The U of CitizendiUm

If you agree that Wikipedia presents more thorns than roses to academic experts, you have good company: one of Wikipedia’s two founders.

The split between Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger has a certain Old Testament character: Wales (the Web 2.0 brother) reigns over the miraculous worldwide flourishing of the anonymously and communally edited encyclopedia that nobody predicted, while Sanger wanders in the web wilderness, in stubborn pursuit of distinctly pre-2.0 constructs of expertise.

Nupedia, Sanger’s original attempt to build an expert-authored online encyclopedia (and the predecessor of Wikipedia) crashed and burned. Now Sanger’s back with a similar idea: a “progressive fork” off of Wikipedia called Citizendium. His vision of harnessing “educated, thinking people who read about science or ideas regularly” into rival encyclopedia generation awaits you here.

In Sanger’s new scenario, regular Joes and Janes would be welcome to pitch into Citizendium as long as they deferred to ‘editors’: subject-area specialists who “meet certain benchmark requirements–the same straight-up credentials that the offline world relies on.” These expert editors would claim the right to patrol topics by flashing credentials. If several editors with the right credentials claimed a topic, well, “the more the merrier”: disputes among them would be settled “by discipline-oriented editorial workgroups” that would be “staffed only by editors.”

Wikipedian anonymity is quite obviously out of the question here. If the world of Wikipedia is mythically flat — built by faceless if not selfless peers — Citizendium is stunningly hierarchical, as if brandishing one’s identity could settle most any question of authority. One can easily imagine, though, a “straight-up credentials” demolition derby: institutions impugned, publications trashed, countries belittled, research areas broadswiped. If the offline world relies on credentials, it also relies on heterogeneity, microclimates, and quite local constructs of authority.

Citizendium would begin by mirroring Wikipedia, and, presumably, refine this populist chaff into premium wheat. Expertise standing on the shoulders of undifferentiated pygmies, as it were. And since Citizendium content would be freely available under the GNU Free Documentation License, Wikipedia could in theory suck the refined content back into itself, without directly compromising on its disdain for egghead experts.

The reigning smackdown of Citizendium is Clay Shirky’s blog post last month entitled Larry Sanger, Citizendium, and the Problem of Expertise — a precise attack that drew a defensive response from Sanger. I generally agree with Shirky, who sees disaster looming in Sanger’s dream of a self-certifying expertocracy shorn of institutional context. Shirky’s concluding dismissal, however, gives me pause:

Sanger is an incrementalist, and assumes that the current institutional framework for credentialling experts and giving them authority can largely be preserved in a process that is open and communally supported. The problem with incrementalism is that the very costs of being an institution, with the significant overhead of process, creates a U curve — it’s good to be a functioning hierarchy, and its good to be a functioning community with a core group, but most of the hybrids are less fit than either of the end points.

Such categorization is ominous for any of us skating the half-pipe of that ‘U’: those of us, that is, applying social software to learning environments. Ours is a hierarchical world, we want to build communally supported processes: are we doomed to hybrid mush? Admittedly, even the most starry-eyed 2.0 prophets have trouble describing how communal software is to work its magic, once it’s scooped out of the vast flickring seas and let loose within the tiny microclimate of a classroom. Yochai Benkler, for example, says much about networked production of educational texts, but little about peer production within a class (in, for example, his article Common Wisdom:. Peer Production of Educational Materials).

If social software depends on scale — the happy fact of human diversity that guarantees that someone, somewhere, is bound to perform a necessary function — then what happens when your field is winnowed down to, say, eight bright-eyed students with the same major? If your software is thoughtlessly cribbed from a quite different environment, one that depends on scale or interconnection that is foreign or even inimical to a classroom, you’re courting failure. Shirky’s notion of situated software — “small, purpose-built apps” — is well worth bearing in mind in this respect.

Whatever the tool it’s using, customized or off-the-rack, a classroom exists in a microclimate that consists not just of a gaggle of students, however skilled and productively interactive — it also contains a super-entity, an authority akin to Sanger’s editor: the credentialed teacher (and plenty of other shadowy figures behind her — but we won’t go into that here). Whatever is peer-produced in such an environment will be some fairly complicated blend of authoritative fiat and collaborative discovery. It will be as forced as it is fortuitous — a provenance quite different from Wikipedia, but perhaps a bit like Citizendium. However quixotic Sanger’s dream of expertise within a collaborative framework may seem, and however displaced onto a grudge match with Wikipedia it may be, it is worth tracking from the curvy heart of the U.

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