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April 27, 2007


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Peter Naegele

Fresh Air addressed some of these issues about a week ago, and as Colbert stated, it is "more proof of what happens when you bring democracy to information". The humor / irony there being that in a true democracy, the minority have no rights.

With regard to web2.0 and wikipedia, the "majority" is self appointed. The MEME is so far from any representation of a consitutional republic, it is laughable. Unless you meet the artifical social standards of whatever portion of it you atempt to interact with, your voice is silenced.

Now, realize this power is now being paired with major corporations. It has become so bad that I have filtered out all wikipedia results when I use a search engine and I require my students to do so when conducting research as well.

It's the new "1984"...the electronic newspeak if you will. I consider those involved with the project[s] the members of the Inner Party.

"No one is forced to use their language but 'its ubiquitous broadcast creates a pressure to employ it simply in order to communicate economically' (Chilton 37)."
Taken from this site.

Mike Johnson

Interesting comment. I have two major objections.

1. No essay on knowledge, especially one which touches on so many different issues, can be all things to all people.

2. You say, "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."

I was reading closely, and I didn't see you lay out *any* problems for Citizendium. Would you care to elaborate on this?

Mike Johnson
Citizendian, Wikipedian

Scott Leslie

Cogdog highlighted a really useful link the other day, Educational uses of wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:School_and_university_projects), but he also twigged my thinking on this. We need to flip this meme on its head - instead of "oooww, big bad scary wikipedia, how do we keep it out of the classroom," we instead need to start spreading the meme of "how to create competitive advantage for your institution through wikipedia" by which I mean not just exercises like the above, which are simply academia and students participating in wikipedia, but innovating things like greasemonkey scripts (a la http://userscripts.org/tag/wikipedia) that provide a localized institutional experience of wikipedia. So for instance, every reference to a book gets annotated with a link to your local library catalogue, Proper Nouns get annotated with searches of your local DBs. Client-side tools are a way to bring the global (like wikipedia) and the local together, and we should be relishing the ways we can do this instead of fearing it.

Bryan Alexander

Greetings, Mike. Thanks for the quick reply.

To your points:
1. Of course not. I wasn't asking for total coverage. Instead I was specifically criticizing the way Sanger selects examples from a field (such as Web 2.0) that narrow the field far too much. Not touching on the blogosphere is a) very strange, since that's a staple of nearly every Web 2.0 discussion, and b) helps explain his poor understanding of the role of experts and hyperlinking (see later on in the post).

2. I tried to focus on Sanger's essay, most of which doesn't describe the Citizendium itself. I addressed the other issues he raised, which are theoretical, or apply to other projects, such as the Wikipedia. But I do think the problems in Sanger's account of knowledge should map in some way, perhaps roughly, onto how his Citizendium will develop, since they must inform his editorial and public strategies. I was initially going to leave this as an exercise for the reader, but want to start that ball rolling now. So, to take my points in order:
-ignoring the blogosphere - if Sanger doesn't recognize the established role of public intellectual bloggers, perhaps the 'endium will have a similar blind spot. This may mean a failure to link to or otherwise engage with sources such as Glenn Reynolds, PZ Myers, Juan Cole, etc. Missing RSS is a different problem. On the one hand, it should be trivial to set up feeds for entries and policies. On the other, Citizendium might miss an opportunity to not engage with RSS, as in publishing OPML files, identifying useful feeds, even aggregating such content.
-historical background - if the Citizendium wishes to engage with the history of information, a poor understanding of that subject doesn't bode well for strategy, innovation, or practice.
-elitism - this can easily become part of the 'endium's identity or ethos. I can return to why this is a problem.
-attention - if Sanger doesn't see this as a leading issue, it's a good question if his Citizendium will develop strategies for caring for the bottom 20% of articles.
-hypertext - will the Citizendium use this approach? Will we see articles referencing the riches of the web, and those links maintained? Will the project allow deep linking? Will it link internally in useful ways? Again, Sanger's failure to address this doesn't breed optimism.

For my last point, which was a criticism not of Sanger or Wales, but of higher education, I suspect we'll see academics prefer to edit the Citizendium over the Wikipedia. If this happens, it will be in part a reaction to the 'pedia's awful reputation in education, and also because of the Citizendium's celebration of credentialism (and, on a related level, elitism).


I wrote Larry Sanger a while back telling him that I thought he was misguided in his attempts and that it would be unlikely, because of current academic institutional structures, that he would get huge buy-in from faculty. It looks as though he has quite a few faculty members on board, looking through the editorial list, but there are non-faculty as well. It's hard to say how much faculty will be involved. And since when were faculty any less likely to make mistakes than regular people?

Another thing I noticed in looking through about a dozen articles is that much of the content so far is taken whole hog from the wikipedia (with credit). If the wikipedia is so bad, why is it good enough to start from for this project?

And to respond to Peter, what majority is self appointed? And what about the way that the mainstream media determines what information we get. How are they not the inner party and the people involved in wikipedia, or those of us out there blogging are? It sounds like you're setting up your own inner party by not allowing your students access to all the information out there. Instead, shouldn't you encourage them to learn to assess information, no matter its source? Education is not about dictating what one can and can't do, but about helping students learn to determine that for themselves.

Mike Johnson

Hi Bryan,

Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Regarding the first point, on Larry's essay, I'll be honest. I thought it got a lot of interesting points across, but I found it geared toward a particular audience (as you say, not the blogosphere) and I didn't think it was among Larry's best.

On the second point, regarding Citizendium, I'll lay my cards on the table: I'm on the executive committee of Citizendium. Also, from working with him for the past half year, I have loads of confidence in Larry. I do see what you're saying about "ignoring the blogosphere"-- and we have plans to engage such bloggers, but we just haven't had the time yet. Wait a few months and we'll hopefully have more great dialogues with bloggers going. We do have some already (http://blog.citizendium.org/).

On the point about RSS, it is on our tech team's to-do list. What do you see as particularly important about how we should implement RSS?

On elitism, we're all sensitive to this issue. I suppose the proof will be in the pudding. Speaking as a 26-year-old with 'just' a BA, I like how things are going so far.

On the attention issue, I think our workgroup structure will do a really great job at caring for the bottom 20% of articles. Every article is 'assigned' to at least one workgroup, so I think there's little danger of articles falling through the cracks in the long term. At least relative to Wikipedia.

We have a lot of plans re: hypertext that have been discussed on the forums.

I'm most interested in following up with your point about RSS-- what would you like to see?

peter naegele

And to respond to Peter, what majority is self appointed?

The "designers" of web2.0 are self appointed. They have deemed what is allowable by only their presence.

And what about the way that the mainstream media determines what information we get. How are they not the inner party and the people involved in wikipedia, or those of us out there blogging are?

The mainstream media are there to report what they observe, although they rarely do that. Be that as it may, those involved with those organizations are held to some accountability. The web holds little to no accountability...which is fantastic.....but one has to realize this BEFORE utilizing it.
Wikipedia and bloggers present themselves as an authority without ANY accountability. Yet, they believe they are "1337"...above the rest of society, beyond reproach without any evidence of having achieved this position.

It sounds like you're setting up your own inner party by not allowing your students access to all the information out there. Instead, shouldn't you encourage them to learn to assess information, no matter its source? Education is not about dictating what one can and can't do, but about helping students learn to determine that for themselves.

When I taught my daughter why fire is dangerous, I didn’t do it by giving her a pack of matches and gasoline. Similarly, I don’t subject my students to misinformation then give them poor grades when they utilize it. These are children struggling to be adults, they need guidance, not trickery and nonsense.

Your Inner Party is already in place…..just back read the comments of Scott Leslie. RESISTANCE IS FUTILE! YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED!

Dave Rickey

When I think of what I could have done with access to Wikipedia in my teens, I weep that I was born 20 years too soon. Although I find it an invaluable resource (certainly more useful, on a broader array of subjects, than any professionally produced encyclopedia), I fear that I lack the plasticity of mind I had then. In my teens, I would have tried to read the whole thing, as impossible as that would have been.

Is Wikipedia a good place to depend on for your entire knowledge of a subject, if depth is needed? Of course not, it gives an overview, nothing more. If you want deep knowledge, you need to "drill down" into the footnotes, the references, the related subjects. If real understanding is neccessary, you may need to buy some actual books, if expertise is required you might actually have to attend some classes.

What frightens many in academia is the idea that they are now the *last* resort for knowledge, not the first. Most of what they know, no non-specialist needs.

Also, academia's "Publish or Perish" environment, where the measure of your worth is what you have published, and how often that work has been cited in the published works of others, has created a sort of "ancestor worship" cult. You can't go wrong by looking up the published work of your professor and citing the same sources in your work. Almost guaranteed to pull your grade up a full point.

Wikipedia articles have no individual authors, and tend to cite the most important, foundational published work, with a strong bias towards what is available online. The 99%+ of "published" articles that appear in journals that are not read by anyone without a direct connection to the author, and are never placed online, do not exist for practical purposes to readers of Wikipedia.

If they want more in-depth material, they are unlikely to track down these dusty periodicals, forgoing them for the instantly available online materials. And the 99% of "published" material that is, really, redundant variations on a theme is simply ignored.

It's a ruthless environment for separating the wheat from the chaff, and this goes directly against the academic culture, where each bit of that chaff represents a precious jewel to someone, somewhere, if only because they wrote it.

True, buried in that flood of words generated by a million grad-student monkeys in servitude to their tenured masters are some true undiscovered nuggets of wisdom. But that's where blogs come in, ideas can be shared freely and set off ripples of awareness. Small ideas don't spread far, and since academic careers are built on stacking up small ideas until they look like an impressive edifice, this is terrifying to them.

They could at least *pretend* that somewhere out there, in the deep recesses of a university library, some student would stumble across their work and figure that *this* was a source obscure enough that their professor wouldn't have a pre-conceived opinion about it, and then use it. In blogs, no such illusion can persist.


Dave Rickey

The major problem with the Sanger piece is simple: It's a blatant strawman argument. He defines an ideology that he labels "dabblerism", the key aspect of which is a *rejection* of credentialed authority precisely because it's credentialed. He then goes on to explain why rejection of expertise because it comes with credentials attached is a logical fallacy, and so it is, but it isn't one that Wikipedia actually engages in.

He also fixates on the error rate, in terms that makes it clear he assumes that any comprehensive review will show that Wikipedia is highly inaccurate, *and* that such a finding will completely invalidate any social value from Wiki. He's completely mistaken.

Wikipedia is all about "good enough" levels of detail and accuracy. Errors are expected, finding them simply causes them to be corrected. Expert knowledge isn't spurned, rather it is elevated. You can be an expert and still be wrong. In Wikipedia, those editing an article probably don't even know *who* they are correcting, finding out requires persuing the changelogs. So there's no recriminations for error unless you're so systematically and consistently wrong somebody does the legwork to establish you're an idiot.

People who use Wikipedia are used to the idea that anything they read on the web may be inaccurate. Wikipedia actually rates *higher* in reliability than those sources, and that's what they are comparing to. As far as other, expert-produced encyclopedias are concerned, Wikipedia is much more comprehensive than they can ever hope to be. It's *hard* to find a coherent subject that Wikipedia doesn't have articles focusing on.

Credentialed authority isn't used to being corrected by lesser beings, even when they're wrong. It's a humiliation for them to watch their words, their intellectual product, butchered and snipped and re-arranged. I myself can't make the leap to Wikis, it's too non-linear and I find it impossible to maintain a coherent stream of logic with other people chopping it up. But I recognize the value of the results.


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