Net Media Perspective
What About Wikipedia?
I was going to title this one “Wikis and Blogs,” then recognized that nearly all the stuff I have related to wikis is about one wiki in particular: Wikipedia. Wikipedia is no more representative of wikis as a medium than Instapundit is representative of blogs. As for blogs—well, once I was through with the Wikipedia section, the essay was too long to add another section.
If users decided Wikipedia and Instapundit were worthless and dangerous and avoided both of them entirely, that would say nothing about the validity or worth of wikis and blogs as net media. Wikis offer one set of net-based media possibilities with considerable strengths and some significant weaknesses. They’re ideal for some situations, workable for some others, and probably the wrong tool in other cases. That sentence is just as true with “Blogs” as a first word. Or “Podcasts.” Or “Ebooks.”
Given the strong feelings Wikipedia arouses in various circles, I should interject a personal opinion first. I use Wikipedia as a starting point in many cases. Just now, I needed to do a work-related task from home that required editing Unix files (which I never do) with vi (which I find opaque) based on a cheat sheet from a Unix manual (which was wrong). Wikipedia pointed me to a tutorial that solved the problem. I suspected it would be the fastest route to a verifiable answer. It was. I’ve never used Britannica all that much. I have a current Encarta DVD and almost never use it. I consider them all complementary. I don’t trust Wikipedia’s “neutral” point of view and I find many of the essays poorly written—but it’s great for what it is.
First, two wiki-related items I had on hand that aren’t about Wikipedia: “Wikis and access control” from Karen Coombs of Library web chic (August 11, 2006) and “What are wikis good for?” from Meredith Farkas of Information wants to be free (August 20, 2006). Both comment on a post on Web4Lib, specifically the following paragraph:
I am repeatedly impressed by how often, when librarians consider wikis, their first thought seems to be of access control. The idea of “just anybody being able to edit our Web pages” seems somehow innately abhorrent. It leads me to wonder if they “get” the very idea of a wiki.
Coombs says the post “subtly brings up the questions of ‘what is a wiki’ and ‘why would I want to use one’ and offers a brief, straightforward, well-considered response. Excerpting:
In my mind, the primary characteristics of a wiki are easy collaborative document editing and creation. Wikis allow multiple people to easily contribute to the same document and track the modification[s] to that document… For me a wiki doesn’t have to have open editing for everyone… Wikis are very versatile and can be used…in a number of different ways.
Wikis support easy collaboration and open editing. They don’t require open editing for everyone in the world. There’s no inherent requirement for anonymous contribution or editing, and different parts of a wiki can have different levels of access control. As Coombs notes, “defacement” can be an issue: Users should not be able to change catalog records or the library’s hours at will, even if you’re allowing wiki-based user comments on library holdings.
Farkas notes that people seem to think the “idea of a wiki” means universal open editing, but even the “open-minded” founder recognized the need for limits. For one thing, the “users” of a given wiki may not be the universe: a staff wiki within a library shouldn’t be open for editing (or viewing) by patrons.
In the real world, open is a relative term. Wikipedia has always had access control measures; more have been added recently. These days, spam may be more of a problem on wikis than deliberately bad content (paraphrasing from Farkas’ comment), but in any case 100% openness to editing by anybody in the universe isn’t plausible in most situations.
Farkas makes excellent points: A wiki that doesn’t get much collaboration may still be worthwhile. In the real world, most small-scale wikis probably don’t get defaced: “Other than spam from bots, I have never had any of my wikis defaced. There does need to be some level of trust involved in collaborative editing.” If there’s a general attitude of mistrust in a multiperson content-generation situation, maybe a traditional CMS makes more sense than a wiki.
In December 2005, Nature published an article comparing the accuracy of Encyclopedia Britannica’s online edition with Wikipedia. The article concluded that differences in accuracy between the two were “not particularly great.”
Britannica wasn’t thrilled with the article. The company released a 20-page refutation in March 2006, “Fatally flawed: Refuting the recent study on encyclopedic accuracy by the journal Nature.” Britannica’s summary: “Almost everything about the journal’s investigation, from the criteria for identifying inaccuracies to the discrepancy between the article text and its headline, was wrong and misleading.” The refutation calls the study “without value.”
Definitions come into play here. The discrepancy between headline and text? The headline said Wikipedia “comes close” in terms of accuracy of science entries. The text notes one-third more inaccuracies in Wikipedia. Is that “close”? It depends. If Britannica gets 99.7% of the facts in science articles correctly and Wikipedia gets 99.6% right, “close” is right. If the figures are 70% and 60%, Wikipedia isn’t that close.
There’s no good way to tell which of these two applies. We know the study was small (42 pairs of articles), but Nature didn’t release all the original data to Britannica, so it’s hard to replicate the study. Britannica says some of its supposed articles were either from yearbooks, from Britannica Student Encyclopedia, or just the introduction to an article rather than the entire article—and since “critical omissions” is one type of “error,” that’s important. Britannica cites other problems: apparent “patchwork” portions of articles sent out for review, failure to check factual assertions of reviewers, and failure to distinguish minor errors from major ones.
It does seem clear that Nature accepted as “errors” what most scientists would regard as differences of opinion. Taken as a whole, the Britannica response seems to undermine the validity of Nature’s article, at least partially.
Nature rejected Britannica’s accusations: “[We] are confident our comparison was fair.” Nature claims Britannica didn’t detail its complaints before publishing the open letter. Nature admits using excerpts “to ensure comparable lengths”—which is a very odd way to compare the quality of two different sources with radically different editorial approaches! The facts in a 300-word introduction to a 6,000-word article may be comparable to those in a 300-word article; that does not make the two sources comparable.
Nature explains away not checking the reviewers’ assertions by saying they didn’t check on either side—so they don’t believe this introduces a bias. That’s also a hard one to swallow. But not as hard as this:
We note that Britannica has taken issue with less than half the points that our reviewers raised.
The reviewers raised 123 points on 42 articles from Britannica (or some publication from the company), as compared to 162 from Wikipedia. If Britannica is correct—that, say, 60 of the 123 points are invalid criticisms—then the score would be dramatically different: more than 2.5 times as many errors per article in Wikipedia as in Britannica.
Apart from the size of the study and what sounds like sloppy methodology, the Science study focuses only on science. That’s natural, but makes it less than satisfactory as a general claim of comparability. I’d expect Wikipedia to be strong on science, technology and popular culture; I’d expect Britannica to be stronger on history, the humanities, the “serious” arts, and all that—and I’d expect Britannica to have more polished writing, particularly in longer essays.
Paula Berinstein devoted a fairly long article to comparing the two encyclopedias in the March 2006 Searcher: “Wikipedia and Britannica: The kid’s all right (and so’s the old man)” She devotes more space to the “kid” than to the “old man,” but attempts to compare their processes and audience. She does not discuss the Nature dustup (and, given lead times for print publications, may not have known about it).
Is there a battle between the two? Yes, to the extent that Wikipedia claims to be the best encyclopedia in the world—and blatantly, given that Wikipedia devotes long pages to correcting errors in Britannica.
The primary question for info pros is, of course, reliability. Can “the public” concoct and maintain a free, authoritative encyclopedia that’s unbiased, complete, and reliable? If not, then Britannica may rest on its laurels and its good name, although with the Web so free and accessible, it’s been taking licks for some years. But if the answer is “Yes,” what happens to that shining beacon of scholarship, its publishers, and its academic contributors? Is encyclopedia publishing a “zero sum” game?
Is this a zero-sum game—is there room for only one? I say no. The return of Britannica to new print editions suggests not. The existence of other competitors suggests not—Encarta’s still putting out new editions, there’s a 2006 print World Book, and Encyclopedia Americana is still around in one form or another.
Berinstein compares Wikipedia and Britannica in several areas: contributors, audience, mission, scope, and process. She notes that Wikipedia contributors tend to be “people with time on their hands”—since you not only need to contribute, you need to stay involved if your material or edit is controversial. The core group for Wikipedia is some 2,000 contributors, but there are tens of thousands who have done one or two edits (including me). Britannica’s contributors are paid, chosen for their expertise, and have included more than 100 Nobel laureates; it’s a surprisingly large group, with 4,800 worldwide.
While Berinstein says Wikipedia’s audience differs from Britannica’s, I’m not sure that’s true in any fundamental way, especially given the existence of a free online subset of Britannica. As for mission, Wikipedia stresses breadth and freedom while Britannica stresses being “authoritative” and “definitive.”
“Delving into the scope of each illustrates that the two differ enough to make [comparing] a vain exercise. Wikipedia is large and diffuse. Britannica is finite and well-defined.” Oddly, although Wikipedia “tells you how to make coffee,” the guidelines say subjects should be “notable.” That’s a controversial requirement; Jimmy Wales falls back on “verifiability” and the rule that Wikipedia doesn’t include original research—there must always be references to some outside source. (What’s notable? There’s a brief article on me in the German Wikipedia—but not in the English-language one, and I see no plausible reason to change the latter situation.)
There’s an interesting description of the Wikipedia process and how it’s changing and being enforced. Jimmy Wales gets quoted a lot. His response to people who come under attack is “they are being attacked because they’re being preposterous.” Larry Sanger’s criticisms are mentioned, along with a sampling of responses—some of them enlightening (“Wikipedia isn’t supposed to be the same thing as an encyclopedia”), some of them less so (“Experts are ‘hoity-toity’”). There’s much less discussion of Britannica’s process because it’s traditional, involving known experts and editorial review.
Then there’s authority. Jimmy Wales always has an out: “Wikipedia is very much a work in progress.” But Wales is adamant (and correct) that no encyclopedia should be considered authoritative. I don’t know what to make of Peter Morville’s conclusion that Wikipedia “beats Britannica” because, according to Morville, “authority derives from the information architecture, visual design, governance and brand…and…widespread faith in intellectual honesty and the power of collective intelligence.” Morville’s hard on Britannica, saying it’s “riddled with errors” and has the bias of “corporate correctness.”
In the end, Berinstein calls Wikipedia “a great starting point” and “Zen-like.” She thinks the problems will be worked out. As for Britannica? “Flawed, yes. Behind the times with regard to non-Western and minority leadership, sure. Indispensable? You betcha.”
On April 15, 2006, danah boyd posted “on being notable in Wikipedia” at apophenia. Justin Hall created a Wikipedia entry for her, which she found “very peculiar.” After some taunting and edits, there emerged a discussion “about whether or not i was notable enough” (danah boyd has a thing about capital letters): people wanted “proof” of her importance. boyd notes “Wikipedia is not prepared to handle domain experts,” an interesting comment on the project.
It’s a fascinating discussion, noting errors in the profile (some tiny, some larger based on mistakes made elsewhere)—and noting the peculiar situation of a living person who’s aware of their profile. “It is culturally inappropriate for me to edit my entry” (Jimmy Wales apologized for editing his—but he nonetheless did it). “No one asks me to fact check—journalists matter more than me.” Boyd is properly bugged that media accounts matter more than the facts. She’d rather have the profile deleted than go on in the state it was on April 13. The post is just over one page—but when I looked at it on April 24, there were already more than eight pages of comments. As you’d expect in a case like this, the comments vary and can be as interesting as the post itself: people who think Wikipedia should reflect the priorities of the mainstream, notes that Wikipedia guidelines do allow people to correct errors about themselves, a very long and somewhat incoherent discussion, and others who have had similar experiences.
Along similar lines, Seth Finkelstein has a piece in The Guardian (September 28, 2006), “I’m on Wikipedia, get me out of here.” He is—and doesn’t want to be. The piece has been there since February 2004. It was vandalized in March 2006 and Finkelstein concluded that “the article’s existence seemed…overall to be harmful rather than helpful.”
For people who are not very prominent, Wikipedia biographies can be an “attractive nuisance.” It says, to every troll, vandal, and score-settler, “Here’s an article about a person where you can, with no accountability whatsoever, write any libel, defamation, or smear. It won’t be a marginal comment with the social status of an inconsequential rant, but rather will be made prominent about the person, and reputation-laundered with the institutional status of an encyclopedia.”
When someone else suggested Finkelstein might not be notable enough for an entry, “I agreed—and strongly argued the case against myself.” But the process used by Wikipedia did not result in consensus—and the article stayed. Finkelstein notes the extent to which the project has “evolved elaborate rhetorical responses to criticism” and the tendency of participants to trivialize failures of quality control.
Institutionally, Wikipedia has a difficult problem: to allow anyone to decline to be a subject of an article would be an admission that the supposed collective editing process is deeply flawed.
He cites Angela Beesley, a former Wikimedia board member who wants her own page removed: “I’m sick of this article being trolled. It’s full of lies and nonsense.” But like Finkelstein’s, it’s still there. As of September 29, both articles are “semi-protected” and have lengthy discussion pages, with Finkelstein’s including extended discussions on September 29 as to why it’s inappropriate for someone to opt out of a Wikipedia entry. I must admit that, apart from politicians, Nobel Prize winners, and perhaps people with some high level of celebrity, I don’t get this position at all. You can choose not to be listed in Who’s Who in America. Why is it inappropriate for someone who’s mildly notable but not a world-class celebrity or politician to ask to be left out of Wikipedia?
Peter Binkley wrote “Wikipedia grows up” for Feliciter and posted it on April 30, 2006 at Quædam cuisdam. He notes that Wikipedia passed its fifth birthday in January 2006 and addresses the question of whether the Wikipedia process can produce an authoritative encyclopedia. “Common sense says no” (followed by quick reasons), but the reality is more promising. Binkley says “the openness of the Wikipedia model irritates its critics beyond endurance,” citing a “parents” group that claims an “underground cabal of pedophiles” edits Wikipedia, a few high-profile incidents, and a silly class-action suit. Binkley applauds the strength of the project in popular culture and current technology, notes that it has much to offer in the realm of politics, and suggests that active wikipedians are “ideal library patrons.”
Steve Lawson offers a short note on “Lurving Wikipedia” at See also… on June 13, 2006. He particularly loves its combination of “neutral” viewpoint and inclusion of wildly varied pop-culture items. He finds himself (or loses himself) following links from article to article. He also quotes Jimmy Wales’ key comment about a student getting a bad grade because the student relied on Wikipedia: “For God’s sake, you’re in college; don’t cite [any] encyclopedia.”
That quote turns up in a June 15, 2006 post by John Dupuis at Confessions of a science librarian, itself primarily quotes from Scott McLemee and a LISNews report on Jimmy Wales. McLemee, who has a sizable personal library and access to unusually good library resources, admits to glancing over at least half a dozen Wikipedia entries in a typical week and notes its particular thoroughness on “topics far off the beaten path.” Wales offers a partial defense of Wikipedia: “It’s good enough knowledge, depending on what your purpose is.” Dupuis’ take: “Wikipedia is a good place to get started, get some basic information and a few good links, but you really can’t use it as the last word in a university level paper.”
The New Yorker devoted a long article to Wikipedia in its July 31, 2006 issue: “Know it all” by Stacy Schiff. The article notes the millionth article (in the English edition): an entry on Jordanhill, a railway station in Glasgow. The entry was edited “more than four hundred times by dozens of people” within its first 24 hours on the site. That’s followed by comparisons to Britannica—primarily lots of odd topics that won’t show up in the traditional encyclopedia. (One point: very early Britannicas did include how-to articles, but no more—that’s now a Wikipedia distinction.)
One wonders about “notable” given that “there are detailed entries for each of the twelve finalists on this season’s ‘American Idol’”—could people honestly argue that danah boyd is less notable than the 12th-“best” talent on that show? If “notable” and “popular” are synonymous, the answer’s easy but unfortunate.
It’s an interesting profile, as you’d expect from New Yorker. There are notes on some of the most prodigious contributors (and the snarky comment that “Wikipedia may be the world’s most ambitious vanity press”—which I’d argue is false, given that articles aren’t signed and many contributors use pseudonyms). The project has growing pains: the portion of the site’s content devoted to coordination and discussion has doubled, from 15% in simpler times to 30% (of a much larger whole) in October 2005: “People are talking about governance, not working on content.”
It’s hard not to agree with one pointed remark: “For all its protocol, Wikipedia’s bureaucracy doesn’t necessarily favor truth.” The “neutral point of view” can work against the truth, as demonstrated in one case relating to global warming.
Then there’s Wales. What can you say about this?
Wales has said that he would consider Britannica a competitor, “except that I think they will be crushed out of existence within five years.”
Apparently Wales is also fond of saying “If it isn’t on Google, it doesn’t exist,” so there’s consistency here.
The article is worth reading. David Robinson commented on it in a guest post at Freedom to tinker (July 28, 2006). He noted the article as “a showcase for some of the things old-line publications still do best”—excellent writing and first-rate fact-checking.
When reading Wikipedia, one has to react to surprising claims by entertaining the possibility that they might not be true. The less plausible a claim sounds, the more skepticism one must have when considering it… [I]mplausible or surprising claims in Wikipedia often get taken with a grain or more of salt, and not believed—and on the other hand, plausible-sounding falsehoods are, as a result of their seeming plausibility, less likely to be detected.
In magazines with strong fact-checking groups, it’s not a question of trying hard to get things right: “It means that someone’s job depends on their being right.” Robinson says most Time Inc. magazines use something close to word-for-word fact checking and verification. He concludes, “I am not a Wikipedia denialist. It is, and will continue to be, an important and valuable resource. But the expensive, arguably old fashioned approach of The New Yorker and other magazines still delivers a level of quality I haven’t found, and do not expect to find, in the world of community-created content.”
The September 2006 Atlantic Monthly included an even longer discussion, “The hive” by Marshall Poe. (As with the New Yorker piece, you can find this on the free web.) Poe is one who was being “considered for deletion” (he created a one-line entry on himself), and in the end the entry remained—but that’s just the wrap for a gushing, unbalanced tribute to Wikipedia. He believes it may one day be “the most comprehensive repository of knowledge in human history.” He provides a thoroughly favorable profile of Jimmy Wales, then brings in Larry Sanger. At this point, there’s a remarkable generalization: “Larry Sanger fits the profile of almost every Internet early adopter: he’d been a good student, played Dungeons & Dragons, and tinkered with PCs as a youth.” Played Dungeons & Dragons? As an attribute of “almost every” early Internet user? Give me a break.
A long discussion on the early days of the project concludes with this judgment: “Sanger made two great contributions to Wikipedia: he built it, and he left it.” No Neutral Point of View here!
Where the Atlantic piece goes sour for me is in the section headed “What is Wikipedia?” and continuing to “Common Knowledge.” Poe approvingly says Wikipedia makes truth a matter of current majority opinion: “On Wikipedia, an apple is what the contributors say it is right now… Yes, that means that if the community changes its mind and decides that two plus two equals five, then two plus two does equal five.” Poe characterizes the Nature comparison as saying Britannica articles are “only marginally more accurate” (which Nature didn’t say, and in many areas a 33% difference isn’t marginal), and asserts “it is a widely accepted view that Wikipedia is comparable to Britannica.” Vandalism? No real problem.
Poe reiterates his apparent conclusion that facts—“all nominal information about objects of widely shared experience”—should be a matter of majority rule. “When you want to find out what something is, you will go to Wikipedia, for that is where common knowledge will, by convention, be archived and updated and made freely available.” Which, among other things, means that if all Americans were Wikipedia contributors, evolution would be a myth—since according to the polls I’ve seen, a majority of Americans don’t believe in evolution. And there’s no global warming and we’ll never run out of oil.
So the greatest encyclopedia is one which makes truth a simple matter of majority rule? I find that concept offensive—and I found the article disappointing.
The Wall Street Journal didn’t profile Wikipedia. Instead, it had Jimmy Wales and Dale Hoiberg (editor-in-chief of Britannica) carry on an email debate (September 12, 2006). It’s an odd debate, with Wales disclaiming anti-elitist attitudes and arguing “encyclopedias should not be locked up under the control of a single organization.” Hoiberg questions the notion that “simply having a lot of people freely editing encyclopedia articles produces more balanced coverage” and touts Britannica’s community of more than 4,000 scholars and experts. He responds to Wales’ “locked up” by noting that a free society has many voices—and “a reliable and well-written reference work helps keep the quality of the debate high.”
Wales comes back, “Artificially excluding good people from the process is not the best way to gather accurate knowledge”—but where is the indication that Britannica’s process is “artificial”? Wales claims Britannica “would have a very hard time attracting the kind of talent that we have”—which Hoiberg suggests is ironic, since he suspects Wikipedia doesn’t have more than a hundred Nobel Prize winners as contributors. Wales isn’t being ironic: “Britannica’s contributors, while sometimes distinguished, are relatively few in number as compared to the number of high quality people that Wikipedia is able to rely on.” How does Wales know they’re “high quality”? He provides no evidence—and given the general pseudonymity, it would be hard to do so. In the exchange, Wales makes it clear that he regards Wikipedia as a replacement, not a competitor—he wants Britannica to disappear in favor of his “new model.” He keeps attacking: When Hoiberg says “nothing in [Wikipedia’s] model suggests we should change what we do,” Wales responds “Fitting words for an epitaph.”
Who’s right? David H. Freedman talks about “the idiocy of crowds” in an Inc. piece—not arguing against group efforts, but noting they’re not always the best way to proceed. Wales and Poe don’t regard vandalism as a problem. A Guardian article says “every three seconds a Wikipedia page is rendered inaccurate” (quoting from Freedman’s article).
Larry Sanger helped found Wikipedia. There’s no dispute about that. He’s expressed his unhappiness about Wikipedia’s lack of regard for expertise.
And he’s trying to do something about it. Go to www.citizendium.org; you’ll find the papers discussed below (as opposed to the Many 2 many posts), an FAQ, and if you’re interested that’s the place to watch the project unfold—assuming it does unfold.
Toward a new compendium of knowledge (longer version) is a 12-page essay with elements of manifesto, but mostly hope and design. Sanger’s intrigued by the idea that “Tens of millions of intellectuals can work together, if they so choose” (emphasis in the original). “Whenever I think about this now, I literally quiver with excitement.” He makes an odd prediction:
In the next year, by the end of 2007, every major university, library, museum, archive, professional organization, government, and corporation will be asking themselves with increasing urgency: how, using what systems and methods, can we pool the entire world’s intellectual resources to create the ideal information resource? What worldwide projects and organizations should we join or help to create?
I find that prediction so improbable that—much as I’m intrigued by Sanger’s idea—I can’t take him seriously on that point. Many professional organizations and corporations are essentially incapable of “asking themselves” questions like that, quite apart from governments and other agencies.
Sanger discusses Wikipedia as “an early prototype” of “how [open source hacker] principles should be applied to reference, scholarly, and educational content.” He considers himself a fan of Wikipedia—and wants “to help launch something better, if that’s possible.” He notes a few historical details—including his claim that Nupedia’s history has been told badly. He cites four “serious and endemic problems” with Wikipedia: ineffective and inconsistent rule enforcement, anonymity serving as a troll magnet, insular leadership, and his claim that “this arguably dysfunctional community is extremely off-putting to some of the most potentially valuable contributors, namely, academics.” He finds it likely that Wikipedia “will never escape its amateurism”—indeed, that it’s committed to amateurism. “In an encyclopedia, there’s something wrong with that.”
His solution? Citizendium, a fork of Wikipedia with a messy name that means Citizens’ Compendium. The fork would be “progressive.” It would start by importing all of Wikipedia (which is legal given the GNU Free Documentation License and also, he thinks, “morally permitted”). Then people—experts, he hopes—will start changing Citizendium articles and adding new ones. When refresh sweeps are done to pick up new and modified Wikipedia articles, such articles will only be picked up if there haven’t been changes in the Citizendium version.
He plans three main changes in the editorial process: Inviting experts to serve as editors, requiring that all contributors use their real names and follow a charter, and reversing some of the “feature creep” in Wikipedia. He offers more details for the proposed editorial system and asserts there will not be top-down bureaucratic structures. Insisting on real-name participation and expecting people to follow a brief charter should help avoid trolls, and there will be “constables” to eject “the project’s inevitable, tiresome trolls” based on a clear set of rules. Feature creep? I don’t understand some of this, but he anticipates eliminating subject categories, portal pages, and “user boxes,” and relegating all project news to a single multi-poster blog.
Two other differences are interesting. He insists on a “zero tolerance policy” toward copyright and libel abuses—and anticipates “much more courteous treatment” for living subjects, including (maybe) the ability to “request removal of biographies about themselves—if they are not politicians or other prominent public persons—or even to have a crucial editorial role in the articles about themselves.” Are we not all experts about ourselves? Finally: Citizendium will be called an experimental workspace and compendium. It will require a vote of the project’s governing body/bodies to call it an encyclopedia. “It’s a wiki that aspires to be as good as a real encyclopedia.”
He’d like to see lots of real-world meetings to organize the project, and he’d like to see those meetings in universities and colleges. He plans to organize an English-language project first with others following.
Clay Shirky posted “Larry Sanger, Citizendium, and the problem of expertise” at Many 2 many on September 18, 2006. Shirky’s not much for subtlety: He asserts that Sanger’s opinions are based on three beliefs, then states “All three beliefs are false.” Shirky says experts don’t exist independent of institutions—so much for Albert Einstein, independent scholars, and thousands of others who would generally be considered experts. “You cannot have expertise without institutional overhead.” Later, he says “experts are real,” which seems contradictory. There’s more here, but I was most struck by that odd assertion.
Two days later, Sanger responded (in a guest post, posted in full by Shirky). He accuses Shirky of building a “straw Sanger” by psychologizing about him and showing an “annoying tendency to characterize my assumptions uncharitably and without evidence.” He questions Shirky’s certainty that Citizendium will fail (repeated several times in different ways), “but clearly he badly wants it to fail.” There’s a lot more here (the response is longer than the original post), including a side note that Shirky has his facts about Nupedia wrong. While I find Sanger’s style overwrought at times, in this particular exchange I believe Sanger gets the best of it. Shirky does indeed spout all sorts of certainties and assumptions for which he appears to have no evidence. But I’m hardly an unbiased observer; given Shirky’s overweening insistence that crowds of amateurs are superior to supposed experts (his whole “folksonomy rules!” schtick), I’m surprised to see him claiming to define expertise—except, I suppose, to knock it down.
There’s a second Sanger essay at the Citizendium site, about half the length of the first: “How open collaboration works: an introduction for scholars.” It’s interesting and clarifies that Sanger thinks of scholars—academics—as his prime source of experts. I disagree with Shirky that expertise requires institution, but that assumption may be closer to Sanger’s beliefs based on this paper. Or maybe not: it’s early in the project to read too much into it. The essay explains open source software and why it matters—and how the vision behind open source software can be extended to other forms of collectively owned work. He sees a breakdown between open source software projects (for which, he says, there’s often a small set of “senior developers”) and Wikipedia, which lacks “senior content developers.” “Clearly, the job of applying the OSS model to encyclopedias is unfinished.”
I think it’s time that the editors of the world—meaning academics, scientists, and others whose work essentially involves editing—got involved, not necessarily in Wikipedia, but in similar, suitably altered projects. I want to encourage you scholars, who make it your life’s work to know and teach stuff, to become students of the wonders and beauties of OSS development, and think about how it can be applied to the development of content.
I wonder how many scientists consider themselves editors—or whether this passage indicates Sanger could use an editor. (Yes, I know, I could also use an editor.) That leads into a brief discussion of Citizendium and notes on “promoters of OSS and open content” who say “these projects won’t, or even can’t work.” I won’t quote the stirring paragraph that follows, but here are Sanger’s final two paragraphs:
These well-meaning but wrongheaded promoters of OSS and open content seem to think that open collaboration is a method reserved exclusively to amateurs, students, the “general public,” and so forth.
Let’s prove them wrong.
What’s interesting is how unwilling some folks are to give Sanger that chance. It’s not just Shirky. On September 20, 2006, Nicholas Carr posted “What will kill Citizendium” at Rough type. He’s no great fan of Wikipedia’s current state and calls Shirky’s critique (echoed by Cory Doctorow, surprise, surprise) “top-shelf guff, which reveals…that intellectuals make the very best anti-intellectuals.” But Carr’s still writing off Citizendium before it begins, if for different reasons:
Citizendium’s flaw does not lie in having too much faith in what Shirky dismissively calls “the rugged condition of expertise.” Its flaw lies in not having enough faith in it. By creating a vague bureaucratic system in which experts gain their Citizendium credentials through community certification, Sanger is, in fact, reducing expertise to a social construct and thus rendering it meaningless, or at least turning it into a bone of endless and silly contention. He wants to have it both ways, and as a result will likely do no better than create another Wikipedia: a vast, labyrinthine garden of mediocrity.
That post is followed by a number of lengthy comments, including responses from Carr almost as long as the post itself. Larry Sanger gets involved, noting that the process isn’t set in stone and that it’s a practical process, not a theoretical issue: “What process should be followed for identifying Citizendium editors?” He notes that he’s made one proposal—and wonders what Carr would propose. Carr’s in the business of criticizing, at least here: His only proposal is “You grant intellectual authority by some form of fiat.” In the response, he has “doubt that this solution is going to solve the problems,” which is softer than the forthright “kill” title on the post. Some commenters are more willing to give Sanger a chance.
My own take? Wikipedia continues to be useful (as Sanger agrees) and flawed (in ways that Jimmy Wales can’t accept). Citizendium is an interesting idea that may or may not fly. Traditional encyclopedias aren’t likely to be “crushed” anytime soon.
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