Listing entries tagged with authority
presidents' day 02.21.2006, 7:33 AM
Few would disagree that Presidents' Day, though in theory a celebration of the nation's highest office, is actually one of our blandest holidays -- not so much about history as the resuscitation of commerce from the post-holiday slump. Yesterday, however, brought a refreshing change.
Spending the afternoon at the institute was Holly Shulman, a historian from the University of Virginia well known among digital scholarship circles as the force behind the Dolley Madison Project -- a comprehensive online portal to the life, letters and times of one of the great figures of the early American republic. So, for once we actually talked about presidential history on Presidents' Day -- only, in this case from the fascinating and chronically under-studied spousal perspective.
Shulman came to discuss possible collaboration on a web-based history project that would piece together the world of America's founding period -- specifically, as experienced and influenced by its leading women. The question, in terms of form, was how to break out of the mould of traditional web archives, which tend to be static and exceedingly hierarchical, and tap more fully into the energies of the network? We're talking about something you might call open source scholarship -- new collaborative methods that take cues from popular social software experiments like Wikipedia, Flickr and del.icio.us yet add new layers and structures that would better ensure high standards of scholarship. In other words: the best of both worlds.
Shulman lamented that the current generation of historians are highly resistant to the idea of electronic publication as anything more than supplemental to print. Even harder to swallow is the open ethos of Wikipedia, commonly regarded as a threat to the hierarchical authority and medieval insularity of academia.
Again, we're reminded of how fatally behind the times the academy is in terms of communication -- both communication among scholars and with the larger world. Shulman's eyes lit up as we described the recent surge on the web of social software and bottom-up organizational systems like tagging that could potentially create new and unexpected avenues into history.
A small example that recurred in our discussion: Dolley Madison wrote eloquently on grief, mourning and widowhood, yet few would know to seek out her perspective on these matters. Think of how something like tagging, still in an infant stage of development, could begin to solve such a problem, helping scholars, students and general readers unlock the multiple facets of complex historical figures like Madison, and deepening our collective knowledge of subjects -- like death and war -- that have historically been dominated by men's accounts. It's a small example, but points toward something grand.
Posted by ben vershbow at 07:33 AM
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tags: Social Software , archives , authority , dolley_madison , folksonomy , history , madison , open_access , open_source , president , social_software , tagging , wikipedia
the value of voice 02.03.2006, 9:00 AM
We were discussing some of the core ideas that circulate in the background of the Institute and flow in and around the projects we work on—Sophie, next\text, Thinking Out Loud—and how they contrast with Wikipedia (and other open-content systems). We seem obsessed with Wikipedia, I know, but it presents us with so many points to contrast with traditional styles of authorship and authority. Normally we’d make a case for Wikipedia, the quality of content derived from mass input, and the philosophical benefits of openness. Now though, I’d like to step back just a little ways and make a case for the value of voice.
A beautiful sunset by curiouskiwi. One individual's viewpoint.
Presumably the proliferation of blogs and self-publishing indicates that the cultural value of voice is not in any danger of being swallowed by collaborative mass publishing. On the other hand, the momentum surrounding open content and automatic recombination is discernibly mounting to challenge the author’s historically valued perch.
I just want to note that voice is not the same as authority. We’ve written about the crossover between authorship and authority here, here, and here. But what we talked about yesterday was not authority—rather, it was a discussion about the different ethos that a work has when it is imbued with a recognizable voice.
Whether the devices employed are thematic, formal, or linguistic, the individual crafts a work that is centripetal, drawing together in your mind even if the content is wide-ranging. This is the voice, the persona that enlivens pages of text with feeling. At an emotional level, the voice is the invisible part of the work that we identify and connect with. At a higher level, voice is the natural result of the work an author has put effort into researching and collating the information.
Open systems naturally struggle to develop the singular voice of highly authored work. An open system’s progress relies on rules to manage the continual process of integrating content written by different contributors. This gives open works a mechanical sensibility, which works best with fact-based writing and a neutral point of view. Wikipedia, as a product, has a high median standard for quality. But that quality is derived at the expense of distinctive voices.
This is not to say that Wikipedia is without voice. I think most people would recognize a Wikipedia article (or, really, any encyclopedia article) by its broad brush strokes and purposeful disengagement with the subject matter. And this is the fundamental point of divide. An individual's work is in intimate dialogue with the subject matter and the reader. The voice is the unique personality in the work.
Both approaches are important, and we at the Institute hope to navigate the territory between them by helping authors create texts equipped for openness, by exploring boundaries of authorship, and by enabling discourse between authors and audiences in a virtuous circle. We encourage openness, and we like it. But we cannot underestimate the enduring value of individual voice in the infinite digital space.
who owns this space? 01.30.2006, 1:05 PM
"The Onion neither publishes nor accepts letters from its readers. It is The Onion's editorial policy that the readers should have no voice whatsoever and that The Onion newspaper shall be solely a one-way conduit of information. The editorial page is reserved for the exclusive use of the newspaper staff to advance whatever opinion or agenda it sees fit, or, in certain cases, for paid advertorials by the business community."
—Passed by a majority of the editorial board, March 17, 1873.
They've had this policy for a long time, though perhaps not since 1873. I remember seeing it (or something very similar) in the first copies of The Onion I saw, picked up during high school trips to Madison in the early 1990s. I liked the text enough to crib it for my first webpage, which has (thankfully) long since dissipated into the mists of the Internet.
I thought it was funny then, and I still do. And at the risk of tearing roses to pieces to find what makes them smell that way: it's funny, I think, because it's true. Usually, the mission statement on a newspaper's editorial page bends over backward to declare that the editorial pages belong in some sense to the readers of the newspapers as well as the editors. But really, a newspaper's editorial page – or, for that matter, the newspaper – is a one-way conduit for information: the editors, not the reader, choose what appears on it. The Onion's statement is bluntly honest about who really controls the press: the owners.
Declaring a website in 1995 to be a "one-way conduit of information" was also true, by and large, although I certainly wasn't trying to make a grand statement about communication. At that point in time, a website was something that could be read; to make a website that readers could change, you needed to know something about scripting languages. Being, by and large, the same sort of dilettante I remain, I knew nothing about such things.
Ten years on the web allows much more direct two-way communication. Anyone can start a blog, post things, and have readers comment on them. Nobody involved in the process needs even a cursory knowledge of HTML for this to happen – it helps, of course, but it's not strictly necessary. This is an advance, but I don't need to say that at this point in time: the year of the blog was 2004.
At the Institute, we've been talking with McKenzie Wark, author of A Hacker Manifesto about doing a book-in-process blog, like we've been doing with Mitchell Stephens. Over lunch with Wark a couple months back, we asked him why he, very much a man of technology, didn't have a blog already – everybody else does. His answer was interesting: he prefers the give-and-take of discussions on a list server to the post and response of the blog format. But what most stuck in my mind was his qualification for this: blogs, he suggested, are too proprietary, as they always belong to someone. This inhibits equitable discussion: somebody's already in charge because they own the discussion forum.
There's something to Wark's idea. If I have a blog and post something on it, the text of my post resides somewhere on my server (it's probably somebody's else's server, but it's still my account). In most blogs, visitor can post comments. But: usually comments have to be approved by a moderator, if only to block spam. And: successful blogs even tend to disable comments entirely , at which point discourse is functionally back at the level of The Onion's editorial page. (One might note the recent experience of The Washington Post.) The authority over who is allowed to speak, and the manner in which they speak, belongs to the blog owner, who is usually not a disinterested party, being (generally) part of the conversation.
When you think about this process in terms of conversation, you realize how strange it is. Imagine David and Freddy having a conversation: David speaks freely, but for Freddy to say anything, he has to write it down and submit it to David for his approval before he can actually say it. If anyone else wanted to join the conversation, they'd also have to submit to Freddy's authority. David's policy of refusal might vary – he might refuse everything any one else says, he might allow anyone to say anything. But he's still in charge of the conversation.
A quick navel gazing moment: you might imagine that our blog is an exception to this, as it's a group blog, and a number of us regularly post on it. We've also given people outside of the Institute posting authority – during our discussion of his book, for example, we let Steven Johnson post rather than just having him comment on our posts. But the problem of authority can't be avoided. You can see it in my words: we've "given", we "let". It's ours in a sense.(1) We control who's given a login. As much as we like you, dear readers, the form in which we're conversing in enforces a distinction between you & us. Sorry.
The list server model, which Wark prefers, works differently. While there might still be a moderator, the moderator's usually not part of the conversation being moderated. If David and Freddy are having a conversation, they have to submit what they're saying to Linda before they can say it. It's still mediated – and a very odd way to have a conversation! – but it's not inherently weighted towards one party of the conversation, unless your moderator goes bad. And more importantly: the message is sent to everyone on the list. Everyone gets their own copy: the text can't be said to belong to any one recipient in particular.
List servers, however more democratic a form they might be than blogs, never took off like blogs.(2) There has never been a Year of the List Server, and one suspects there might never be one. The list server, being email based, tends to be somewhat private; some aren't even publicly accessible.
Blogs comparatively trumpet themselves: they're an easy way to announce yourself to the world. This is necessary, useful, and a good part of the reason that they've caught on. But what happens once you've announced yourself? One would like to believe that when we start blogs, we're aspiring to conversation, but the form itself would seem to discourage it.
The question remains: how can we have equitable conversations online?
* * * * *
1. This same sense of ownership is usefully articulated – if elaborated to the point of absurdity – in Donald Barthelme's short story "Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby" which is predicated on the idea that since Colby is the narrators' friend, he belongs to them, and they have the right to do with him as they like – in this particular case, hanging him: ". . . although hanging Colby was almost certainly against the law, we had a perfect moral right to do so because he was our friend, belonged to us in various important senses, and he had after all gone too far."
2. A similar argument might be made for the style of newsgroups, which largely flourished before blogs and even the WWW. I suspect at this point newsgroup usage is considerably below that of list servers; however, it might be useful to examine the success and failures of newsgroups as a venue for communication some other time.
who do you trust? 01.17.2006, 6:12 PM
Larry Sanger posted this comment to if:book's recent Digital Universe and expert review post. In the second paragraph Sanger suggests that experts should not have to constantly prove the value of their expertise. We think this is a crucial question. What do you think?
"In its first year or two it was very much not the case that Wikipedia "only looks at reputation that has been built up within Wikipedia." We used to show respect to well-qualified people as soon as they showed up. In fact, it's very sad that it has changed in that way, because that means that Wikipedia has become insular--and it has, too. (And in fact, I warned very specifically against this insularity. I knew it would rear its ugly head unless we worked against it.) Worse, Wikipedia's notion of expertise depends on how well you work within that system--which has nothing whatsoever to do with how well you know a subject.
"That's what expertise is, after all: knowing a lot about a subject. It seems that any project in which you have to "prove" that you know a lot about a subject, to people who don't know a lot about the subject, will endlessly struggle to attract society's knowledge leaders."
digital universe and expert review 01.06.2006, 5:09 PM
The notion of expert review has been tossed around in the open-content community for a long time. Philosophically, those who lean towards openness tend to sneer at the idea of formalized expert review, trusting in the multiplied consciousness of the community to maintain high standards through less formal processes. Wikipedia is obviously the most successful project in this mode.The informal process has the benefit of speed, and avoids bureaucracy—something which raises the barrier to entry, and keeps out people who just don't have the time to deal with 'process.'
The other side of that coin is the belief that experts and editors encourage civil discourse at a high level; without them you'll end up with mob rule and lowest common denominator content. Editors encourage higher quality writing and thinking. Thinking and writing better than others is, in a way, the definition of expert. In addition, editors and experts tend to have a professional interest in the subject matter, as well as access to better resources. These are exactly the kind of people who are not discouraged by higher barriers to entry, and they are, by extension, the people that you want to create content on your site.
Larry Sanger thinks that, anyway. A Wikipedia co-founder, he gave an interview on news.com about a project that plans to create a better Wikipedia, using a combination of open content development and editorial review: The Digital Universe.
You can think of the Digital Universe as a set of portals, each defined by a topic, such as the planet Mars. And from each portal, there will be links to the best resources on the Web, including a lot of resources of different kinds that are prepared by experts and the general public under the management of experts. This will include an encyclopedia, as well as public domain books, participatory journalism, forums of various kinds and so forth. We'll build a community of experts and an online collaborative network of independent organizations, each of which has authority over its own discipline to select material and to build resources that are together displayed through a single free-information platform.
I have experience with the editor model from my time at About.com. The About.com model is based on 'guides'—nominal (and sometimes actual) experts on a chosen topic (say NASCAR, or anesthesiology)—who scour the internet, find good resources, and write articles and newsletters to facilitate understanding and keep communities up to date. The guides were overseen by a bevy of editors, who tended mostly to enforce the quotas for newsletters and set the line on quality. About.com has its problems, but it was novel and successful during its time.
The Digital Universe model is an improvement on the single guide model; it encourages a multitude of people to contribute to a reservoir of content. Measured by available resources, the Digital Universe model wins, hands down. As with all large, open systems, emergent behaviors will add even more to the system in ways than we cannot predict. The Digitial Universe will have it's own identity and quality, which, according to the blueprint, will be further enhanced by expert editors, shaping the development of a topic and polishing it to a high gloss.
Full disclosure: I find the idea of experts "managing the public" somehow distasteful, but I am compelled by the argument that this will bring about a better product. Sanger's essay on eliminating anti-elitism from Wikipedia clearly demonstrates his belief in the 'expert' methodology. I am willing to go along, mindful that we should be creating material that not only leads people to the best resources, but also allows them to engage more critically with the content. This is what experts do best. However, I'm pessimistic about experts mixing it up with the public. There are strong, and as I see it, opposing forces in play: an expert's reputation vs. public participation, industry cant vs. plain speech, and one expert opinion vs. another.
The difference between Wikipedia and the Digital Universe comes down, fundamentally, to the importance placed on authority. We'll see what shape the Digital Universe takes as the stresses of maintaining an authoritative process clashes with the anarchy of the online public. I think we'll see that adopting authority as your rallying cry is a volatile position in a world of empowered authorship and a universe of alternative viewpoints.
wikipedia, lifelines, and the packaging of authority 01.04.2006, 7:37 AM
In a nice comment in yesterday's Times, "The Nitpicking of the Masses vs. the Authority of the Experts," George Johnson revisits last month's Seigenthaler smear episode and Nature magazine Wikipedia-Britannica comparison, and decides to place his long term bets on the open-source encyclopedia:
It seems natural that over time, thousands, then millions of inexpert Wikipedians - even with an occasional saboteur in their midst - can produce a better product than a far smaller number of isolated experts ever could.
Reading it, a strange analogy popped into my mind: "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Yes, the game show. What does it have to do with encyclopedias, the internet and the re-mapping of intellectual authority? I'll try to explain. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is a simple quiz show, very straightforward, like "Jeopardy" or "The $64,000 Question." A single contestant answers a series of multiple choice questions, and with each question the money stakes rise toward a million-dollar jackpot. The higher the stakes the harder the questions (and some seriously overdone lighting and music is added for maximum stress). There is a recurring moment in the game when the contestant's knowledge fails and they have the option of using one of three "lifelines" that have been alloted to them for the show.
The first lifeline (and these can be used in any order) is the 50:50, which simply reduces the number of possible answers from four to two, thereby doubling your chances of selecting the correct one -- a simple jiggering of probablities. The other two are more interesting. The second lifeline is a telephone call to a friend or relative at home who is given 30 seconds to come up with the answer to the stumper question. This is a more interesting kind of a probability, since it involves a personal relationship. It deals with who you trust, who you feel you can rely on. Last, and my favorite, is the "ask the audience" lifeline, in which the crowd in the studio is surveyed and hopefully musters a clear majority behind one of the four answers. Here, the probability issue gets even more intriguing. Your potential fortune is riding on the knowledge of a room full of strangers.
In most respects, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" is just another riff on the classic quiz show genre, but the lifeline option pegs it in time, providing a clue about its place in cultural history. The perceptive game show anthropologist would surely recognize that the lifeline is all about the network. It's what gives "Millionaire" away as a show from around the time of the tech bubble in the late 90s -- manifestly a network-era program. Had it been produced in the 50s, the lifeline option would have been more along the lines of "ask the professor!" Lights rise on a glass booth containing a mustached man in a tweed jacket sucking on a pipe. Our cliché of authority. But "Millionaire" turns not to the tweedy professor in the glass booth (substitute ivory tower) but rather to the swarming mound of ants in the crowd.
And that's precisely what we do when we consult Wikipedia. It isn't an authoritative source in the professor-in-the-booth sense. It's more lifeline number 3 -- hive mind, emergent intelligence, smart mobs, there is no shortage of colorful buzzwords to describe it. We've always had lifeline number 2. It's who you know. The friend or relative on the other end of the phone line. Or think of the whispered exchange between students in the college library reading room, or late-night study in the dorm. Suddenly you need a quick answer, an informal gloss on a subject. You turn to your friend across the table, or sprawled on the couch eating Twizzlers: When was the Glorious Revolution again? Remind me, what's the Uncertainty Principle?
With Wikipedia, this friend factor is multiplied by an order of millions -- the live studio audience of the web. This is the lifeline number 3, or network, model of knowledge. Individual transactions may be less authoritative, pound for pound, paragraph for paragraph, than individual transactions with the professors. But as an overall system to get you through a bit of reading, iron out a wrinkle in a conversation, or patch over a minor factual uncertainty, it works quite well. And being free and informal it's what we're more inclined to turn to first, much more about the process of inquiry than the polished result. As Danah Boyd puts it in an excellently measured defense of Wikipedia, it "should be the first source of information, not the last. It should be a site for information exploration, not the definitive source of facts." Wikipedia advocates and critics alike ought to acknowledge this distinction.
So, having acknowledged it, can we then broker a truce between Wikipedia and Britannica? Can we just relax and have the best of both worlds? I'd like that, but in the long run it seems that only one can win, and if I were a betting man, I'd have to bet with Johnson. Britannica is bound for obsolescence. A couple of generations hence (or less), who will want it? How will it keep up with this larger, far more dynamic competitor that is already of roughly equal in quality in certain crucial areas?
Just as the printing press eventually drove the monastic scriptoria out of business, Wikipedia's free market of knowledge, with all its abuses and irregularities, its palaces and slums, will outperform Britannica's centralized command economy, with its neat, cookie-cutter housing slabs, its fair, dependable, but ultimately less dynamic, system. But, to stretch the economic metaphor just a little further before it breaks, it's doubtful that the free market model will remain unregulated for long. At present, the world is beginning to take notice of Wikipedia. A growing number are championing it, but for most, it is more a grudging acknowledgment, a recognition that, for better of for worse, what's going on with Wikipedia is significant and shouldn't be ignored.
Eventually we'll pass from the current phase into widespread adoption. We'll realize that Wikipedia, being an open-source work, can be repackaged in any conceivable way, for profit even, with no legal strings attached (it already has been on sites like about.com and thousands -- probably millions -- of spam and link farms). As Lisa intimated in a recent post, Wikipedia will eventually come in many flavors. There will be commercial editions, vetted academic editions, handicap-accessible editions. Darwinist editions, creationist editions. Google, Yahoo and Amazon editions. Or, in the ultimate irony, Britannica editions! (If you can't beat 'em...)
All the while, the original Wikipedia site will carry on as the sprawling community garden that it is. The place where a dedicated minority take up their clippers and spades and tend the plots. Where material is cultivated for packaging. Right now Wikipedia serves best as an informal lifeline, but soon enough, people will begin to demand something more "authoritative," and so more will join in the effort to improve it. Some will even make fortunes repackaging it in clever ways for which people or institutions are willing to pay. In time, we'll likely all come to view Wikipedia, or its various spin-offs, as a resource every bit as authoritative as Britannica. But when this happens, it will no longer be Wikipedia.
Authority, after all, is a double-edged sword, essential in the pursuit of truth, but dangerous when it demands that we stop asking questions. What I find so thrilling about the Wikipedia enterprise is that it is so process-oriented, that its work is never done. The minute you stop questioning it, stop striving to improve it, it becomes a museum piece that tells the dangerous lie of authority. Even those of use who do not take part in the editorial gardening, who rely on it solely as lifeline number 3, we feel the crowd rise up to answer our query, we take the knowledge it gives us, but not (unless we are lazy) without a grain of salt. The work is never done. Crowds can be wrong. But we were not asking for all doubts to be resolved, we wanted simply to keep moving, to keep working. Sometimes authority is just a matter of packaging, and the packaging bonanza will soon commence. But I hope we don't lose the original Wikipedia -- the rowdy community garden, lifeline number 3. A place that keeps you on your toes -- that resists tidy packages.
Posted by ben vershbow at 07:37 AM
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tags: Publishing, Broadcast, and the Press , authority , britannica , collective_intelligence , credibility , emergence , encyclopedia , game_show , hive_mind , jimmy_wales , lifeline , network , open_source , seigenthaler , smart_mobs , who_wants_to_be_a_millionaire , wikipedia
nature magazine says wikipedia about as accurate as encyclopedia brittanica 12.14.2005, 3:47 PM
A new and fairly authoritative voice has entered the Wikipedia debate: last week, staff members of the science magazine Nature read through a series of science articles in both Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica, and decided that Britannica — the "gold standard" of reference, as they put it — might not be that much more reliable (we did something similar, though less formal, a couple of months back -- read the first comment). According to an article published today:
Entries were chosen from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica on a broad range of scientific disciplines and sent to a relevant expert for peer review. Each reviewer examined the entry on a single subject from the two encyclopaedias; they were not told which article came from which encyclopaedia. A total of 42 usable reviews were returned out of 50 sent out, and were then examined by Nature's news team. Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.
It's interesting to see Nature coming to the defense of Wikipedia at the same time that so many academics in the humanities and social science have spoken out against it: it suggests that the open source culture of academic science has led to a greater tolerance for Wikipedia in the scientific community. Nature's reviewers were not entirely thrilled with Wikipidia: for example, they found the Britannica articles to be much more well-written and readable. But they also noted that Britannica's chief problem is the time and effort it takes for the editorial department to update material as a scientific field evolves or changes: Wikipedia updates often occur practically in real time.
One not-so-suprising fact unearthed by Nature's staffers is that the scientific community contained about twice as many Wikipedia users as Wikipedia authors. The best way to ensure that the science in Wikipedia is sound, the magazine argued, is for scientists to commit to writing about what they know.
more on wikipedia 12.05.2005, 12:41 PM
As summarized by a Dec. 5 article in CNET, last week was a tough one for Wikipedia -- on Wednesday, a USA today editorial by John Seigenthaler called Wikipedia "irresponsible" for not catching significant mistakes in his biography, and Thursday, the Wikipedia community got up in arms after discovering that former MTV VJ and longtime podcaster Adam Curry had edited out references to other podcasters in an article about the medium.
In response to the hullabaloo, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales now plans to bar anonymous users from creating new articles. The change, which went into effect today, could possibly prevent a repeat of the Seigenthaler debacle; now that Wikipedia would have a record of who posted what, presumably people might be less likely to post potentially libelous material. According to Wales, almost all users who post to Wikipedia are already registered users, so this won't represent a major change to Wikipedia in practice. Whether or not this is the beginning of a series of changes to Wikipedia that push it away from its "hive mind" origins remains to be seen.
I've been surprised at the amount of Wikipedia-bashing that's occurred over the past few days. In a historical moment when there's so much distortion of "official" information, there's something peculiar about this sudden outrage over the unreliability of an open-source information system. Mostly, the conversation seems to have shifted how people think about Wikipedia. Once an information resource developed by and for "us," it's now an unreliable threat to the idea of truth imposed on us by an unholy alliance between "volunteer vandals" (Seigenthaler's phrase) and the outlaw Jimmy Wales. This shift is exemplified by the post that begins a discussion of Wikipedia that took place over the past several days on the Association of Internet Researchers list serve. The scholar who posted suggested that researchers boycott Wikipedia and prohibit their students from using the site as well until Wikipedia develops "an appropriate way to monitor contributions." In response, another poster noted that rather than boycotting Wikipedia, it might be better to monitor for the site -- or better still, write for it.
Another comment worthy of consideration from that same discussion: in a post to the same AOIR listserve, Paul Jones notes that in the 1960s World Book Encyclopedia, RCA employees wrote the entry on television — scarcely mentioning television pioneer Philo Farnsworth, longtime nemesis of RCA. "Wikipedia's failing are part of a public debate," Jones writes, "Such was not the case with World Book to my knowledge." In this regard, the flak over Wikipedia might be considered a good thing: at least it gives those concerned with the construction of facts the opportunity to debate with the issue. I'm just not sure that making Wikipedia the enemy contributes that much to the debate.
blogging and the true spirit of peer review 11.17.2005, 3:27 PM
"...academic blogging represents the fruition, not a betrayal, of the university's ideals. One might argue that blogging is in fact the very embodiment of what the political philosopher Michael Oakshott once called "The Conversation of Mankind"—an endless, thoroughly democratic dialogue about the best ideas and artifacts of our culture.
...might blogging be subversive precisely because it makes real the very vision of intellectual life that the university has never managed to achieve?"
The idea of blogging as a kind of service or outreach is just beginning (maybe) to gain traction. But what about blogging as scholarship? Most professor-bloggers I've spoken with consider blogging an invaluable tool for working through ideas, for facilitating exchange within and across disciplines. But it's all decidedly casual. And that's part of what makes it such fun. But to gain acceptance in the academy, there have to be standards. There have to be barriers to entry. Traditionally, that's what peer review has been for. Can there be some sort of peer review system for blogs?
Boynton has a few ideas about how something like this could work (we're also wrestling with these questions on our back porch blog, Sidebar, with the eventual aim of making some sort of formal proposal). Whatever the technicalities, the approach should be to establish a middle path, something like peer review, but not a literal transposition. Some way to gauge and recognize the intellectual rigor of academic blogs without compromising their refreshing immediacy and individuality -- without crashing the party as it were.
There's already a sort of peer review going on among blog carnivals, the periodicals of the blogosphere. Carnivals are rotating showcases of exemplary blog writing in specific disciplines -- history, philosophy, science, education, and many, many more, some quite eccentric. Like blogs, carnivals suffer from an unfortunate coinage. But even with a snootier name -- blog symposiums maybe -- you would never in a million years confuse them with an official-looking peer review journal. Yet the carnivals practice peer review in its most essential form: the gathering of one's fellows (in this case academics and non-scholar enthusiasts alike) to collectively evaluate (ok, perhaps "savor" is more appropriate) a range of intellectual labors in a given area. Boynton:
In the end, peer review is just that: review by one's peers. Any particular system should be judged by its efficiency and efficacy, and not by the perceived prestige of the publication in which the work appears.
If anything, blog-influenced practices like these might reclaim for intellectuals the true spirit of peer review, which, as Harvard University Press editor Lindsay Waters has argued, has been all but outsourced to prestigious university presses and journals. Experimenting with open-source methods of judgment—whether of straight scholarship or academic blogs—might actually revitalize academic writing.
It's unfortunate that the accepted avenues of academic publishing -- peer-reviewed journals and monographs -- purchase prestige and job security usually at the expense of readership. It suggests an institutional bias in the academy against public intellectualism and in favor of kind of monastic seclusion (no doubt part of the legacy of this last great medieval institution). Nowhere is this more apparent than in the language of academic writing: opaque, convoluted, studded with jargon, its remoteness from ordinary human speech the surest sign of the author's membership in the academic elite.
This crisis of clarity is paired with a crisis of opportunity, as severe financial pressures on university presses are reducing the number of options for professors to get published in the approved ways. What's needed is an alternative outlet alongside traditional scholarly publishing, something between a casual, off-the-cuff web diary and a polished academic journal. Carnivals probably aren't the solution, but something descended from them might well be.
It will be to the benefit of society if blogging can be claimed, sharpened and leveraged as a recognized scholarly practice, a way to merge the academy with the traffic of the real world. The university shouldn't keep its talents locked up within a faltering publishing system that narrows rather than expands their scope. That's not to say professors shouldn't keep writing papers, books and monographs, shouldn't continue to deepen the well of knowledge. On the contrary, blogging should be viewed only as a complement to research and teaching, not a replacement. But as such, it has the potential to breathe new life into the scholarly enterprise as a whole, just as Boynton describes.
Things move quickly -- too quickly -- in the media-saturated society. To remain vital, the academy needs to stick its neck out into the current, with the confidence that it won't be swept away. What's theory, after all, without practice? It's always been publish or perish inside the academy, but these days on the outside, it's more about self-publish. A small but growing group of academics have grasped this and are now in the process of inventing the future of their profession.
Posted by ben vershbow at 03:27 PM
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tags: Education , academic , academy , authority , blogging , blogs , higher_ed , higher_education , peer_review , publishing , scholar , teaching , tenure , university
a better wikipedia will require a better conversation 10.28.2005, 1:04 PM
There's an interesting discussion going on right now under Kim's Wikibooks post about how an open source model might be made to work for the creation of authoritative knowledge -- textbooks, encyclopedias etc. A couple of weeks ago there was some dicussion here about an article that, among other things, took some rather cheap shots at Wikipedia, quoting (very selectively) a couple of shoddy passages. Clearly, the wide-open model of Wikipedia presents some problems, but considering the advantages it presents (at least in potential) -- never out of date, interconnected, universally accessible, bringing in voices from the margins -- critics are wrong to dismiss it out of hand. Holding up specific passages for critique is like shooting fish in a barrel. Even Wikipedia's directors admit that most of the content right now is of middling quality, some of it downright awful. It doesn't then follow to say that the whole project is bunk. That's a bit like expelling an entire kindergarten for poor spelling. Wikipedia is at an early stage of development. Things take time.
Instead we should be talking about possible directions in which it might go, and how it might be improved. Dan for one, is concerned about the market (excerpted from comments):
What I worry about...is that we're tearing down the old hierarchies and leaving a vacuum in their wake.... The problem with this sort of vacuum, I think, is that capitalism tends to swoop in, simply because there are more resources on that side....
...I'm not entirely sure if the world of knowledge functions analogously, but Wikipedia does presume the same sort of tabula rasa. The world's not flat: it tilts precariously if you've got the cash. There's something in the back of my mind that suspects that Wikipedia's not protected against this – it's kind of in the state right now that the Web as a whole was in 1995 before the corporate world had discovered it. If Wikipedia follows the model of the web, capitalism will be sweeping in shortly.
Unless... the experts swoop in first. Wikipedia is part of a foundation, so it's not exactly just bobbing in the open seas waiting to be swept away. If enough academics and librarians started knocking on the door saying, hey, we'd like to participate, then perhaps Wikipedia (and Wikibooks) would kick up to the next level. Inevitably, these newcomers would insist on setting up some new vetting mechanisms and a few useful hierarchies that would help ensure quality. What would these be? That's exactly the kind of thing we should be discussing.
The Guardian ran a nice piece earlier this week in which they asked several "experts" to evaluate a Wikipedia article on their particular subject. They all more or less agreed that, while what's up there is not insubstantial, there's still a long way to go. The biggest challenge then, it seems to me, is to get these sorts of folks to give Wikipedia more than just a passing glance. To actually get them involved.
For this to really work, however, another group needs to get involved: the users. That might sound strange, since millions of people write, edit and use Wikipedia, but I would venture that most are not willing to rely on it as a bedrock source. No doubt, it's incredibly useful to get a basic sense of a subject. Bloggers (including this one) link to it all the time -- it's like the conversational equivalent of a reference work. And for certain subjects, like computer technology and pop culture, it's actually pretty solid. But that hits on the problem right there. Wikipedia, even at its best, has not gained the confidence of the general reader. And though the Wikimaniacs would be loathe to admit it, this probably has something to do with its core philosophy.
Karen G. Schneider, a librarian who has done a lot of thinking about these questions, puts it nicely:
Wikipedia has a tagline on its main page: "the free-content encyclopedia that anyone can edit." That's an intriguing revelation. What are the selling points of Wikipedia? It's free (free is good, whether you mean no-cost or freely-accessible). That's an idea librarians can connect with; in this country alone we've spent over a century connecting people with ideas.
However, the rest of the tagline demonstrates a problem with Wikipedia. Marketing this tool as a resource "anyone can edit" is a pitch oriented at its creators and maintainers, not the broader world of users. It's the opposite of Ranganathan's First Law, "books are for use." Ranganathan wasn't writing in the abstract; he was referring to a tendency in some people to fetishize the information source itself and lose sight that ultimately, information does not exist to please and amuse its creators or curators; as a common good, information can only be assessed in context of the needs of its users.
I think we are all in need of a good Wikipedia, since in the long run it might be all we've got. And I'm in now way opposed to its spirit of openness and transparency (I think the preservation of version histories is a fascinating element and one which should be explored further -- perhaps the encyclopedia of the future can encompass multiple versions of the "the truth"). But that exhilarating throwing open of the doors should be tempered with caution and with an embrace of the parts of the old system that work. Not everything need be thrown away in our rush to explore the new. Some people know more than other people. Some editors have better judgement than others. There is such a thing as a good kind of gatekeeping.
If these two impulses could be brought into constructive dialogue then we might get somewhere. This is exactly the kind of conversation the Wikimedia Foundation should be trying to foster.
Posted by ben vershbow at 01:04 PM
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tags: Education , Libraries, Search and the Web , Online , authority , encyclopedia , library , open_source , web , wiki , wikibooks , wikimedia , wikipedia
can there be great textbooks without great authors? 10.27.2005, 8:08 AM
Jimmy Wales believes that the Wikibooks project will do for the textbook what Wikipedia did for the encyclopedia; replacing costly printed books with free online content developed by a community of contributors. But will it? Or, more accurately, should it? The open source volunteer format works for encyclopedia entries, which don't require deep knowledge of a particular subject. But the sustained examination and comprehensive vision required to understand and contextualize a particular subject area is out of reach for most wiki contributors. The communal voice of the open source textbook is also problematic, especially for humanities texts, as it lacks the power of an inspired authoritative narrator. This is not to say that I think open source textbooks are doomed to failure. In fact, I agree with Jimmy Wales that open source textbooks represent an exciting, liberating and inevitable change. But there are some real concerns that we need to address in order to help this format reach its full potential. Including: how to create a coherent narrative out of a chorus of anonymous voices, how to prevent plagiarism, and how to ensure superior scholarship.
To illustrate these points, I'm going to pick on a Wikibook called: Art History. This book won the distinction of "collaboration of the month" for October, which suggests that, within the purview of wikibooks, it represents a superior effort. Because space is limited, I'm only going to examine two passages from Chapter One, comparing the wikibook to similar sections in a traditional art history textbook. Below is the opening paragraph, framing the section on Paleolithic Art and cave paintings, which begins the larger story of art history.
Art has been part of human culture for millenia. Our ancient ancestors left behind paintings and sculptures of delicate beauty and expressive strength. The earliest finds date from the Middle Paleolithic period (between 200,000 and 40,000 years ago), although the origins of Art might be older still, lost to the impermanence of materials.
Compare that to the introduction given by Gardner's Art Through the Ages (seventh edition):
What Genesis is to the biblical account of the fall and redemption of man, early cave art is to the history of his intelligence, imagination, and creative power. In the caves of southern France and of northern Spain, discovered only about a century ago and still being explored, we may witness the birth of that characteristically human capability that has made man master of his environment—the making of images and symbols. By this original and tremendous feat of abstraction upper Paleolithic men were able to fix the world of their experience, rendering the continuous processes of life in discrete and unmoving shapes that had identity and meaning as the living animals that were their prey.
In that remote time during the last advance and retreat of the great glaciers man made the critical breakthrough and became wholly human. Our intellectual and imaginative processes function through the recognition and construction of images and symbols; we see and understand the world pretty much as we were taught to by the representations of it familiar to our time and place. The immense achievement of Stone Age man, the invention of representation, cannot be exaggerated.
As you can see the wiki book introduction seems rather anemic and uninspired when compared to Gardner's. The Gardner's introduction also sets up a narrative arc placing art of this era in the context of an overarching story of human civilization.
I chose Gardner's Art Through the Ages because it is the classic "Intro to Art History" textbook (75 years old, in its eleventh edition). I bought my copy in high school and still have it. That book, along with my brilliant art history teacher Gretchen Whitman, gave me a lifelong passion for visual art and a deep understanding of its significance in the larger story of western civilization. My tattered but beloved Gardner's volume still serves me well, some 20 odd years later. Perhaps it is the beauty of the writing, or the solidity of the authorial voice, or the engaging manner in which the "story" of art is told.
Let's compare another passage; this one describes pictorial techniques employed by stone age painters. First the wikibook:
Another feature of the Lascaux paintings deserves attention. The bulls there show a convention of representing horns that has been called twisted perspective, because the viewer sees the heads in profile but the horns from the front. Thus, the painter's approach is not strictly or consistently optical. Rather, the approach is descriptive of the fact that cattle have two horns. Two horns are part of the concept "bull." In strict optical-perspective profile, only one horn would be visible, but to paint the animal in that way would, as it were, amount to an incomplete definition of it.
And now Gardner's:
The pictures of cattle at Lascaux and elsewhere show a convention of representation of horns that has been called twisted perspective, since we see the heads in profile but the horns from a different angle. Thus, the approach of the artist is not strictly or consistently optical—that is, organized from a fixed-viewpoint perspective. Rather, the approach is descriptive of the fact that cattle have two horns. Two horns would be part of the concepts "cow" or "bull." In a strict optical-perspective profile only one horn would be visible, but to paint the animal in such a way would, as it were, amount to an incomplete definition of it.
This brings up another very serious problem with open-source textbooks--plagiarism. If the first page of the wikibook-of-the month blatantly rips-off one of the most popular art history books in print and nobody notices, how will Wikibooks be able to police the other 11,000 plus textbooks it intends to sponsor? What will the consequences be if poorly written, plagairized, open-source textbooks become the runaway hit that Wikibooks predicts?