November 24, 2011

"The Closed, Unfriendly World Of Wikipedia" and anti-expert sentiment

Danny Sullivan, search expert, details his journey through "The Closed, Unfriendly World Of Wikipedia". Skipping the details of his attempt to navigate the maze, he finally ends up being cheesed:

Bottom line - I've gotten no indication that anyone at Wikipedia actually cares what a subject expert has to say on, well, a subject they're an expert in. Instead, you drown in a morass of bureaucracy. ...

And when I read this, I thought, right, Danny, they don't (care). That is, this is another example of what Lore Sj÷berg wrote about in his classic funny-because-it's-true Wikipedia FAQK:

But why should I contribute to an article? I'm no expert.

That's fine. The Wikipedia philosophy can be summed up thusly: "Experts are scum." For some reason people who spend 40 years learning everything they can about, say, the Peloponnesian War -- and indeed, advancing the body of human knowledge -- get all pissy when their contributions are edited away by Randy in Boise who heard somewhere that sword-wielding skeletons were involved. And they get downright irate when asked politely to engage in discourse with Randy until the sword-skeleton theory can be incorporated into the article without passing judgment.

There's a strange strain of anti-expert sentiment that runs through Wikipedia, and I see experts run into it again and again. It's not simple to articulate this aspect, since Wikipedia presents itself as a project to collect knowledge. That's usually where the PR fluff ends thought on the topic. But underneath, there's some very troubling social undercurrents.

So when Danny Sullivan writes:

I am a subject expert in the field of search marketing. A notable one - after all, Wikipedia says so. But my type of first-hand assertion isn't enough. Wikipedia would rather find third-party mainstream media resources that quote people, as if that is somehow better than first-party information.

That's exactly right - "that is somehow better". Because first-party information is based in expert authority, while third-party mainstream media represents a kind of institutional approval. Some Wikipedia editors will actually agree with and justify this, from a rules-based perspective.

The subsequent debate has some fascinating elements going around a question of the proper context, of whose authority should be respected. Subject experts generally expect to be treated with with some respect, as being high ranking members in the hierarchy of the topic. This does not mean unquestioned deference (though some do want that), which is an easy strawman. But, generally, within their area, they are regarded as having a social status outranking nearly everyone else. So when they go to Wikipedia, they're thinking the Wikipedia "editors" are, well, editors, who have the job of working with the experts to polish and publish the expert's work. However, the Wikipedia "editors" are convinced that the Wikipedia hierarchy is what matters, and they (the Wikipedia unpaid "staff") are really the high status members, to whom the newbie contributor should behave with appropriate status respect. The attitude is roughly that if the expert wants their contribution to be accepted by Wikipedia, it's up to the expert to learn the rules of the game and start playing it. And maybe someday, with the right political skills, clique alliances, and of course a huge amount of time and effort, that expert could hope rise to as exalted a ranking level as the Wikipedia editor.

This leads to the experts leaving in disgust, and the Wikipedia editors saying don't let the huge article count hit you on the way out.

And this is a reason I'm not on the Wikipedia bandwagon. But there's not much of an audience or support for this sort of analysis.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on November 24, 2011 06:56 PM | (Infothought permalink)