Monday, 12 March 2007

Experts and credentials

One of the recent hot topics lately, particularly in the wake of the Essjay incident, has been the idea that Wikipedia might consider introducing a system for validating credentials claimed by Wikipedia editors. One of the main reasons for such an idea was laid out by Jimbo in May 2005:

"[P]eople wonder, and not unreasonably, who we all are. Why should the world listen to us about anything? People think, and not unreasonably, that credentials say something helpful about that... although we never want Wikipedia to be about a closed club of credential fetishists, there's nothing particularly wrong with advertising that, hey, we are *random* people on the Internet *g*, but not random *morons* after all."

For as long as I've been editing - and probably for longer - there's been strong opposition to any form of credentialism on Wikipedia, for two main reasons, one cultural and one structural.

The cultural reason is that the community is strongly egalitarian, in that it essentially accords status by the quality (and, yes, the quantity) of work done by each editor. The Meta page on edit counting makes the excellent observation that Wikipedia (and the other Wikimedia projects too) is a gift economy, which is a type of economy distinct from a barter or market economy:

"A gift economy is an economic system in which goods and services are given without any agreement for immediate or future compensation. This differs from a barter economy - in which there is an immediate or expected quid pro quo... Typically, a gift economy occurs in a culture which emphasizes social or intangible rewards for generosity: karma, honor, loyalty or other forms of gratitude."

The structural reason is that the skills needed to create good content for Wikipedia are essentially aggregatory skills, deriving from Wikipedia's nature as a tertiary source. It is not about original thought, but about bringing together established thought from multiple - and indeed all - existing sources.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Opposing credentialism as a means of preserving the fundamental structural qualities of Wikipedia as a tertiary source is undoubtedly the right approach, as is operating a culture that rewards contribution. But this tends to ignore a large and very significant body of people: the readers of Wikipedia.

Readers I will define as those people who consume Wikipedia content without necessarily contributing to it; they exist outside of the culture and structure of Wikipedia and thus come to Wikipedia with completely different values. Many readers will be from cultures that place value in credentials as recognition of skills developed and knowledge acquired, and many will be from environments that are structured to respect and rely on credentials.

I don't think that these two worlds are incompatible. We can acknowledge the credentials of our editors without stepping over into credentialism. Under a verification system readers who are engaged enough to check out who has been writing the articles they are reading would be able to evaluate the compilers of the information in front of them in the same way that policies for verifiability and sourcing allow them to evaluate the information itself.

Acknowledging credentials would be a good first step in bridging a gap between two cultures.


Post a Comment