In an article posted today at the Maisonneuve magazine site, Mark Moyes examines the internet model of “community authorship” in light of my essay The Amorality of Web 2.0. Responding in particular to my criticism of Wikipedia as a manifestation of a dangerous “cult of the amateur,” Moyes writes that “we need to step back and evaluate whether we’re building mediocrity and inaccuracy into the very tools that power the Web. False information has always found its way online, but Web 2.0 makes it so much easier to introduce mistakes into the sites we use most often. Is this the future we want?”
His answer to that question is a nervous “yes”:
The “can I trust the Web?” argument is as old as the Internet itself. In fact, the “consensus” versus “credentials” battle over Web 2.0 has echoes of the canon debate that ripped across American colleges in the late 1980s and early 1990s … The question of whether we need experts to guide us is a critical one as we push forward with the Web. But the irony, which Carr seems blissfully unaware of, is that by attacking [Tim] O’Reilly—an established technology publisher and pundit since the Web’s inception—he is participating in the exact process he’s mocking. When it comes to social software and Internet technologies, he is the amateur and O’Reilly the professional. Carr’s criticisms are important, but that’s the point: everyone should have their say. When Web 2.0 works, it works because the important stuff gets propagated, which is exactly what happened when Carr’s essay got spread around via weblogs. The glut of mediocre content has been a problem with the Internet since the beginning, but if blogs and Google and other post-dot-com tools have done anything, they’ve partially alleviated the problem by raising the worthwhile stuff to the top of the heap.
I agree with Moyes that “everyone should have their say.” (My problem was not with amateurs having their say, but with the potential of the Web 2.0 media model to undermine the good parts of the traditional “professional” model.) And I agree that the trustworthiness of online content has always been an issue. But I’m not convinced that Web 2.0 tools are helping to solve the problem. In fact, I think those tools often give an illusion or a gloss of credibility to content that would have been read with suspicion if simply posted on personal web pages. Moreover, the structure of Web 2.0 media can propagate “bad stuff” as easily as “important stuff.”
For a painful counterpoint to Moyes’s article, read John Seigenthaler’s editorial in today’s USA Today. Seigenthaler, who’s now 78 years old, was an assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy and went on to be a distinguished journalist and the founder of Vanderbilt University’s Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. It recently came to his attention that, for 132 days this year, a libelous “biography” appeared under his name in Wikipedia. Among other lies, the entry offered this bit of nastiness:
John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960’s. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.
Because Wikipedia’s content has been granted the presumption of both “credibility” and “authority” online, this biography not only appeared on the Wikipedia site but also at Reference.com and Answers.com. For more than four months, the libel passed for truth. It even went through Wikipedia’s much-vaunted quality-control process, as Seigenthaler notes:
[Wikipedia founder Jimmy] Wales, in a recent C-Span interview with Brian Lamb, insisted that his website is accountable and that his community of thousands of volunteer editors (he said he has only one paid employee) corrects mistakes within minutes. My experience refutes that. My “biography” was posted May 26. On May 29, one of Wales’ volunteers “edited” it only by correcting the misspelling of the word “early.” For four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin before Wales erased it from his website’s history Oct. 5. The falsehoods remained on Answers.com and Reference.com for three more weeks.
This kind of collateral damage may be the price we have to pay for “community authorship,” but it’s not an insignificant price. Moyes’s question is one we should keep asking ourselves: “Is this the future we want?”