Openness vs Authority

Wikipedia logo 300In 2006-07 the nonprofit I head worked closely with Wikipedia for some months. I flew to St. Petersburg a couple of times, and Wikipedia officials reciprocated and flew to Lafayette twice, the last time for two days of meetings.

Not much came of the meetings, partly because Wikipedia was in total disarray.  I apologize for washing their dirty laundry in public, but the problems provide some important insights.  Wikipedia internal politics were atrocious; there was petty infighting and wheedling by board members.  Two board officers were using the Wikipedia content in an effort to create their own proprietary, for-profit version of Wikipedia, while still serving on the board.  In the 18 months I worked with them, they went through four acting CEOs.  They were constantly scrambling for funds to keep the website up, even though they employed a paid staff of only 2½ people.

Despite all of this, during that time Wikipedia moved from #16 to #10 among world websites and was tripling in size annually, supported by about 80K active, totally unpaid volunteers who donated millions of person-hours constantly enlarging and updating the website.  One day while I was in their offices, Wikipedia got phone calls from the mother of a well-known child celebrity who needed her child’s personal information removed; a woman who claimed to be a former mistress of Osama bin Laden who needed other information edited; and a jail in the Midwest that was trying to translate comments a prisoner had written in a foreign language, in blood, on the floor of his cell.  That all of this growth and attention were taking place despite the management problems, is a tribute to the power of the Open Source/Open Content movement.

We will return to Open Content in the future.  To our topic here, Wikipedia was not only revolutionizing ideas about reference works and collaborative social contributions, but working with them I became aware that the website was also beginning to question basic assumptions about scholarship and authority.  For instance, the first time I visited their offices in 2006, the Wikipedia staff were dealing with the uproar over the Essjay scandal.

The problem irrupted when one of their contributors, on-line name Essjay, was exposed as a fake.  In his postings and discussions he had posed as a doctor of theology, which it turned out he was not.  It was all over the news, and Wikipedia’s critics were having a field day.

While they were discussing the problem I interrupted and asked: “Did anyone find any errors in his edits or posts?”

They all stared at me.  Finally someone said, “No.”

“Then what’s the problem?” I asked.  I explained that, to my mind, lying about your credentials on Wikipedia is like lying about your age on a dating website.  It’s tacky, but hardly important.

Because the fundamental concept of Wikipedia, and what it was proving, is that anyone can contribute to knowledge.  What Wikipedia had not recognized, is that this rather simple, even obvious insight has a less-obvious, iconoclastic obverse which begs a very important question, one that I touched on in the previous post:

If everyone is competent to contribute knowledge, then what – exactly – is the meaning of authority?

This can also be seen on Reddit, where frequently people are exposed, not for misrepresenting their credentials; no one cares about their credentials.  Rather, they are exposed for misrepresenting the data.   Likewise, the millions of amateurs populating the discussion boards and blogosphere are increasingly more likely to unearth bad information than the experts are.  In fact in one of the early blogging successes, Rathergate, it was the amateurs who exposed the authorities for poor research.

Raymond’s Law states, “Given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.”  This is the Open Content version of the journalist’s saw, “Turn on the lights and the roaches run for cover.”

In the modern era of free and copious information, I have learned to pay attention to what patients tell me about medicine.  I may have the sheepskin, but they have a lot more eyeballs than I do.  Slowly I have begun encouraging my patients with chronic illness to spend some time online.  I tell them that in a few hours of study they will find out things that I cannot possibly keep up with.  Sometimes I find my job as doctor to be an attempt, not to insist that I know and they do not, but to reconcile what they tell me with what I have been taught.

Frequently, what they have heard or read is misinformation, and sometimes it requires some explanation and interpretation.

But more and more often, they teach me something I didn’t know.

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