Thinking about Citizendium and Wikipedia: Part 1

I must be Confused. I’ve never been tempted to give my bank account details to strangers telling me they will pay me gazillions to help them embezzle whole countries. I’ve never thought that I could win lotteries without buying tickets, particularly lotteries from countries I’d never heard of. I haven’t fallen for the rest of the Fear and Greed plays that make up most of the spam I get, I am not interested in artificial aids to improve who I am and what I am.

And I am not unusual. I don’t actually know a single person who has fallen for the Nigerian letter scam or sent off for spurious lottery wins.

Spam is an irritant. Not a terminal toxin.  What’s all this to do with Citizendium or with Wikipedia? Let me take you on a little trip into a land of fairy tales.

Imagine someone coming to you and saying “You know what? We’re going to solve your spam problem for you. What we’re going to do, we’re going to set up this small committee that looks into every e-mail you get, and we’re only going to send you the ones we think are OK. Oh, and by the way, don’t worry about who’s going to be on this committee and how they get there. After all, we know best.

Imagine someone coming to you and saying “You know what? We’re sick and tired of all the mistakes we see in the news you read. You never know where the news has been, who else has used it. So we’re going to help you. We’re going to set up this small committee, you see, and we’re going to go through all the bits of news that might ever get to you. And we’re only going to let you see the bits we think are OK. Oh, and by the way….. After all, we know best.

Imagine someone coming to you and saying “You know what? She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy; I said, be careful, his bowtie is really a camera. We’re really worried about all the blogs you read, all the feeds you get, all the sites you visit. So we’re going to help you…..After all, we know best.”

Imagine someone coming to you and saying “You know what? You have no idea what you might find when you go searching. Ooh baby baby it’s a wild world …. just remember there’s a lot of bad and beware…You need your searching filtered. So we’re going to help you…..After all, we know best.

After all, we know best. Trust me, I’m a doctor. Would I lie to you? Where is my second-hand furniture salesman when I need one?

There are many things that are wrong with Wikipedia, many things that we can make better. And there are many people out there who know a lot more than I do about this, so I’ll let them speak.

I know one thing. I’m a lot more worried about The Cult of The Expert than I am about The Cult Of The Amateur.

We’ve had the Cult Of The Expert for centuries now. And we’ve seen how and why it breaks down, why it fails. Small groups of experts can be “gamed”, often without realising it. Experts can be bought, often just for the price of a little ego-stroking. Experts don’t like admitting they’re wrong. The worst kind of groupthink is when a bunch of experts get together. Experts have more to lose, like their status. Which is why they fight so hard to retain it.

Of course this is not true of all experts. There is much to be said for expertise. But there is also much to be said for amateurs. Passionate, unbiased, unbuyable. Willing to admit to their errors. Less prone to ego. Less hung up about losing. Or winning.

Linus’s Law is a very powerful thing. Given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow. When we see things that are wrong with Wikipedia, the solution is to fix it, not to create a new form of corruption.

I could be wrong. Citizendium may become the most wonderful thing since sliced bread. [I shall resist the temptation to say: For people who like being told which side of their bread is buttered, by people who like deciding which side of the bread should be buttered.]

After all, they know best. 

As for me, I like my inputs unfiltered. I like choosing whose opinion I will listen to, whose recommendations matter to me. I like my facts and my history and my news and my feeds and my searches and my music and my literature and my films and my everything to come to be like a river, as I think Dave Winer first suggested.

And when I have this river firehose elephantine thingie coming at me, I will use friends and their recommendations and their comments and their opinions to cut out the stuff I don’t want and to point to the stuff I do want. Collaborative filtering is a beautiful thing.

And if that looking glass gets broke, Papa’s gonna buy me a billy goat. A billy goat called tagging and folksonomies.
I don’t think this way because I have a hang-up about experts. It’s something more basic than that. My nose twitches. I get goosebumps and collywobbles. I start saying to myself, beware the Jubjub bird and shun the frumious Bandersnatch.

As I said earlier, there’s a lot to be said for experts and for expertise. You may think I’m being unfair to experts in general, and you’d be right.

Let me put it this way: We have a choice of being unfair to experts or unfair to amateurs. From what I can see, the experts have had their turn and it didn’t work. So now maybe it’s the amateurs’ turn.

But what do I know? After all, I am Confused.

[My next post in this series is going to be about Citizendium, Wikipedia and Vendor Relationship Management (VRM). Or, more particularly, why the Cult Of The Expert militates against VRM, and why it was responsible for giving us that appalling concoction CRM in the first place. You have been warned. Do adjust your sets.]

23 thoughts on “Thinking about Citizendium and Wikipedia: Part 1”

  1. Stephanie, Shel, nice to see you here.

    We used to listen to a lot of music when I was growing up, both recorded as well as live. So I can’t help it when the allusions and references come in….

    You’re right, Shel. In the end that’s what it boils down to, I guess.

    But I live in hope. I can still remember the general elections in India in 1977, at the end of the Emergency. The opposition, who’d been locked up in jail for the previous 18 months or so, were so busy crying “Fix! Fix!” that they forgot to look at the results. The only party to have won ANY elections in a free India, Congress, lost. By a long way. Candidates who’d spent the entire campaign in jail, won. Even the Prime Minister lost her seat.

    Why? Because the system couldn’t be gamed. The subject of a longer post sometime.

  2. JP, this is a case where the source of your confusion sits there, plain as day, in your concluding words (right after the colon, to be specific). You seem to thing that it all boils down to making a CHOICE, as if one side is right and the other wrong. The best way to dissolve this particular conclusion is to recognize that we have to be EQUALLY SKEPTICAL of both experts and amateurs: NEITHER can be given CARTE BLANCHE authority (nor, for that matter, can it be given to those who value skepticism above all else)!

    You write as if you were desperately seeking authority; but authority is always so context-dependent that it will always be evanescent and transient. All you really need is the capacity to be a critical reader. The Web provides you that capacity by way of resources, but you still have to commit your own precious time to drawing upon those resources in the interests of being a good reader.

    Linus’ Law is another fortune-cookie triviality. The important proposition is Coleman’s finding that the crowd is neither mad nor wise all the time. Rather, it is subject to the micro-to-macro problem, which is the lack of any universal model that explains the transition from individual behavior to group behavior.

    Critical reading is not an easy matter. It reminds me of a line from THE LAST UNICORN: You never know if you succeed, but you certainly known when you fail. It also reminds me that reading is not about taking sides. It is about being better informed about the world in which I have been situated, in the hope that the information will enable me to make more effective decisions about what I do in that situation.

  3. You’re right. Stephen. It should not boil down to a choice between experts and amateurs. But the Cult of the Expert is so entrenched that some corrective action may be necessary. In principle I take your point, nevertheless.

    I haven’t felt that I am “desperately seeking authority”, I’d be intrigued to know why you felt that. What I do feel is that I am not-necessarily-right, and maybe that shows up as “seeking authority”.

    When Doc Searls first talked to me about blogs being provisional, I learnt something important for myself. Being unsure is a useful prerequisite for learning. I guess that’s why I like the Bacon quote on doubts and certainties so much.

  4. JP
    Having only recently come across your blog, this is the first entry I read as soon as you posted it. My first thought was “Is he getting at me?. ” But, of course, that would be pretty pompous on my part!

    I grew the businesses of both “Holway” and “Ovum” over the last twenty years on the premise that there was a need for expert ICT analysis which did, indeed, filter the many information sources and provide a considered view on what was actually going on now, with views on what might happen in the future. The “proof of concept” was the success of the company. So successful that we reluctantly succumbed to a bid from Datamonitor 9 months back at a price with which our shareholders were rather overjoyed. For me, losing my “baby” it was perhaps the saddest day of my life…so far.

    In 1996 I started a daily news and comment service on the internet. I will continue to brag that Hotnews was the first UK tech blog – until someone tells me otherwise! Now there are 60m blogs (Source – Blogsphere) and I estimate, of these, around 50,000 are reasonably serious tech blogs. The Facebook group Technology Journalists (if you look at its members, they are well known writers from the FT, Guardian, Businessweek, WSJ etc) recently had a discussion on the “Best Tech Blog” ie the ones that they, as journalists read. I lost count when the list topped 100 with Techcrunch, engadget etc getting multiple mentions.

    I have recently made a personal investment in Market Clusters which produces StrategyEye each day. Their software “scraps” around 30,000 of these blogs and 20,000 other tech news sources to give you a helping of news, rumour, deals etc in the Web 2.0 space. They seem to be doing well.

    You say “We have a choice of being unfair to experts or unfair to amateurs. From what I can see, the experts have had their turn and it didn’t work. So now maybe it’s the amateurs’ turn.”

    My view would be exactly the opposite. Not only do I think that some experts did work but I also think the experts are needed more today than they ever were. The sheer volume of “stuff” that gets thrown at you in the ICT world seems to be growing out of control. Find a “trusted expert” to filter it for you and serve up a neat “this is what it means to you”.

    But of course it all depends on which “trusted expert” you use!

  5. Richard, I think the key word you use is “trust”. Relationship before conversation before transaction. Your model with Holway and Ovum worked because of your relationships, the investment you made in them, the trust that people placed in you and your team(s) as a result.

    Your expertise helps you make better recommendations, helps you achieve a higher rating/reputation with your friends/customers.

    But people buy what you have to sell because they have a relationship with you and they trust you, not because you have expertise.

    The expertise is necessary but not sufficient in my opinion. You need the trust.

  6. Larry, thanks for this. I think that I’m closer to the middle way approach as well, and for sure I am not a fan of Andrew Keen. I have no doubt of your intentions, by the way …. otherwise you would not have been a co-founder of Wikipedia.

    I try not closing my mind. Sometimes I get that wrong as well. I look forward to reading your middle view manifesto and the other references.

    I’ve tended to believe in a community participation rule of thumb which I’ve blogged about a few times, which roughly translates to:

    * For every 1000 people who join a community:
    * 920 are lurkers, passive observers
    * 60 are watchers, active observers capable and willing to kibitz
    * 15 are activists, actually doing something
    * …and 5 are hyperactive, passionate about what they’re doing, almost to a point of obsession

    So I’m comfortable with the idea of a community have some people more equal than others. What I guess I’m pushing back against is the Cult of the Expert. You could say I’m “not Keen” on it.

    Thanks for coming back to me by commenting here. I tend to read every reference people make here in comments.

    By the way, I’m not a combative commenter either, so I don’t intend a He Said She Said session. If Citizendium has managed to avoid the traditional risks of elitism then I wish it well. And I’ll post about your response rather than just leave it in the comments.

  7. JP, I felt you were “desperately seeking authority” because you expressed that need to choose between “being unfair to experts or unfair to amateurs.” Does not that choice reflect a need for a criterion that determines which Web pages can be taken as authoritative? My position is that such a (positivist?) criterion is a myth based on the positivist assumption that all interpretation can be reduced to the denotation of symbols (which, you should know by now, I also take to be a myth).

    Personally, I suspect you are making much ado about not very much. The Cult of the Expert is no more “entrenched” than is the Wisdom of Crowds (or Keen’s Cult of the Amateur). These are all slogans of evangelists that probably have very little to do with the “hard data” of where eyeballs go on the Internet and what they do when they get there (whether it involves shopping or making strategic business decisions). Perhaps the best way to deal with this particular confusion is to take Volaire’s advice at the end of CANDIDE: Each of us should work our own garden in the hope that it will yield enough to sustain us.

  8. JP .. love where you are going with this and earlier musings.

    I too am especially intrigued by VRM. Just wrote a long piece on it tonight as a matter of fact.

    I am especially intrigued about VRM and its potential to bridge the gap between frustrated people (formerly known as consumers), and information noise/overload, (formerly known as marketing). We need filters.

  9. Colin, the skeptical doubter in me wonders whether ANY filter (no matter how well it performs “to spec”) entails the risk of undermining my aforementioned “capacity to be a critical reader.” While I did not mention it explicitly, that capacity includes a capacity for triage; and I think I mean that in the literal sense of dividing reading matter in to what requires sustained reflective attention, what should be skimmed, and what should be chucked with barely a glance (if any). Some of us learned how to do this sort of thing through our experiences with the Sunday edition of THE NEW YORK TIMES, but now we seem to have become convinced that the scale is so massive that we need technology to do it for us. I agree about the scale, and I agree that there is a role for technology. However, I believe that every individual should still assume the personal responsibility of committing to doing his or her own triage. Otherwise, I fear the risk of mind rot is too great:

    http://therehearsalstudio.blogspot.com/2007/08/death-of-communication.html

  10. I just found a nice passage that takes a slightly different approach to my skeptical position. The author is Ian I. Mitroff. The source is his paper, “A Communication Model of Dialectical Inquiring Systems—A Strategy for Strategic Planning.” Here is the first paragraph of the “Concluding Remarks.”

    In this paper, we have tried to argue for a fundamental principle that is basic (or should be) to all inquiry, i.e., that ONE ONLY STANDS TO UNDERSTAND AN ISSUE, ANY ISSUE, WHEN HE HAS WITNESSED THE STRONGEST POSSIBLE KIND OF DEBATE TAKE PLACE ON THAT ISSUE. In this age of complex problems where no man can possibly hope to master all fields of inquiry, we are constantly being asked to rely on, to trust, or to have faith in this or that ‘expert.’ But in an age where all issues cut across expertise and where the consequences of believing in experts are portentous, it is dangerous to trust any one expert. Nicholas Murray Butler long ago defined an expert as “one who knows more and more about less and less,” and Bertrand Russell warned us that, “Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken.”

    JP should like this as an argument against the Cult of the Expert; however, Mitroff then quotes the following text by C. West Churchman:

    … people are always urged to trust each other in this age when there is much danger if mistrust occurs. … one cannot help asking why should trust be necessary? … Is there not … a dangerous as well as a virtuous side of trust? … Would it not be better to spend the time removing the conditions that make trust necessary, rather than developing the conditions for building trust?

    This probably goes against JP’s grain, but it also leads to Mitroff’s conclusion:

    To paraphrase Churchman, would it not be better to spend out time developing methods whereby we could maximally challenge out experts … rather than in developing trust of our experts? IF I CAN MAXIMALLY CHALLENGE AN EXPERT, I HAVE LESS OF A NEED TO TRUST HIM. I DON’T WANT TO TRUST …, I WANT TO BE ABLE TO INTERROGATE THEM. If there is any “faith” built into the dialectical inquirer, it is the faith that NO ONE CAN CHALLENGE AN EXPERT … LIKE ANOTHER EXPERT … WHO IS ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF THE FENCE. But in the spirit of this paper, even this article of “faith” is subject to debate.

    In light of these remarks, I would argue that the true value of the Internet is the extent to which it allows us to challenge experts, either by points us to experts “on the opposite side of the fence” or by providing us with resources through which we can express our own challenges.

  11. Good things come to those who wait, particularly where hard data is involved. The Blotter, which is maintained on the ABC News Web site by Brian Ross and his team of investigative reporters, has compiled some numbers on the impact of phishing.

    http://blogs.abcnews.com/theblotter/2007/09/cybersquatting-.html

    I realize that this is not electronic mail from either Nigeria or a lottery; but, since most phishing attacks are conducted through misrepresented electronic mail, I figure that the data points are useful. Here they are:

    In 2006, 3.5 million adults admitted to revealing sensitive personal or financial information to a phisher, according to market analyst Gartner Inc. Of those, 2.3 million lost money, with each victim losing an average of $1,244.

    My guess is that Gartner has more data points for its subscribers, probably even about Nigerian accounts and lotteries! Turning this back on the thesis of JP’s post, while $1244 would not cripple me financially, I rather LIKE the fact that Yahoo! applies some expertise to gather suspect electronic mail in a “Bulk” folder, presenting me with just enough data to vet it safely. Yahoo! seems to have found the right mix of invoking their in-house expertise and giving me a right to exercise my own critical reading skills.

  12. Maybe you’re right, Dan. Sometimes I’ve wondered what I really want in this respect. What you touch on has bothered me. A lot.

    That’s partly why I haven’t been able to post further on this subject as yet. I’m trying to work some things out while I try and understand more about “expertise”.

    I’ve discovered two things so far. One, that I do want to learn from experts. And two, the problem I have with (some) experts is more to do with bigoted or closed stances than it is to do with expertise per se.

    Since I began to understand that, I began to concern myself with why I thought so many experts were closed in their thinking. Because right or wrong, that was the root of my anti-expertise bias. So I am working on it.

    There is also something else niggling in my mind, something to do with the way some experts tend to exclude others; this exclusion takes many forms, and makes me feel very uncomfortable. I want to learn from people with fresh views and perspectives as well.

    Sometimes I feel that the worst form of groupthink is that which involves experts.

    So you’re right. There are things in this space I need to work on. In myself, within myself. And I’m happy to listen to offers of help.

  13. JP, may I be so presumptuous as to suggest that you need to work on your critical reading skills? The second of your discoveries strikes me as a symptom of missing out on “deep structure” messages due to getting hung up on “surface structure” details. We all have personal idiosyncrasies in how we communicate (don’t I know it!); and experts are no exceptions to this rule. However, as I have tried to argue in this thread, we should not let such matters interfere with our seeking to challenge everything we read on grounds of substance, rather than style:

    http://confusedofcalcutta.com/2007/09/09/thinking-about-citizendium-and-wikipedia-part-1/#comment-186874

  14. As someone who has made small contributions at both Wikipedia and Citizendium, I’ll add a couple comments of my own here:

    (1) Because everything I do at Citizendium requires me to use my real name, I’m more careful. Maybe that’s a personal ethical problem, but if so, it’s widespread, I’m sure. I’ve never vandalized an article at Wikipedia, but I’ve been more cavalier about adding information there than at Citizendium. (I don’t really contribute at Wikipedia anymore, but I was occasionally cavalier when I did.)

    (2) I’ve enjoyed the structures at Citizendium for thinking through priorities. I tend to think that information naturally organizes hierarchically (e.g., there are only a limited number of felicitous titles for an article), but an undifferentiated mass of contributers with very little stake in the outcome will obscure the hierarchy of information.

    (3) Related to #2 — I really like Wikipedia, but I’m increasingly annoyed by all the single-sentence additions that people make. “Oh, I know a fact about this subject!” they think, and so they add their fact at the end of a paragraph. It makes for lots of interesting (usually accurate) information that’s not integrated into the article. I think that Larry Sanger is right when he objects to calling Wikipedia a real encyclopedia. And I’m glad that he’s not calling Citizendium one until it earns the title.

Let me know what you think

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