Citizendium — the clash of the experts

Clay “Power Law” Shirky, who I think is a pretty smart guy when it comes to the sociology of the Internet, has written a long post over at Corante about the idea of Citizendium — the “forked” version of Wikipedia that co-founder Larry Sanger has decided to create in order to try and fix what he sees as some of the problems inherent in the Wikipedia model.

One of the problems, as he sees it, is that experts are not given enough power in the current Wikipedia, and so Citizendium is designed to give them more. Experts — who will be defined by diplomas and other formal accreditation (although Sanger says there may be room to have non-accredited people elevated to expert status) — will be known as editors, and given more responsibility for topics they are expert on. In his post, Clay says that this is flawed because:

Experts are social facts — society typically recognizes experts through some process of credentialling, such as the granting of degrees, professional certifications, or institutional engagement. We have a sense of what it means that someone is a doctor, a judge, an architect, or a priest, but these facts are only facts because we agree they are.

Not surprisingly, such a statement — and the overall egalitarian tone of the rest of Shirky’s piece — draws the fire of Nick Carr, who says it is “fatuous stuff, which reveals, as if we needed to be reminded, that intellectuals make the very best anti-intellectuals.” Experts are experts because of their training, Nick says, whether they are architects or professors of romantic poetry. As Clay points out in the comments to his own post, however, he wasn’t so much talking about expertise as the perception of expertise, or authority in a particular field.

Clay has since posted Larry Sanger’s response to what he feels is a mis-characterization of what Citizendium is up to, or how editors will operate. But I think both men — and Nick Carr, for that matter — are avoiding what could be one of the biggest problems with the structure that Sanger is proposing, and that is experts arguing among themselves about who is the real expert. Anyone who has been around academics will know that they can be as venal and petty and childish as any Wikipedia troll, if not more so. Who’s going to referee that fight?

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