Internet

Who Gets a Seat at the Table? (and Other Mixed Metaphors)

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Some deepthink on online encyclopedias from Larry Sanger, founder of the new Wikipedia competitor, Citizendium. Sanger wants a larger role for experts in his project:

As it turns out, our many Web 2.0 revolutionaries have been so thoroughly seized with the successes of strong collaboration that they are resistant to recognizing some hard truths. As wonderful as it might be that the hegemony of professionals over knowledge is lessening, there is a downside: our grasp of and respect for reliable information suffers. With the rejection of professionalism has come a widespread rejection of expertise—of the proper role in society of people who make it their life's work to know stuff. This, I maintain, is not a positive development; but it is also not a necessary one. We can imagine a Web 2.0 with experts. We can imagine an Internet that is still egalitarian, but which is more open and welcoming to specialists. The new politics of knowledge that I advocate would place experts at the head of the table, but—unlike the old order—gives the general public a place at the table as well.

Sanger's language here ("gives the general public a place at the table") has the feeling of closing the stable door after the horses have gotten out. To mix (and brutally abuse) metaphors: The public already owns the table. Sanger is just buying another table, reserving the best seats for the credentialed, and hoping the public will come sit at it anyway. And they might. May the best encyclopedia win.

For his part, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales says he's not anti-elitist, but cops to being "perhaps anti-credentialist. To me the key thing is getting it right. And if a person's really smart and they're doing fantastic work, I don't care if they're a high school kid or a Harvard professor; it's the work that matters…. You can't coast on your credentials on Wikipedia…. You have to enter the marketplace of ideas and engage with people."

(Keep an eye out for this, and much much more in my upcoming profile of Wales in the next issue of the print magazine)

Read the whole (long) essay at Edge.org. (The site, which claims to close the gap between science-types and literary intellectuals, is full of similarly interesting essays from people you have almost heard of.)

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  1. To me the key thing is getting it right.

    Yes, right, very good. Now, who gets to decide who’s “getting it right”? Because that’s where your whole credentialed hegemony comes from.

  2. Every day I “do my part” by spending 20 minutes or so visiting random articles on Wikipedia and checking for vandalism, spelling errors, grammatical errors, and other obvious stuff that can be seen and corrected in a matter of seconds. That’s not even getting into whether the information is correct or properly referenced. Still, I have to make corrections to about 25% of the articles I visit.

    Now, I’m pro-Wikipedia, but it does have some serious quality problems, which it makes up for by being free of charge and also being more up to date than a traditional encyclopedia. If Citizendium can combine all the good traits of Wikipedia with the reliability of Britannica, I’m all for it.

  3. “Now, who gets to decide who’s “getting it right””

    The climax blues band?
    (with a little help from Laurel and Hardy)
    hier

  4. In science we have sort of a continuous credentialing process, separate from degrees: Peer review of articles. Basically, a peer reviewer looks at an article and asks whether the data shown supports the claims being made. Yeah, it has its politics, some reviewers have no clue what they’re talking about (not that I’m bitter or anything), and it’s certainly not perfect. Still, the ability to report results that clear the hurdle of peer review is a sign of scientific accomplishment.

    There are indeed people with little or no formal training who nonetheless publish in the peer-reviewed literature, and there are plenty of people with doctorates who publish little or nothing. The ability to produce works that clear the hurdle of peer review is one process by which we identify continuing accomplishment.

    Another process that we use in this electronic age is citation rankings of papers, counting the number of times that a peer reviewed paper is cited as an indicator of whether other people found the results useful and relevant to their work. (It isn’t perfect, of course, since there are good works that get ignored, and bad works that get cited in the “Previously, researchers thought blah blah blah (reference 1), but now we know better (reference 2)” section of the paper. But it’s something.)

  5. Does that have a great deal of applicability to online encyclopedias, though, Thoreau? I’m not sure I follow.

  6. Wikipedia article quality is cyclical. Some expert comes along and fixes an article, then a bunch of idiots mess it up, another expert comes along…an ancient, long forgotten version of an article may be superior to the current version. It’s a very inefficient process. Nevertheless, it sort of works.

  7. Eric-

    I think the application would be that you could judge expertise by whether somebody’s writing things that are accepted by reviewers. Identify the best people currently contributing to online encyclopedias and ask them to vet submissions. Those whose vetted submissions are well-received can then join the community of reviewers.

    It isn’t a perfect means of identifying good sources, but it’s a start.

  8. I will say that Wikipedia’s vision of anti-elitism is rather…elitist. They’re (faintly) famous for expunging detailed, interesting articles on such things as webcomics if the subject of the article isn’t sufficiently famous enough by rather arbitrary standards, while having individual articles on episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or lightsaber combat, or “you know, that species that appeared in that one episode of Voyager, the one with the funny nose and/or forehead”.

  9. That’s an interesting idea, Thoreau, though it sounds a bit reminiscent of the karma system Slashdot was using back when I last followed it. I was one of the people who got an absurd amount of karma, but it didn’t seem to make the site much smarter.

    Of course, at the scale of articles and not comments in threads, it might work better. I’d certainly be interested in such an encyclopedia site.

  10. …has come a widespread rejection of expertise…

    credentials are over-rated, expertise is not.

  11. …the subject of the article isn’t sufficiently famous enough by rather arbitrary standards…

    Wiki keeps trying to bounce my cousin, who is arguably one of the 10 most knowledgeable Mac guys in the world and the Editor in Chief at Mac Publishing because he isn’t sufficiently famous enough.

    They never try that stuff with Nick Gillespie. Course he’s from New Jersey and everybody knows that everyone from NJ is packing heat.

    On another note, I was against Wikipedia at first but I have grown rather fond of the endeavor over time.

  12. I’m perfectly happy to listen to any expert in any field, so long as he doesn’t contradict my preconceived notions.

  13. I think Wikipedia’s great for random facts and things that aren’t remotely controversial. Its lousy when it comes to anything controversy or bias can play a part in.

  14. if you need to know about a tv show or whatever, it’s definitely the place to go.

  15. …everybody knows that everyone from NJ is packing heat.

    TWC! You should be ashamed, tarring so many people with that broad brush stereotype. tsk tsk tsk.

    Everybody knows its the people from New Jersey wearing leather jackets what carry a rod.

  16. if you need to know about a tv show or whatever, it’s definitely the place to go.

    Though, (random plug), the TV Tropes Wiki is fun if you want to read about or discuss dramatic/comedic devices in TV writing.

  17. Warren,

    Sorry. I learned everything I know about New Jersey from Stephanie Plum and everybody she knows is packing.

    TWC

  18. Wikipedia – good place to find out what episode of Sealab 2021 has the captain stuck under a pop machine…and that is about it.

  19. “You can’t coast on your credentials on Wikipedia”

    No, but you can make them the fuck up and then make an even bigger ass out of yourself by equating the use of a pseudonym with the claiming of credentials one doesn’t have.

  20. I know it’s become net.chic to hate on Wikipedia, but come frickin on. If you’re doing serious research, it’s a good place to start, and find more reliable sources on a topic. Of course you shouldn’t cite a Wikipedia article in your master’s thesis, or probably even in your 6th grade research paper. Its purpose is not to be an unimpeachable source of wisdom, but rather a free, easy way to broaden your knowledge and perhaps introduce you to a topic that you can then explore further with more reliable sources.

    Jimmy Wales put it best when he said that Wikipedia should be the beginning of your research, not the end.

  21. “You can’t coast on your credentials on Wikipedia…. You have to enter the marketplace of ideas and engage with people.”

    That’s sort of the break through that lead empiricism in the first place.

  22. crimethink,

    Well put.

  23. For several years now, someone who a friend knows has had a fake organization listed in WP as if it were a real organization.

    Oh, and don’t forget your code.

  24. It just goes to show that you always have to be careful with a “point Oh” release. I’m going to wait until they work out the bugs and hopefully Web 2.1 won’t suck quite so bad.

  25. “I’m perfectly happy to listen to any expert in any field, so long as he doesn’t contradict my preconceived notions.”

    A M E N

  26. Wikipedia article quality is cyclical. Some expert comes along and fixes an article, then a bunch of idiots mess it up, another expert comes along

    Or you can cut out the middleman and get dueling experts.

    It’s a very inefficient process. Nevertheless, it sort of works.

    Something like evolution.

  27. I use wikipedia often while doing real day to day science. It’s supremely useful. A couple of days ago I needed to know the first three Legendre polynomials. I could have dug out my Mathmatical Methods for Physicists or my undrgrad QM text, but wikipedia is sitting right there. Sure, it probably sucks for contentious things, but so does most media. When you take out all the grist, you are left with something bland and useless; like an elementary school history book.

  28. I’ve had similar experiences, pigwiggle. If I need some mathematical tidbit (e.g. a special function like you needed, or a trigonometric identity), googling for the required fact is just as fast as digging out a book, and frequently wikipedia is a good site.

    Wolfram Research also has good pages of math facts.

  29. I posted something here about the “coincidence” that Scientology (Clearwater) and the Wikimedia Foundation (St. Petersburg) are located in the same county. Now my posting is gone. Proof!

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