific details of definition, explanation, argument, etc., contained within scholarly texts, with the outline in turn used to organize all different sorts of textual information.  It will make research and learning unusually efficient.  The outline will also lower barriers to interdisciplinary interaction: it will be much easier to find texts from a wide variety of disciplines that study the same subject, as texts from different fields will be folded into the same places in the same outline.  For further suggestions about benefits, see the Collation Project summary as well as the relevant section of "Text and Collaboration."

Finally, the Collation Project in particular, since it will make the same outline and texts viewable in multiple languages, can be expected to help tear down language barriers and encourage scholars from around the world, solving similar problems, to work together.  It is likely that, to achieve this benefit, there would have to be a central "master" outline (i.e., just the outline and not its contents) in one central language most commonly spoken by scholars worldwide, English, which is translated into other languages.  Otherwise there will be one outline per language, which will not achieve the benefit of tearing down language barriers.  Texts and summaries of text chunks, and other items contained in the outline, can exist in multiple versions varying from language to language.  For details, see internationalization.

V. The software

A complex open source Web application will be specially written and adapted to support these projects.  The basic notion, to oversimplify, is of two interlinked sets of documents: an outline, and items that are attached to the outline.  The outline will be collaboratively editable and, especially earlier on in the project, can be expected to undergo many changes.  It should be possible to drag and drop documents (entries, articles, etc.), or representations thereof, into particular nodes of the outline.  The application will also include special features for editing items (e.g., event summaries) that are attached to the outline, or annotating them (e.g., chunks of a source text).  In addition, there will be a database of source texts for (at least) the Collation Project, and the application will also allow these source texts to be marked up so that text references can be automatically generated and in order to be more easily searchable.  Some projects will almost certainly have special requirements; for example, the Debate Guide Project will require side-by-side editing in a highly structured format.  This software may well introduce the world to a whole new set of useful collaborative Web applications, as Wikipedia introduced the world to wikis.  For more details, see this discussion of software requirements.

VI. Governance

There will be two phases of project governance.  In the first phase, the project director will (with much consultation and advice) select project personnel, as well as initial members of an Advisory Committee.  In the second phase, the (expanded) Advisory Committee will elect the project's directing body, to which the project director will be answerable.  The directing body will determine how its own members are to be selected.  If the project appears to be well on the way to success, we have an absolutely firm commitment either to organize it as a nonprofit, with leading participants as officers, or to merge it with an existing nonprofit.  The project will never be sold to a for-profit organization, regardless of how successful it is, and is wholly committed to remaining completely noncommercial, independent of governments, and in other respects governed exclusively by a worldwide community of scholars.

VII. General policies

There are certain general policies that will be regarded as non-negotiable.  Here are some of them.  (1) The contents produced by participants will be free (open content).  (2) The project will be led by experts: the project will be an open meritocracy, not a mobocracy and not a rule of the-first-to-arrive.  (3) The project will, wherever possible, make an effort to be neutral, i.e., to represent all published, minimally credible points of view; the project will eject persons who attempt to use it to silence views contrary to their own.  (4) The project will require that persons declare that they are contributing under their own real names and identities (unless special circumstances justify that we grant special permission to use a pseudonym).  (5) There is not a general, blanket right to participate: participation is dependent on the ability and willingness to make a positive contribution; in other words, this project will not be permitted to descend to the immature, unprofessional level of so many other Web projects.

Persons who cannot reconcile themselves to working in good faith under these policies are advised not to join the project in the first place.

VIII. Relationship between the Text Outline Project and the Digital Universe Foundation

Textop is undertaken under the broad umbrella of the Digital Universe Foundation (DUF).  The project director is employed with the DUF and consults regularly with his colleagues at the DUF and ManyOne about the project.  While there is no guarantee that the output of the project will be included in the Digital Universe, Textop is initiated with the blessing of the DUF and with the expectation that, in time, its content and collaborators will prove to be worthy additions to the Digital Universe.  Finally, the close relationship between Textop and the DUF does not preclude other supportive relationships with other organizations and institutions.

For a longer, more philosophical introduction to the Text Outline Project, see "Text and Collaboration."

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