A response from Larry Sanger, posted here in its entirety:

Thanks to Clay Shirky for the opportunity to reply here on Many2Many
to his “Larry Sanger, Citizendium, and the Problem of Expertise,” First, two points about Clay’s style of argumentation, which I simply cannot let go without comment. Then some replies to his actual arguments.

1. Allow me to identify my own core animating beliefs, thank you very much.

Clay’s piece annoying tendency to characterize my assumptions uncharitably and without evidence, and to psychologize about me. Thus, Clay says things like: “Sanger‚s published opinions seem based on three beliefs”; “Sanger wants to believe that expertise can survive just fine outside institutional frameworks”; “Sanger’s core animating belief seems to be a faith in experts”; “Sanger’s view seems to be that expertise is a quality like height”; and “Sanger also underestimates the costs of setting up and then enforcing a process that divides experts from the rest of us.”

I find myself strongly disagreeing with Clay’s straw Sanger. However, I am not that Sanger! Last time I checked, I was made of flesh and blood, not straw.

2. May I borrow that crystal ball when you’re done with it?

Repeatedly, Clay makes dire predictions for the Citizendium. “Structural issues…will probably prove quickly fatal”; “institutional overhead…will stifle Citizendium”; “policing certification will be a common case, and a huge time-sink” so “the editor-in-chief will then have to spend considerable time monitoring that process”; “Citizendium will re-create the core failure of Nupedia”; “Sanger believes that Wikipedia goes too far in its disrespect of experts; what killed Nupedia and will kill Citizendium is that they won’t go far enough.”

I think Clay lacks any good reason to think the Citizendium will fail; but clearly he badly wants it to fail, and his comments are animated by wishful thinking. That, anyway, seems the most parsimonious explanation. To borrow one of Clay’s phrases, and return him the favor: it is interesting “how consistent Clay has been about his beliefs” on the low value of officially-recognized expertise in online communities. “His published opinions seem based on” the belief in the supreme value and efficacy of completely flat self-organizing communities. The notion of experts being given special authority, even very circumscribed authority, does extreme violence to this “core animating belief” (to borrow another of Clay’s phrases). It must, therefore, be impossible.

Less flippantly now. I do make a point of being properly skeptical about all of my projects—that’s another thing I’ve been consistent about. You can probably still find writings from 2000 and 2001 in which I said I didn’t know whether Nupedia or Wikipedia would work. I have no idea if the Citizendium will work. What I do know is that it is worth a try, and we’ll do our best to solve problems that we can anticipate and as they arise.

By the way, there’s a certain irony in the situation, isn’t there? Clay Shirky, respected expert about online communities, holds forth about a new proposed online community, and does what so many experts love to do: make bold predictions about the prospects of items in their purview. Meanwhile, I, the alleged expert-lover, cast aspersions on his abilities to make such predictions. If my “core animating belief” were “a faith in experts,” why would I lack faith in this particular expert?

3. I want to be a social fact, too!

Let’s move on to Clay’s actual arguments. He begins his first argument with something perfectly true, that expertise (in the relevant sense, an operational concept of expertise) is a social fact, that this social fact is conferred (not always formally, but often) by institutions, and that, therefore, one cannot have expertise without (in some sense) “institutional overhead.” So far, so good. The current proposal—which is open to debate, at this early stage, even from Clay himself—addresses this situation by proposing to avoid editor application review committees in favor of self-designation of editorial status. The details are relevant, so let me quote them from the FAQ:

We do not want editors to be selected by a committee, which process is too open to abuse and politics in a radically open and global project like this one is. Instead, we will be posting a list of credentials suitable for editorship. (We have not constructed this list yet, but we will post a draft in the next few weeks. A Ph.D. will be neither necessary nor sufficient for editorship.) Contributors may then look at the list and make the judgment themselves whether, essentially, their CVs qualify them as editors. They may then go to the wiki, place a link to their CV on their user page, and declare themselves to be editors. Since this declaration must be made publicly on the wiki, and credentials must be verifiable online via links on user pages, it will be very easy for the community to spot [most] false claims to editorship.

What then is Clay’s criticism? “The problem” at the beginning of the argument was that “experts are social facts.” Yeah, so? So, says Clay,

Sanger expects that decertification will only take place in unusual cases. This is wrong; policing certification will be a common case, and a huge time-sink. If there is a value to being an expert, people will self-certify to get at that value, not matter what their credentials. The editor-in-chief will then have to spend considerable time monitoring that process, and most of that time will be spent fighting about edge cases.

My initial reaction to this was: how on Earth could Shirky know all that? Furthermore, isn’t it quite obvious that, far from being a static proposal, this project is going to be able to move nimbly (I usually propose radical changes and refinements to my projects) in order to solve just such problems, should they arise?

In any event, based on my own experience, I counter-predict that Clay will probably be wrong in his prediction. There will probably be a lot of people who humorously, out of cluelessness, or whatever, claim to be editors.

For the easy cases, which will probably be most of them, constables will be able to rein people in, nearly as easy as they can rein in vandalism. No doubt we will have a standard procedure for achieving this. As to the borderline (“edge”) cases (e.g., some grad students and independent scholars), Clay gives us no reason to think that the editor-in-chief will have to spend large amounts of time fighting about them. Unlike Wikipedia, and like many OSS projects, there will be a group of people authorized to select the “release managers” (so to speak). This policy will be written into the project charter, support of which will be a requirement of participation in the project.

The review process for editor declarations, therefore, will be clear and well-accepted enough—that, after all, is the whole point of establishing a charter and “rule of law” in the online community—that the process can be expected to work smoothly. Mind you, it will be needed because of course there will be borderline cases, and disgruntled people, but Clay has given no reason whatsoever to think it will dominate the entire proceedings.

Besides, this is a responsibility I propose to delegate to a workgroup; I will probably be too busy to be closely involved in it.

Far from being persuasive, it is actually ironic that Clay cites primordial fights I had with trolls on Wikipedia as evidence of his points. It was precisely due to a lack of clearly-circumscribed authority and widely-accepted rules that I had to engage in such fights. Consequently, the Citizendium is setting up a charter, editors, and constables precisely to prevent such problems.

4. Warm and fuzzy yes, a hierarchy no.

Clay nicely sums up his next argument this way:

Real experts will self-certify; rank-and-file participants will be delighted to work alongside them; when disputes arise, the expert view will prevail; and all of this will proceed under a process that is lightweight and harmonious. All of this will come to naught when the citizens rankle at the reflexive deference to editors; in reaction, they will debauch self-certification (leading to irc-style chanop wars), contest expert prerogatives, raising the cost of review to unsupportable levels (Wikitorial, round II,) take to distributed protest (q.v.Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf), or simply opt-out (Nupedia in a nutshell.)

(By the way, Clay is completely wrong about citizen participation in Nupedia. They made up the bulk of authors in the pipeline. Our first article was by a grad student. An undergrad wrote several biology articles. There have been so many myths are made about Nupedia, so completely divorced from reality, that it has become a fascinating and completely fact-free Rohrschach test for everything bad that anyone wants to say about expert authority in open collaboration.)

The Citizendium is, by Clay’s lights, a radical experiment that does violence to his cherished notions of what online communities should be like. Persons inclined to “debauch self-certification” as on IRC chatrooms will be removed from the project; and others will not protest at such perfectly appropriate treatment, because we will have already announced this as a policy.

Through self-selection the community can be expected to be in favor of such policies; those who dislike them will always have Wikipedia.

That’s part of the beauty of a world with both a Citizendium and a Wikipedia in it. Those who (like you, Clay) instinctively hate the Citizendium—we’ve seen a little of this in blogs lately, calling the very idea “Wikipedia for stick-in-the-muds,” “Wikipedia for control freaks,” a “horror,” etc.—will always have Wikipedia. I strongly encourage you to stick with Wikipedia if you dislike the idea of the Citizendium that much. That will make matters easier for everyone. If other people want to organize themselves in a different way—a way you’d never dream of doing—then please give them room to do so. As a result we’ll have one project for people who agree with you, Clay, and one for people who agree with me, and the world will be richer.

Clay does give some more support for thinking that an editor-guided wiki is unworkable. He says that the viability of a community resembles a “U curve” with one end being a total hierarchy and the other end being “a functioning community with a core group.” Apparently, projects that are neither hierarchies nor communities, which Clay implies is where the Citizendium would fit, would incur too many “costs of being an institution” and “significant overhead of process.” What I find particularly puzzling about this is how he describes the ends of U curve. I would have expected him to say hierarchy on one end and a totally flat, leaderless community on the other end. But instead, opposite the hierarchy is “a functioning community with a core group.” How is it, then, that the Citizendium as proposed would not constitute “a functioning community with a core group”?

Let me put this more plainly, setting aside Clay’s puzzling theoretical apparatus. What the world has yet to test is the notion of experts and ordinary folks (and remember: experts working outside their areas of expertise are then “ordinary folks”) working together, shoulder-to-shoulder, on a single project according to open, open source principles. That is the radical experiment I propose. This actually hearkens back to the way OSS projects essentially work. So far, to my knowledge, experts have not been invited in to “gently guide” open content projects in a way roughly analogous to the way that senior developers gently guide OSS projects, deciding what changes are in the next release and what isn’t. You might say that the analogy does not work because senior developers of OSS projects are chosen based on the merits of their contributions within the project. But what if we regard an encyclopedia as continuous with the larger world of scholarship, so that scholarly work outside of the narrow province of a single project becomes relevant for determining a senior content developer? For an encyclopedia, that’s simply a sane variant on the model.

Whereas OSS projects have special, idiosyncratic requirements, encyclopedias frankly do not. There’s no point to creating an insular community, an “in group” of people who have mastered the particular system, because it’s not about the system—it’s about something any good scholar can contribute to, an encyclopedia. Then, if the larger, self-selecting community invites and welcomes such people to join them as “senior content developers,” why not think the analogy with OSS is adequately preserved?

(For more of the latter argument please see a new essay I am going to try to circulate among academics.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *