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The Promise and Challenges of a Blockchain-Based Encyclopedia

Blockchain technology is disrupting everything from banking to the supply chain. Could online encyclopedias be its next frontier?

For years, encyclopedias were monolithic, with strict hierarchies of production and control. Then, Wikipedia democratized them by enabling anyone to write and edit articles. 

This freedom to edit created predictable problems, though. Editing wars are common on controversial topics such as religion and the Holocaust. Even ideologue cryptocurrency enthusiasts are guilty.

Liberal editing allows inaccuracies that can go unnoticed for weeks on infrequently read Wikipedia pages, pointed out Lunyr, a company preparing an alternative to Wikipedia based on the Ethereum blockchain. At the same time, Wikipedia’s centrally hosted architecture allows regimes to block Wikipedia’s site. It also gives Wikipedia’s administrators ultimate control, the firm added.

In its white paper, Lunyr cites Wikipedia’s 24-hour cessation in 2012 to protest anti-privacy bills as an example of how centralized hosts can “abuse their power to forward self-serving agendas.”

In reality though, Wikipedia held a lengthy discussion among its contributors before making the move.

Still, Lunyr CEO Arnold Pham hopes to solve some problems facing Wikipedia by moving online encyclopedias to the blockchain. He would also like to see contributors earn some coin for their efforts, unlike Wikipedia’s volunteer base.

“We want a decentralized, censorship-resistant knowledge base that grows by itself and rewards those who contribute to it, maintain its quality and keep it current,” he said. 

The company will soon begin alpha testing its system, using a combination of Ethereum and the Interplanetary File System (IPFS) to host and administer content created by contributors, it said.

Contributors posting to the Lunyr knowledge base will send their articles to an Ethereum smart contract. This costs “gas” — Ethereum’s smart contract fuel — which should help stop nonsense and malicious posts. 

A peer review board created from existing contributors must approve content before it goes live. It isn’t clear how many there will be, but contributors will be invited based on their topics of interest. Contributors of approved posts receive two kinds of token in return: contribution (CBN) and honor (HNR). 

Contributors use HNR tokens to vote in policy discussions. Lunyr also awards its primary token — the LUN — based on the percentage of total CBR that a contributor owns during every two-week reward period. The idea seems to be that the more successful contributions you make, the more CBN you get and therefore the more LUNs you eventually earn at the end of every reward period.

This isn’t an entirely altruistic project. The system maintains a pool of LUN tokens that it replenishes periodically on its own, but advertisers — which Wikipedia doesn’t allow — can also pay LUNs into the pool. 

“Ads go through the peer review system and we'll be providing open-source guidelines, but it is ultimately up to the community to decide what's relevant and appropriate,” Pham said.

Lunyr’s team earns 15 percent of the LUN in the pool each period and reserves the right to create and sell more LUN to third parties, based on limitations in the smart contracts. It has generated nearly 48,000 ether from an initial token crowdsale in April.

Pham didn’t answer many questions about the platform though, as he was too busy preparing Lunyr for its alpha phase. How does the system score for quality, differentiating between someone who successfully submits dozens of short, mediocre posts, and someone who spends weeks researching a single lengthy, informative article? 

Pham says that HNR will form the backbone of a reputation system. What’s to stop someone from creating dozens of accounts and then using them to gain peer review access and game the system?

Perhaps the biggest question for any cryptocurrency-based encyclopedia project is this: How can it guarantee a variety of perspectives, especially among the peer reviewers who seem to centralize, rather than decentralize, the entire process? The demographic base of cryptocurrency enthusiasts is notoriously thin: young, pale, techie and male. Not to mention rich. How can an Ethereum-based encyclopedia project avoid becoming “Bropedia”? 

Diversity is something that even Wikipedia — which doesn’t ask you to read a white paper and bring a working knowledge of Ethereum and blockchain technology — has struggled with. Almost 90 percent of its contributors were found to be male and it has had to create specific programs to expand its reach. 

After all the smart contracts, token distribution strategies and anti-fraud workflows have been thought out, one of the biggest challenges facing a blockchain-based encyclopedia may be more fundamental to the cryptocurrency scene as a whole. It’ll take more than an app to solve that problem.

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