Distributed Expertise and the Promise of Wikipedia

This is the second in a series of posts about Wikipedia, based on some of the reading I’ve done while putting together a fall course. My last post gave a general overview of Wikipedia, and talked a bit about its history. Today I will focus on the nature of “expertise.”

As a crowdsourced project, Wikipedia challenges the very idea of an expert. Anyone can edit Wikipedia, and everything must be cited: no one person’s contribution is worth more than someone else’s. Maria Bustillos argues that we should take seriously the epistemological assumptions built into Wikipedia. I’ll discuss her article before turning to some challenges to these assumptions.

Feedback is welcome: if you know of something even tangentially related to Wikipedia, especially if it would be of interest to undergraduates, please let me know!


Maria Bustillos published “Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert” in The Awl back in 2011. By that point Wikipedia was already, as Bustillos puts it, “the best encyclopedia available in English.” Rather than debate its accuracy or inaccuracy, she argues, we need to look at what the site actually means. Its most important features are the Talk and History pages, which allow us to look under the hood and see how knowledge is created. After a fascinating and relevant tangent about Marshall McLuhan, Bustillos argues that Wikipedia caused an “epistemological earthquake,” quoting Clay Shirky that Wikipedia forces us “to accept the stone-cold bummer that knowledge is produced and constructed by argument rather than by divine inspiration.” Bustillos singles out Wikipedia as an example of how the Internet has changed out approach to knowledge not just in degree (giving us more access to information) but in kind (changing what “information” means.)

Against Wikipedia: Anti-Elitism, Misplaced Faith, Marxism, and Cognition

Bustillos is of course not the first or only person to make such an argument. But not everyone buys it. Back in 2004 Larry Sanger, one of Wikipedia’s founders, made the case for the necessity of experts, arguing that Wikipedia needs to “jettison” this anti-elitism. The two problems facing the site, Sanger argues, are the public’s skepticism of its reliability and the dominance of “difficult people,” or trolls. Both problems, he believes, can be traced to its anti-elitism. While working for the site, Sanger himself had tried to enact a policy for deferring to experts, and he seems to want experts to release “vetted” versions of certain high-quality Wikipedia articles. The Wikipedia community does designate Featured Articles which must meet certain criteria, but that the original title for these was “Brilliant Prose” perhaps reveals that the emphasis is not where Sanger wants it. The Article Feedback Tool was rolled out in 2010, (though it has its detractors), and Wikipedia continues to experiment with ways to rate and improve the site. The site also has an extensive system for dealing with trolls, though they remain a problem.

Side note: Clay Shirky, writing in 2006, offers a point-by-point challenge to Sanger, who at the time was promoting Citizendium, another wiki-based encyclopedia, which sacrifices collaboration in favor of the “highest standards of writing, reliability, and informativeness.” Shirky’s central point is that experts are “social facts,” depending on a process of credentialling.

Wikipedia remains, in nature, resistant to credentialed experts, and that can drive some contributors from the site. The case of Timothy Messer-Kruse received a fair amount of press coverage (he wrote about it in the Chronicle and was interviewed on NPR). Messer-Kruse is a historian whose research focuses on American labor history. As he explains in the Chronicle, he has written two books and several articles about the Haymarket Riots, and when he noticed a factual error in the Wikipedia article, he corrected it, citing his own published work. The change was immediately taken down, and Wikipedians cited the “undue weight” policy (Wikipedia presents majority views, not fringe claims with minority support). Messer-Kruse rightly raises the question of how knowledge can be ever be updated or corrected in the face of  such a policy. In what I consider to be in ironic turn, a full third of Messer-Kruse’s own Wikipedia page discusses the “conflict” between him and Wikipedia editors.

Writing for Edge in 2006, Jarod Lanier also argues that individuals need to play a role in Wikipedia, though he is less focused on experts per se. Digital Maoism: the Hazards of the New Online Collectivism argues against the “wisdom of crowds” idea, arguing that in some ways crowds are very smart, in other ways they’re very stupid — just like individuals. “The reason the collective can be valuable,” Lanier writes, “is precisely that its peaks of intelligence and stupidity are not the same as the ones usually displayed by individuals. Both kinds of intelligence are essential.” In typical fashion, Edge provides responses from, among others, Jimmy Wales, Larry Sanger, and Clay Shirky.

Others also question the collective nature of the site itself. In 2004 Robert McHenry called Wikipedia “Faith-Based,” pointing out the oddness of a claim like “information wants to be free” and arguing that by being openly collaborative the site assumes “Some unspecified quasi-Darwinian process will assure that those writings and editings by contributors of greatest expertise will survive; articles will eventually reach a steady state that corresponds to the highest degree of accuracy.” McHenry is not alone in questioning this basic assumption, and there are those who think that Wikipedia in fact approaches a state of mediocrity (he takes the Alexander Hamilton page as his example; as generally happens with well-publicized criticism of Wikipedia articles, the errors he points out have since been corrected).

Some of McHenry’s allies are suspicious of Wikipedia not because they question the “quasi-Darwinian process” but because the whole thing sounds “eerily similar to Marx’s seductive promise about individual self-realization.” That line is From Andrew Keen’s “Web 2.0,” his Weekly Standard article that was a precursor to his book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture (2007). And even if the Red Scare is passé, instances like this one, in which supporters of Sarah Palin tried to change the Paul Revere entry to match her boneheaded remark that Revere was warning the British about taking our guns, lend credence to the idea that maybe the crowd doesn’t always know best.

E. D. Hirsch’s ideas are relevant to the Wikipedia-and-expertise discussion as well, though he doesn’t directly address it. As Hirsch has been arguing for decades, access to information doesn’t necessarily mean anyone can make use of it: “the internet has placed a wealth of information at our fingertips. But to be able to use that information — to absorb it, to add to our knowledge — we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge. That is the paradox disclosed by cognitive research.” The implication is that not everyone benefits equally from the project. If reading a Wikipedia article necessitates a storehouse of knowledge, than only the relatively well-educated can take full advantage of it. In this sense, Wikipedia is, despite its anti-elitist stance, somewhat elitist itself.

Next week I will consider the usual domain of the expert (the university), and the ways in which academics have accepted or rejected Wikipedia in their teaching and research.

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