Launching his Citizendium*, Larry Sanger offers a manifesto at Edge. He lays out an intellectual apparatus supporting the 'endium, and builds up an argument to lure readers away from the Wikipedia. It's a flawed, strange, unnecessarily difficult essay, but a useful one, in part for its flaws.
One interesting gap in Sanger's argument is his failure to address the blogosphere. He references blogs only three times, doesn't engage at all with them despite being useful for nearly every point of his argument, and actively avoids them at key points, like this one:
it is absolutely true that dabbleristic (if you will), expert-spurning content creation systems can create amazing things. That's what Web 2.0 is all about. While many might sneer at these productions generally, Web 2.0 has created some quite useful and interesting websites. Wikipedia and YouTube aren't popular for nothing, and for many people they are endlessly fascinating.
Setting aside the condescension (see below), Sanger's focus on aggregation-oriented "websites" as sources doesn't really apply the the many-millions-sourced blogosphere. This is where his dichotomy of experts vs Web 2.0 falls apart, since many bloggers are experts, and blog precisely from that standpoint. Consider public intellectuals, researchers, critics, and teachers, just for starters. It is, in fact, the disunity, the multiplicity of the blogosphere which enables so many points of attraction; there is no site. Instead the blogosphere offers distributed conversations and filtering. Hence the usefulness of RSS in letting individuals aggregate and work between these many points - and notice the absence of RSS in Sanger's piece?
Notice, too, that Sanger doesn't say much about people enjoying the publication platforms represented by Web 2.0. Instead the content presented there exerts a fascination, the allure of a shiny object to which one does not contribute.
A different problem comes from the historical background Sanger evokes. He offers a model of ancient hierarchical domination of knowledge early on in the essay, seeing it advance up to something like the present day. As Nicholas Carr snarls,
If elites were tightly controlling "what we know" for the past few centuries, they were certainly doing a clumsy job of it...
Moreover, Sanger's historical model isn't merely inaccurate and simplistic, but based on an unsurprising, even predictable elitism:
What's most appalling is the way it presents "we" - by which I assume Sanger means the entirely imaginary claylike mass of undifferentiated beings that to him and others of his ilk represents mankind - as being dumb receptor valves entirely without imagination or a capacity for free thought. If from the Enlightenment to the present, "we" were spoonfed "what we know" by some central cabal of elitist gatekeepers bent on thought control, then why are we - or, more precisely, were we - so smart?
Along those lines, the R.U. Sirius podcast caught a similar condescension in an earlier passage:
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.
"Is that the kids' table, Larry?" one speaker laughed on the podcast.
Sanger also commits the far too popular error of conflating wikis in general with the Wikipedia case. Quoting James Surowiecki, "An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with," Sanger claims that "that's exactly what happens on wikis, and on Wikipedia." Larry, that describes some wikis, but not all. Some wikis are closed, or single-authored, or group-authored, in ways which promote writing in ways other than consensus. How many have you seen?
Furthermore, one of the great problems of Web 2.0 is the fate of content which doesn't receive attention. The famous Siegenthaler entry, for example, became a problem in part because nobody bothered to read or edit it. It wasn't consensus, but lack of attention, and hence no operation of the wisdom of crowds, that led to the persistence of hoax content. This is very much a problem, especially for academia. Citizendium might offer some fixes for that, but Sanger doesn't offer any sign of seeing this possibility.
Sanger's essay falls prey to another historical problem. Despite it being a decades-old movement, the driver of the World Wide Web, with large numbers of academic objects attached to it (conferences, journals, scholarly articles and books), hypertext remains a problem for academia. We aren't sure how to handle the literacy of hyperlinks. We like to built information architectures which keep people from linking outwards, or just make it damned hard to do.
If Wikipedians actually believe that the credibility of articles is improved by citing things written by experts, will it not improve them even more if people like the experts cited are given a modest role in the project? And, on the other hand, if (somehow) it is not the fact that the cited references were created by experts, one has to wonder what the references are for. They have a mysterious, talismanic value, apparently. It seems that we all know that footnotes makes articles much more credible—but why? Whatever the reason, Wikipedians wouldn't want to say that it's because the people cited are credible authorities on their subjects.
That "mysterious, talismanic value" is simply the old, useful practice of hypertextual contextualization. That's foundational to the Web, both 1.0 and 2.0 (but not the 3d Web so far!). We can rely on the great work of experts, in short, without setting up hierarchies internal to our projects.
One last point: Sanger fails to offer a good answer to the challenge Wikipedia presents to academia, which is to participate in it. When I meet with other academics (professors, librarians, other campus staff) and read academic writing (cf the Chronicle, home of "internet: threat or menace?" journalism), they often speak of the Wikipedia as something wholly external, an object to behold, shun, or examine with goggles affixed to eyes lest they be injured by exposure.
What rarely comes up is the possibility of editing the thing, which would address many of the problems Sanger raises and suffers from. If one half of the United States professoriate and half the grad students - not all, just 50% - spent five minutes every year in one or two entries in their fields, surely the result would be an improved Wikipedia.
Take five minutes, folks, from a faculty meeting, or a committee, or a Friday afternoon, to check in on an entry concerning a topic to which you have devoted your adult life. Tweak a sentence for clarity. Add a line. Jump into the discussion of an article. Link to a single scholarly source you trust. Pick an entry which looks like it hasn't received as much attention as the others. Five minutes a year can't be too much to ask. Imagine the aggregate improvement for the Wikipedia, and, in turn, for the vast numbers of people who use
it. If we can't see the latter as a good, why on earth have any of us selected academia as a field?
I'm still going to follow the 'endium, in part because it is exercising an attraction on academics. But I suspect the problems I've laid out here will appear and shape the project's developmental arc.
*"Citizendium": the awkwardness of this name has come up nearly every time I've heard it spoken aloud. I wonder if those involved in the project will embrace the goofy sound, as various Web 2.0 proponents have done for their names.