How does Wikipedia affect experts?

Britannica Blog’s Web 2.0 forum is wrapping up this week. On the Wikipedia front, Michael Gorman has delivered his promised Wikipedia post, and danah boyd has an exceptional reply on why Wikipedia, and access to knowledge in general, is important. While Gorman’s posts are consistently vapid and unprovocative (except in the sense that cable news talking points are provocative), some of the other new media critics–particularly Seth Finkelstein–highlight an important issue that I think is at the heart of the debate. Namely, how do Wikipedia and other aspects of the read/write web knowledge ecosystem affect experts/professionals and their traditional systems of knowledge production?

The shared assumption amongst critics is that the effects are largely negative. Finkelstein put it dramatically in a comment directed at boyd. He characterizes the ‘experts should stop complaining about Wikipedia’s problems and just fix them’ refrain as “arguing that “capitalists” should give – not even sell, but give – Wikipedia the rope to hang them with!” He adds, “If an expert writes a good Wikipedia article, that gets claimed as the wisdom of crowds and presented as proof that amateurs can do just as well as experts.” So scholars are putting themselves out of a job by contributing to Wikipedia and the like.

Setting aside the ‘Wikipedia=Wisdom of Crowds’ strawman that so many Wikipedia critics knock down as their first and final argument, Finkelstein (and some of the others) hit on an important argument: amateur-produced knowledge products (often of inferior quality) are free, and this endangers the (political, financial, intellectual, and/or cultural) economies of expertise. But is that true? Is Wikipedia reducing the demand for scholarly monographs? Is writing a good Wikipedia article on the history of biology going to cut into the sales of all the sources I cite? Is it going to fill the demand for history of biology scholarship and make it tougher to find a publisher for my own work? In economic terms, the competition argument against Wikipedia assumes that traditionally-produced expert knowledge and community-produced knowledge are substitute goods with respect to each other (and are not substitute goods with respect to even lower quality knowledge products like cable news, tabloids, and, that either demand for knowledge is relatively static or increased consumption isn’t necessarily desirable, and that knowledge products do not have significant prestige value linked to their traditional pricey modes of production (i.e., they aren’t Veblen goods).

Which of these assumptions holds true differs according to what genre of knowledge we’re talking about. Wikipedia is obviously a substitute for traditional encyclopedias (even if inferior); the Wikipedia threat has been obvious to Britannica and her since 2003. And while consumption of encyclopedia-style knowledge has increased tremendously, critics can argue that the quality is so inferior that it isn’t worth the displacement of traditional encyclopedia consumption. Britannica is also realizing that the mystique of their brand isn’t what it used to be; raising prices in certainly not going to increase demand. So for the encyclopedia genre, Wikipedia is harmful to the traditional expert production system, and possibly (depending on the quality level) harmful to society as a whole.

For original expert research, the stuff of scholarly books and journal articles, the situation is very different. In some cases, Wikipedia articles might act as subsitute goods for scholarly books and journals. However, an encyclopedia article is a fundamentally different knowledge product from an original journal article. The typical journal article is far deeper, and far less accessible, than the approximately corresponding Wikipedia article. My feeling is that rather than act as substitutes, Wikipedia articles and expert research usually contribute to network effects: a good Wikipedia article draws in new knowledge consumers, some of whom then delve into the expert research. In the world of the ivory tower, a humanist scholar usually has to worry much more about competition from the countless other topics out there than about an oversupply of work on one’s own topic. The more people hear about your topic, the more demand there is for your expertise.

News is the other main genre to consider. The newspaper industry has been in a downward spiral for years. Television news is a powerful competitor, and it’s plausible (though by no means obvious) that Wikipedia, citizen journalism, and the blogosphere are contributing to the slow death of the newspapers as well. (Sadly, it’s not plausible that Wikinews is contributing to the downfall of print journalism. At some point, the disintegration of professional journalism may reach a critical mass, and citizen journalism will step up to fill the holes left by the shrinking New York Times. Wikinews has the potential to become the most important media organization in the world, but at this point it still has virtually no impact beyond the Wikimedia community.)

But it seems that the shift to the web (with its drastically lower ad revenues) and the competition among newspapers that can now compete across the country (or even globally) is the main cause. Papers used to have more-or-less local monopolies for print news; they would buy national and world news from the wire agencies (for which they were the only local suppliers) and pour most of their revenue into local and regional reporting. But now, any paper can use the internet to hock national and international news, and consumption of that kind of knowledge product is fairly static (at least compared to encyclopedia article consumption). So competition lowers the price of broad news (with modest increases in text-based news consumption, at best) and restricts the production (and increases the price) of local and investigative journalism.

The situation is much the same as the late-19th/early-20th century steel and railroad industries: there is just to much competition for a stable marketplace, so we’re seeing mergers and increasingly powerful media conglomerates (and the government is more willing to sign off on cross-media mergers). So I don’t think that web 2.0 knowledge products are responsible for the troubles of professional journalism, but if they don’t step up to fill the gaps, maybe nothing will.

Roger Kimball (cultural critic and c0-editor of the conservative literary magazine The New Criterion) has a sharp take on the dangers of cyberspace (hint: they have nothing to do with threats to traditional expertise and everything to do with the real world we’re missing as we piddle around in virtual worlds). Kimball’s points are worth keeping in mind, and on the topic of journalism and web 2.0, one of the key ways to avoid some of the dangers of cyberspace is to create and participate in online communities that are focused on the real world (e.g., Wikinews and the parts of Wikipedia that are not about entertainment).

(P.S.: I don’t actually know anything about economics, so treat my analysis like you would a Wikipedia article)

Bonus links:

What sort of libertarian supports “don’t ask, don’t tell”?

I don’t know what everyone sees in Ron Paul, the great hope of the Internet libertarian masses (especially on Digg and Reddit). Sure, he’s the only Republican candidate who has a sensible position on the Iraq War. But I just watch him wriggle away from taking stand on “don’t ask, don’t tell“, and it’s pathetic. Either he’s playing politics just as cynically as the rest of them (the fundamentalists excepted), or he doesn’t actually know what the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is. Fortunately, it’s not a winning issue; 60-80% of Americans now think gays should be able to serve openly (as opposed to 25% of military personnel).

Jon Stewart asked Paul the right questions on The Daily Show last night: it will be a long, long time before a libertarian gets elected on a platform of ending all the government programs people want.

Democratic Debate on CNN: No word yet on “without restriction”

The first CNN debate came and went. It’s been almost a full day, and still no word about CNN’s promise to release the debate videos “without restriction”.

In early May, CNN announced, with all due bloviation, they would release the video for their 2008 US Presidential debates for free use “without restriction” at the conclusion of each live debate. As a Wikipedian, I naturally wondered whether “without restriction” would mean “with too many restrictions for use on Wikimedia projects”.

LostRemote reports that an “industry source” email clarified that “As previously announced, CNN’s debate coverage will be made available upon the conclusion of the live telecast and may be used without restriction throughout the 2008 election cycle (emphasis added).” It’s an open question whether that qualification is a time limit on freedom or just a reminder that debates in the election cycle may not be released without restriction; if it’s a time limit, then CNN deserves a storm of angry emails.

Naturally, there are already spliced videos and snippets appearing in the political blogosphere, and bloggers and YouTubers can confidently rely on CNN’s vague promise of “without restriction” to know that they won’t be facing copyright lawsuits any time soon. But they would be making and uploading the same videos whether or not CNN allowed it, and they would still be safe under fair use in almost every case.

Unless “without restriction” means we can do something that we couldn’t otherwise do (e.g., store and distribute it perpetually, even commercially), CNN’s celebrated nod toward free culture is just a cheap and meaningless publicity stunt.


My own take on the debates: My favorite part was the responses to the lame question “Gas prices are at record high levels…What would you do to reduce gas prices?” Dodd started off by going through a number of positive things that should be done with energy policy; he didn’t come out and say the straight answer to the question, but it was there between the lines. Then Gravel came right out and said it: the solutions to our energy problems are not going to involve lower gas prices, period. A couple others (Edwards and Richardson in particular) tried to pussyfoot around the issue, implying that investigations of energy company profit-taking would stop rising gas prices, but after Gravel, the tenor of the conversation definitely shifted. The sooner the public discourse moves away from thinking that the solution to energy problems is to lower gas prices, the better.

I really wish someone had taken Kucinich‘s bait on trade issues, for example, to debate the merits of NAFTA. I understand the union argument against NAFTA, but not the fair trade argument; Mexico and Canada aren’t problematic in terms of human rights abuses, so ceteris paribus, it seems like a clear case for the free market. On the related issue of immigration, there was some real conversation and some attempt to parse it in ways that move the public discourse closer to where it ought to be, treating immigration as primarily a moral issue. No one is yet willing to concede the rhetoric of “amnesty” or start from the premise that being born in America shouldn’t entitle one to a better life than someone born in Mexico. But with a path to citizenship in place, we’ll be moving in that direction.

I also liked the role call votes (and the way Clinton and Obama handled the lame ambiguous ones). The roll call was, for example, an effective way to wrap things up after Biden said all that needed to be said about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (“Peter Pace is flat wrong. Lemmee tell ya something. Nobody asked anybody else if they were gay. Brits, French, all our allies have gays serving. Our policy is not a rational policy.”). Biden had a number of blusterous moments that will probably help his poll numbers, but he’s driving the whole Democratic field to the right on military issues (except Gravel, and maybe not Kucinich, but their only purpose in the race is to pull the center of gravity leftward).