I’m preparing a speech I’ll be giving on Saturday in Monterrey, Mexico.
The topic is the purpose of the Internet. I believe it makes sense to say that it has a purpose, in the same way it makes sense to say any publishing medium has a purpose. I say that there are two usefully distinguishable notions about what the Internet is for: (1) communication and socialization and (2) finding information. But there is a problem, I say, in that most websites are set up as media of communication, and what policies that sense for media of communication often make no sense for media of information. Among other things, I’ll be explaining how communication produces lots of information of great value and interest to the conversationalists but of almost no value to anyone else. In another connection, I’ll explain that Google Search is essentially a popularity contest in much the same way YouTube, Digg, and social networking sites are. And — you guessed it — I’ll be arguing that there’s something wrong with this picture.
What do you think? What is the purpose of the Internet? Are there conceptual confusions involved in the Web 2.0 policies that make online communities, and even Google Search, into popularity contests? How might it be changed to be more suited to the purpose of finding information?
Also, if anybody has any pointers to previous essays on these themes, I’d appreciate it.
A special issue of the highly-regarded journal of social epistemology, Episteme, has just appeared. The journal is edited by one of the most important living epistemologists, Alvin Goldman, but this issue was co-edited by University of Arizona philosophy professor Don Fallis and me (Don more than me). Anyway, here is the issue.
I have an article in the issue, called “The Fate of Expertise after Wikipedia.” Here is the abstract:
Wikipedia has challenged traditional notions about the roles of experts in the Internet Age. Section 1 sets up a paradox. Wikipedia is a striking popular success, and yet its success can be attributed to the fact that it is wide open and bottom-up. How can such a successful knowledge project disdain expertise? Section 2 discusses the thesis that if Wikipedia could be shown by an excellent survey of experts to be fantastically reliable, then experts would not need to be granted positions of special authority. But, among other problems, this thesis is self-stultifying. Section 3 explores a couple ways in which egalitarian online communities might challenge the occupational roles or the epistemic leadership roles of experts. There is little support for the notion that the distinctive occupations that require expertise are being undermined. It is also implausible that Wikipedia and its like might take over the epistemic leadership roles of experts. Section 4 argues that a main reason that Wikipedia’s articles are as good as they are is that they are edited by knowledgeable people to whom deference is paid, although voluntarily. But some Wikipedia articles suffer because so many aggressive people drive off people more knowledgeable than they are; so there is no reason to think that Wikipedia’s articles will continually improve. Moreover, Wikipedia’s commitment to anonymity further drives off good contributors. Generally, some decisionmaking role for experts is not just consistent with online knowledge communities being open and bottom-up, it is recommended as well.
Here is a direct link to the PDF. Not sure how long this will be up; I’ll post a copy on larrysanger.org eventually.
It’s a work of academic philosophy, but that didn’t stop Slashdot from commenting. (I gotta wonder…what percentage of the commenters bothered to RTFA?)
The other articles are interesting — check them out!
The Citizendium Monthly Write-a-Thon has started in most of the world (it happens the first Wednesday of every month), and the topic this month is fascinating: Thoughts and Books. With that topic, I’ll be on hand in the morning… In fact, there are already five people who have shown up, including three who are “keen-as-mustard and jumped the gun” and of course Aussie Aleta.
The Independent kindly noticed the Write-a-Thon announcement. OK, so it’s not the most positive press coverage we’ve received. But at this point, some mainstream press attention is welcome. Still, I gotta say…contrary to this journalist, we didn’t expect to eclipse Wikipedia before the two year mark, and we are not “a Nupedia” (for cryin’ out loud, when is that canard going to die?) — we’re a robust and growing community. I’m personally very proud of the work we’ve done, and I am happy and grateful to be able to work daily with such a wonderfully bright and involved group of people.
UPDATE: ouch…Wikipedia has gotten some negative press, too, from the New Scientist. Wikipedians are “closed” and “disagreeable” according to personality tests?