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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The New Politics of Knowledge

Not many people outside of the United States would have known the name of John Seigenthaler Sr, the writer, journalist and publisher of The Tennessean Newspaper.

John Seigenthaler Sr. on CNN

That all changed in May 2005, when an anonymous user (later identified as Brian Chase) created a five-sentence Wikipedia article about Seigenthaler which contained defamatory content claiming that Seigenthaler was in some way responsible for the assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert.

It wasn’t so much the article that drew worldwide attention to Seigenthaler, but rather the op-ed piece he wrote for USA Today on November 29th 2005, in which he wrote, "Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool." (

For those of you who may have just jetted in from another planet, Wikipedia is a multilingual, web-based, encyclopaedia project, operated by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization. Wikipedia is heralded as one of the first revolutionary Web 2.0 websites (alongside You Tube and MySpace) and a flagship for the ensuing online user-generated content craze. Its approach is devastatingly simple: users can upload encyclopaedia definitions on any give topic that they feel they are an expert on.

Strict guidelines and templates for how to upload these definitions are provided, including how to reference and hyperlink content. The content is then in turn added to and/or amended by other users in the community. In effect, the site uses a distributed workforce of volunteers to upload and maintain the encyclopaedic content. It was a revolutionary idea and one that clearly highlighted the benefits of collaborative, distributed networks. How could the likes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica compete in its offline or online form against a world of volunteers?

As of September 2007 (according to the Wikipedia entry on “Wikipedia” itself!), Wikipedia had approximately “8.2 million articles in 253 languages, comprising a combined total of over 1.41 billion words for all Wikipedias. The English Wikipedia edition passed the 2,000,000 article mark on September 9, 2007 with a total of over 615 million words, roughly fifteen times as many as the largest edition of Encyclopædia Britannica”

However, Wikipedia’s quick won reputation (it has become an invaluable and oft-quoted source for second and third level students the world over) sustained a body blow from Seigenthaler’s scathing criticism. Indeed, the traditional media outlets ran the story so widely that one might suspect that there was a certain amount of glee taken in the criticism directed towards Wikipedia, whose approach, for many, sought to undermine traditional journalism. Seigenthaler’s main – and very valid criticism – was aimed at Wikipedia's open nature and the fact that users could anonymously upload false or unverified information, such as the ridiculous slur aimed at him. There was also the charge, particularly pertinent for journalists, that the site favoured consensus over credentials in its editorial process.

One of the founders of Wikipedia, Dr. Larry Sanger, was recently in Dublin for a seminar at the Institute for European Affairs. He brought up the Seigenthaler incident by way of explaining why he has developed a new rival to Wikipedia – the Citizendium. The fact that one of the founder’s is forming a rival not-for-profit project speaks volumes itself. In elaborating on this, he also explored the wider topic of the “new politics of knowledge”, as he called it, outlining how he believes that new online communities and social networks are analogous to nation states.

Dr. Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia

This was a fascinating argument and further underlined the power of the internet, especially in its current phase of development colloquially called Web 2.0. Sanger argued that social communities who come together online – whether for a large collective project like Wikipedia or just in a chat room site dedicated to back gammon – end up mimicking the development of nation state communities by virtue of the fact that they have to lay down rules for interaction. In effect, they develop domestic and foreign policies, whether they realise it or not. The domestic policy is somewhat like a social contract and lays down the foundation for engagement. This may be informally done or may be hard-coded into the functionality of the site. In the case of Wikipedia, its own domestic policy had severe consequences in the real world by allowing users to remain anonymous. In terms of foreign policy, this is the outward effect of those rules in terms of how the community is viewed by the outside user: Is it an exclusive club? Does it only give certain levels of access? What impact does the content have on the real world?

Although this may seem a little over the top in terms of analysis, Sanger makes the point that these domestic and foreign policies are extremely important for online communities as their survival now increasingly depends upon them being correctly thought out. Wikipedia’s internal policy will potentially be its downfall; what started as a pluralist and well-meaning concept to allow access to knowledge to everyone, has now opened itself to levels of abuse that degrade its principle declarations of intent. Sound familiar? It is perhaps no coincidence that Sanger is from the United States.

When one considers the ever-growing “populations” of social network sites like Bebo, MySpace and Facebook, Sanger’s points become remarkably ominous. One of his main objectives for making this analogy between online communities and nation states (and the inherent call for communities to draw up careful social contracts) is his fear that the internet, if left unchecked like any other movement, may well encourage government intervention. Already sites that allow pirated or defamatory materials are making their way in ever larger numbers to the courts and pressure is mounting globally on governments to take a position. The impending You Tube/ Viacom litigation is potentially a case in point.

In response, Sanger has developed Citizendium – which is in essence is the same as Wikipedia except for one crucial difference: it has a strict internal governance structure.

For one, Citizendium requires users to give their real name. Contributors must submit a brief biography, thus giving weight to their authority. There are editors that have particular areas of expertise who have editorial control to a certain extent. (This was notably absent in Wikipedia which was a free for all until the site administrators would step in – for example, with the George W. Bush entry – which, as you can imagine, became a highly popular entry for editing). Below editors, there are the authors and finally a social contract stating the rules of the community, enshrining the bottom-up collaborative structure. Also, Sanger has developed an editorial council (a legislature in a sense), a constabulary (to police the entries) and a judicial board (to make judicial rulings where there is dissent). Finally, Sanger himself will take the position of Editor-in-chief, which firmly roots Citizendium in the more traditional publishing mode.

One challenge that Sanger didn’t allude to was the success of the Wikipedia brand. As well as the challenge of replicating and surpassing the entries that Wikipedia has (and continues to generate) Citizendium has an uphill battle in taking on the near generic status that Wikipedia has achieved on the internet. In terms of name recognition, it is up there with Google. The idea that a more centralised, traditional publishing model, such as the one Citizendium has adopted, will appeal to the “Do It Yourself” Content Generation is maybe a little ambitious. But certainly what Sanger has proved is that the internet has democratised knowledge as much as it has globalised it and that is having powerful connotations. It may be sometime before we see the results of this but what is clear is that Sanger has already left a huge online legacy through Wikipedia. It will be interesting to see if Citizendium can surpass it.

posted by Neil Leyden @ 8:56 a.m.


At 1:55 p.m., Anonymous Larry Sanger said...

Thanks for your kind and insightful comments, Neil.


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