knowledge access as a public good

Over at the Britannica Blog, Michael Gorman (the former president of the American Library Association) wrote a series of posts concerning web2.0. In short, he’s against it and thinks everything to do with web2.0 and Wikipedia is bad bad bad. A handful of us were given access to the posts before they were posted and asked to craft responses. The respondents are scholars and thinkers and writers of all stripes (including my dear friend and fellow M2M blogger Clay Shirky). Because I addressed all of his arguments at once, my piece was held to be released in the final week of the public discussion. And that time is now. So enjoy!

Below is a copy of the response I wrote over at Britannica:

As a child, I believed that all educated people were wise. In particular, I placed educators and authorities on a high pedestal and I entered the academy both to seek their wisdom and to become one of them. Unfortunately, eleven years of higher education has taught me that parts of the academy is rife with many of the same problems that plague society as a whole: greed, self-absorbtion, addiction to power, and an overwhelming desire to be validated, praised, and rewarded. As Dr. Gorman laments the ills of contemporary society, I find myself nodding along. Doing ethnographic work in the United States often leaves me feeling disillusioned and numb. It breaks my heart every time a teenager tells me that s/he is more talented than Sanjaya and thus is guaranteed a slot on the next “American Idol.”

The pervasive view that American society is a meritocracy makes me want to scream, but I fear as though my screams fall on deaf ears.

To cope with my frustration, I often return to my bubble. My friends all seem to come from Lake Wobegon where “the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all of the children are above average.” I have consciously surrounded myself with people who think like me, share my values, and are generally quite overeducated. I feel very privileged to live in such an environment, but like all intellectuals who were educated in the era of identity politics, I am regularly racked with guilt over said privilege.

The Internet is a funny thing, especially now that those online are not just the connected elite. It mirrors and magnifies the offline world – all of the good, bad, and ugly. I don’t need to travel to Idaho to face neo-Nazis. I don’t need to go to Colorado Springs to hear religious views that contradict my worldivew. And I don’t need to go to Capitol Hill to witness the costs of power for power’s sake.

If I am willing to look, there are places on the Internet that will expose me to every view on this planet, even those that I’d prefer to pretend did not exist. Most of the privileged people that I know prefer to live like ostriches, ignoring the realities of everyday life in order to sustain their privileges. I am trying not to be that person, although I find it to be a challenge.

In the 16th century, Sir Francis Bacon famously wrote that “knowledge is power.” Not surprisingly, institutions that profit off of knowledge trade in power. In an era of capitalism, this equation often gets tainted by questions of profitability. Books are not published simply because they contain valued and valid information; they are published if and when the publisher can profit off of the sale of those books. Paris Hilton stands a far better chance of getting a publishing deal than most astute and thought-provoking academics. Even a higher education is becoming more inaccessible to more people at a time when a college degree is necessary to work in a cafe. $140,000 for a college education is a scary proposition, even if you want to enter the ratrace of the white collar mega-corporations where you expect to make a decent salary. Amidst this environment, it frustrates me to hear librarians speak about information dissemination while they create digital firewalls that lock people out of accessing knowledge unless they have the right academic credentials.

I entered the academy because I believe in knowledge production and dissemination. I am a hopeless Marxist. I want to equal the playing field; I want to help people gain access to information in the hopes that they can create knowledge that is valuable for everyone. I have lost faith in traditional organizations leading the way to mass access and am thus always on the lookout for innovative models to produce and distribute knowledge.

Unlike Dr. Gorman, Wikipedia brings me great joy. I see it as a fantastic example of how knowledge can be distributed outside of elite institutions. I have watched stubs of articles turn into rich homes for information about all sorts of subjects. What I like most about Wikipedia is the self-recognition that it is always a work-in- progress. The encyclopedia that I had as a kid was a hand-me-down; it stated that one day we would go to the moon. Today, curious poor youth have access to information in an unprecedented way. It may not be perfect, but it is far better than a privilege-only model of access.

Knowledge is not static, but traditional publishing models assume that it can be captured and frozen for consumption. What does that teach children about knowledge? Captured knowledge makes sense when the only opportunity for dissemination is through distributing physical artifacts, but this is no longer the case. Now that we can get information to people faster and with greater barriers, why should we support the erection of barriers?

In middle school, I was sent to the principal’s office for correcting a teacher’s math. The issue was not whether or not I was correct – I was; I was ejected from class for having the gall to challenge authority. Would Galileo have been allowed to write an encyclopedia article? The “authorities” of his day rejected his scientific claims. History has many examples of how the vetting process has failed us. Imagine all of the knowledge that was produced that was more successfully suppressed by authorities. In the era of the Internet, gatekeepers have less power. I don’t think that this is always a bad thing.

Like paper, the Internet is a medium. People express a lot of crap through both mediums. Yet, should we denounce paper as inherently flawed? The Internet – and Wikipedia – change the rules for distribution and production. It means that those with knowledge do not have to retreat to the ivory towers to share what they know. It means that individuals who know something can easily share it, even when they are not formally declared as experts. It means that those with editing skills can help the information become accessible, even if they only edit occasionally. It means that multi-lingual individuals can help get information to people who speak languages that publishers do not consider worth their time. It means that anyone with an Internet connection can get access to information traditionally locked behind the gates of institutions (and currently locked in digital vaults).

Don’t get me wrong – Wikipedia is not perfect. But why do purported experts spend so much time arguing against it rather than helping make it a better resource? It is free! It is accessible! Is it really worth that much prestige to write an encyclopedia article instead of writing a Wikipedia entry? While there are certainly errors there, imagine what would happen if all of those who view themselves as experts took the time to make certain that the greatest and most broad-reaching resource was as accurate as possible.

I believe that academics are not just the producers of knowledge – they are also teachers. As teachers, we have an ethical responsibility to help distribute knowledge. We have a responsibility to help not just the 30 people in our classroom, but the millions of people globally who will never have the opportunity to sit in one of our classes. The Internet gives us the tool to do this. Why are we throwing this opportunity away? Like Dr. Gorman, I don’t believe that all crowds are inherently wise. But I also don’t believe that all authorities are inherently wise. Especially not when they are vying for tenure.

Why are we telling our students not to use Wikipedia rather than educating them about how Wikipedia works? Sitting in front of us is an ideal opportunity to talk about how knowledge is produced, how information is disseminated, how ideas are shared. Imagine if we taught the “history” feature so that students would have the ability to track how a Wikipedia entry is produced and assess for themselves what the authority of the author is. You can’t do this with an encyclopedia. Imagine if we taught students how to fact check claims in Wikipedia and, better yet, to add valuable sources to a Wikipedia entry so that their work becomes part of the public good.

Herein lies a missing piece in Dr. Gorman’s puzzle. The society that he laments has lost faith in the public good. Elitism and greed have gotten in the way. By upholding the values of the elite, Dr. Gorman is perpetuating views that are destroying efforts to make knowledge a public good. Wikipedia is a public-good project. It is the belief that division of labor has value and that everyone has something to contribute, if only a spelling correction. It is the belief that all people have the inalienable right to knowledge, not just those who have academic chairs. It is the belief that the powerful have no right to hoard the knowledge. And it is the belief that people can and should collectively help others gain access to information and knowledge.

Personally, I hold these truths to be self-evident, and I’d rather see us put in the effort to make Wikipedia an astounding resource that can be used by all people than to try to dismantle it simply because it means change.

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13 thoughts on “knowledge access as a public good

  1. Steve


    I generally with your sentiments. I spent a number of hours last week, when I really should have been working, composing polemics against a singularly obnoxious twit named Andrew Keen, author of “The Cult of the Amateur” who is basically an elitist who thinks the Internet is bad because it allows people he regards as beneath him to gain a mass audience. (My characterization of his work – his mileage may vary). I even stopped by the Britannica blog and took a pot-shot at Gorman himself.

    That being said, I think a defense of Wikipedia in this context is a tad misplaced. (In spite of the fact that I myself defended Wikipedia in one of my comments to Keen).

    I said to Keen, sure Wikipedia has a lot of crap, but….. And I cited an example of some good stuff there.

    Now let me reverse field.

    Sure, Wikipedia has some good stuff, but…

    They’re dishonest hypocritical asses. To paraphrase the famous Huey Long quote “Sure we’ll have elitist gatekeeping on the Internet – but we’ll call it democratic openness”. (Think the Athenian mob that “democratically” voted the execution of Socrates.)

    The system works fine as long as the subject is relatively non-controversial and there are genuinely knowledgable individuals willing to generously give of themselves. That is the Internet at its best, as in the early days of Usenet and anonymous FTP sites. (The Wikipedia article on neurotransmitters is well organized, comprehensive, and was recommended to me by a practicing research neuroscientist, who himself runs a “neuroscience for kids” site).

    But for controversial issues, especially where the minority viewpoint is the one that is substantively more correct, the system breaks down. Because Wikipedia does not permit flame wars – even when a flame war is the only honest representation of the current state of consensus on the issue.

    What they do instead is that one or more well connected administrators will find excuses to silence dissenting voices. Sometimes this involves outright manipulation of the rules. Sometimes it involves honest application of principles which are just bad principles.

    Like “no original research” and “verifiability is more important as truth”. Wikipedia holds as a principle, accepted at the highest administrative levels, that personal knowledge of participants is not valid data for the purpose of editing an article. But information from published sources, regardless of its actual accuracy – is. In effect, they are stating, as a matter of principle, that their mission is not to discover truth but to codify a consensus of the conventional wisdom.

    This hits those of us on the minority side of controversial subjects because there is likely to be a lot of perfectly verifiable published misinformation on the topic in question. The majority view will be seen as authoritative. And the admins are harsh on anybody who challenges this bias.

    So, defend the wiki principle, surely. It’s a noble experiment which will yield important data and may yet achieve something great. But please be careful about jumping into bed with Jimbo Wales and his crew of self-righteous syncophants.

    Keep up the good work,

  2. anonymous

    I agree with Steve. The idea of an online wiki that anyone can contribute to is not a bad one, and I don’t disagree with that. But Wikipedia is in some respects a disaster. It’s not a democracy, it’s more like a muddled bureaucracy of anarchy interspersed with Jimbo’s occasional exercise of dictatorial powers. He gave no thought to rules and organization, to the social aspects of the endeavor and it shows. And the wikipedia culture is in many cases not conducive to finding the truth. “So go and fix it” is nice in theory, but how many hours do you, danah, spend working on wikipedia every week? Furthermore, wikipedia contributors are known as editors and what is prized as a measure of worth is the number of edits. The choice of words is significant: editors, and not writers. Much of the effort that goes into wikipedia is tiny little tweaks of a word here, a punctuation mark there, and many of the current admins got their position as a result of their many “contributions”, most of which were tweaks of little actual value. These two facts together make it that much harder for someone to both write a coherent article and defend it against the forces of entropy.

  3. Phil

    Why are we telling our students not to use Wikipedia rather than educating them about how Wikipedia works?

    Because I could give a 20-credit course on ‘how Wikipedia works’ and not get to the bottom of it. It’s complex. It’s interesting. I happen to believe it’s an almighty mess, but it’s a very complex and interesting mess. For practical purposes “Don’t cite it” is quicker.

    Wikipedia is not perfect. But why do purported experts spend so much time arguing against it rather than helping make it a better resource?

    This is a false opposition: two different activities with different timescales, different skillsets and different rewards. I get an idea, I write it down – generally it won’t let me go until I’ve written it down. I look at what I’ve written down, and I want to rewrite it – quite often it won’t let me go until I’ve rewritten it. All of this takes slabs of time, but they’re slabs of time spent engrossed with ideas and language, my own and other people’s – and the result is a real and substantial contribution to a conversation, by an identifiable speaker.

    I look at a bad Wikipedia article and I don’t know where to start. What I’d like to do is delete the whole thing and put in the stub of a decent article that I can come back to later, but I sense that this will be regarded as uncool. What I don’t want to do is clamber through the existing structure of an entry I think shouldn’t have been written in the first place correcting an error here or there, because that’s a long-drawn-out task that’s both tedious and unrewarding. And what I particularly don’t want to do is return to the article again and again over a period of weeks because my edits are getting reverted by someone hiding behind a pseudonym.

    (I think what Wikipedia anonymity has shown, incidentally, is that people really don’t like anonymity. Wikipedia has produced its own stable identities – and its own authorities, based on the reputation particular Wikipedia editors have established within the Wikipedia community.)

    Is it really worth that much prestige to write an encyclopedia article instead of writing a Wikipedia entry?

    Well, yes. If I get a journal article accepted or I’m commissioned to write an encyclopedia article, I’m joining an established conversation among fellow experts. What I’ve written stays written and gets cited – in other words, it contributes to the conversation, and hence to the formation of the cloud of knowledge within the discipline. And it goes on my c.v. – because it can be retrieved as part of a reviewable body of work. If I write for Wikipedia I don’t know who I’m talking to, nobody else knows who’s writing, and what I’ve written can be unwritten at any moment. And it would look ridiculous on my c.v. – because they’ve only got my word that it is part of my body of work, assuming it still exists in the form in which I wrote it.

    The way things are now, knowledge lives in domain-sized academic conversations, which are maintained by gatekeepers and authorities. Traditional encyclopedias make an effort to track those conversations, at least in their most recently crystallised (serialised?) form. Wikipedia is its own conversation with its own authorities and its own gatekeepers. For the latest state of the Wikipedia conversation to coincide with the conversation within an established domain of knowledge is a lucky fluke, not a working assumption.

    (Also posted at my blog, because it’s got a bit too long for a comment box.)

  4. Jan Sandred

    Great thoughts.

    I share Dr. Gorman analysis, but disagree about the cure. And I completely agree with Danah Boyd’s view on teaching, learning and the role of academics.

    Here in Sweden schools not only use wikipedias (the platform, not necessarily in the education, but also encourage the students to contribute to the shared knowledge. And the Swedish National Agency for School Improvement encourages it.

    The Swedish school curriculum emphasizes life-long learning and sustainable development. There is an emphasis on the individual’s responsibility for learning and thus the demand for “learn how to learn” throughout life.

    A common approach here is “learning by discovery”. That gives each student great responsibility to develop their work, but also imposes very high demands on facilitating and developing their skills in planning. Problem based learning starts from a given case and attempts to explain phenomena that are being questioned. Knowledge grows as work progresses. Wikipedia and collaborative software are often used.

    This way of working also imposes demands on pupils’ ability to think critically and questioningly. And of course critical thinking is an important part of the learning process in Swedish schools.

    This is a major step forward to steer teaching away from focusing on production and focus instead on the importance of the process itself. This requires methodical and focused facilitation. It requires time for reflection, both between the teachers (the academics) and together with students. Reflection is an important part of learning.

    This discussion is also part of the Swedish school’s work on foundation values. What values are implicit in different sources in different media? What values do we have?

    The ability to find information relevant to answering our own questions is a part of living in a democracy. Wikipedia is one important tool in this process, but it also requires critical readers as it does with all kinds of media.

    /Jan Sandred
    Program Manager
    Innovation Actors Division
    VINNOVA, Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems

  5. Noa

    Steve, you wrote:

    “In effect, they are stating, as a matter of principle, that their mission is not to discover truth but to codify a consensus of the conventional wisdom. This hits those of us on the minority side of controversial subjects because there is likely to be a lot of perfectly verifiable published misinformation on the topic in question. The majority view will be seen as authoritative.”

    I see the problem you’re pointing out, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem unique to Wikipedia. Aren’t all encyclopedias this way, and isn’t this how the academy works in the ink & paper world as well?

    Good thoughts.

  6. Will Warner

    There is no such thing as over education, only under achievement, although that can be due to school interfering with work.

    I don’t call myself a Marxist, not because of any great disagreements with Marx, although I have minor ones, but simply to avoid alienating the vast masses who believe that all Marxists are Communists. On the other hand, I do call myself a socialist, so I suppose you have to draw the line somewhere.

    Is it “racked with guilt” or “wracked with guilt”? Google says 43K of the first and 59K of the second, which is apropos here but not quite an answer. Also, I know it does take time and effort for intellectual knowledge to become emotional belief, but I hope you know that the trouble is not that you were born to power and knowledge, but that others weren’t. And I hope that becomes a belief, and leaves you with hope and determination to improve the world, not guilt that it’s imperfect.

    “Now that we can get information to people faster and with greater barriers”– should that be “and over greater barriers”?

    “Is it really worth that much prestige to write an encyclopedia article instead of writing a Wikipedia entry?” Be aware that very much unlike Britannica, Wikipedia has a policy against “original content,” so academics relying on personal expert knowledge would need to post an article on their own websites, then integrate the information into the Wikipedia article, and link from Wikipedia back to their own page. Wikipedia is increasingly guarding against lies by the time-honored academic tradition of the citation. Students shouldn’t cite Wikipedia, but they should use Wikipedia to get the gist of a topic, follow the Wikipedia page’s links to the real sources, and cite those. And improve the Wikipedia page when they come face to face with glaring errors, if they’re willing.

    The genius of discussion, academia, the internet, and Wikipedia, each of which grew from the one before, is not that all participants are wise and speak the truth, but that the process itself sorts truth from falsehood. As Jan Sandred says, that’s critical thinking, and that’s education.

    As far as elitism and greed destroying faith in public goods, let’s not forget that Wikipedia, like any other encyclopedia, requires money to function, and unlike most other encyclopedias, it relies entirely on the charity of Google, its users, and the public. The fact that it exists at all is a testament to people overcoming greed and elitism, perhaps even more so than Britannia.

    Steve: I think Wikipedia articles on topics of controversy *could* be handled well by presenting both sides briefly, with links to more information. But neither side is willing to be a footnote, and so the page explodes into an endless argument. The page isn’t useless because it’s an argument. It’s useless because it’s endless. That said, although Wales and company usually exercise lenient and sound judgment, they have certainly been arbitrary and autocratic many times, even over such pettiness as whether webcomic authors may have pages.

    Phil: I think it’s an oversimplification to say that “Wikipedia anonymity has shown… that people really don’t like anonymity.” Whistle-blowers looking to send a safe one time hit and run message, for example tipping off the GAO to audit a particular government department for massive embezzlement, need real anonymity. People who participate in online discussions of their experiences with sex and drugs and politics, or discussions of most anything else with even a hint of controversy, need a consistent, verifiable alias, which is not linked to any known real person, and that seems to be the best fit for most Wikipedia editors. And people who are firmly in their comfort zone can simply use their primary “real person” identity online.

    I think Wikipedia is becoming a publicly maintained index and summary of the webpages of groups and individuals who are authorities. Writing an encyclopedia article on a topic in your field, and adding a summary of it and a link to it on the appropriate Wikipedia page, could go on a cv, although unlike Britannica, the author won’t get paid, and from a cv viewpoint it would just be an unpublished original article.

  7. Bergo

    I totally agree with Danah’s “Why are we telling our students not to use Wikipedia rather than educating them about how Wikipedia works?”

    I recently completed a Masters of Business and Information Technology. It was interesting that some lecturers used Wikipedia and others didn’t. It was good for basic Economic and business theories I wasn’t aware of, histories of certain people, but it was the starting point .. not “the” source of truth.

    In my field of IT security, most Wikipedia articles relating to “what things are” are less biased than corporate information on the same topic. Providers of information have some bias either peer respect, sales revenue, etc.

    So back to Danah’s ponint .. It’s one source of information but not the only one.

    Another point I think worth mentioning, is sometimes academic meterial is not that readable. Some material that was handed to us in class (Organisation Learning and Management topics seemed to be the worst) took hours and a dictionary to read a 20 page article. People can talk about expert advice and information, but if it can’t be understood easily .. then where does that leave the knowledge seeker or student.

    I would argue that popularity of wikipedia is also due to it’s accessibility.

    I think it boils down to many sources of information provide a better result.

  8. Blake Winton

    I think the main problem with Wikipedia is that less weight is given to the opinions of people who have spent a lot of time studying an issue than to people who have merely made a lot of edits.

    For WebComics, in particular, these two blog entries might be of interest:

    You say:
    “But why do purported experts spend so much time arguing against it rather than helping make it a better resource? It is free! It is accessible! Is it really worth that much prestige to write an encyclopedia article instead of writing a Wikipedia entry?”

    The answer as I see it is:
    “The more that true experts on given fields feel like their input is not only disregarded but dismissed in an effort to be egalitarian, the more that said experts will simply stop writing for Wikipedia.”

    They don’t make it better because they don’t like to see their hard work randomly deleted by people with no experience in the topic, but a lot more free time.

  9. Sage Ross


    Could you provide some examples of subjects where admins are unfairly silencing the more correct minority view? Editors who maintain civility and attempt to make sure significant minority views are accurately represented based on published sources, and who accept that the Wikipedia article should take a he said/she said tone without coming down on one side or the other, are welcomed and appreciated.

    You say the problem is that “Wikipedia does not permit flame wars – even when a flame war is the only honest representation of the current state of consensus on the issue.” I lost the thread of your argument here. Flame wars are what happens between editors with rival viewpoints; on a subject with sharply divided viewpoints, editors should still remain civil. The article itself should certainly never be a flame war, even if it describes a bitter dispute between advocates of different viewpoints. There’s a difference between an article describing a flame war and being one, and Wikipedia has no use for the latter kind of article.

  10. Michael Chui

    Phil said, Because I could give a 20-credit course on ‘how Wikipedia works’ and not get to the bottom of it. It’s complex. It’s interesting. I happen to believe it’s an almighty mess, but it’s a very complex and interesting mess.

    So, where are you teaching it and how can I attend?

    But more broadly in response, it’s not Wikipedia itself that’s the grand repository, but rather the fact that wikis can be used as effective encyclopedias. Mediawiki did not pioneer the wiki, after all.

    Taken differently, keep an eye on the E.O. Wilson’s Encyclopedia of Life. What he’s got is effectively a highly specialized Wikipedia catered towards academia.

  11. Jeff Larche

    About eight years ago Nicholson Baker wrote an interesting article in The New Yorker about the computerization of libraries’ card catalogs. He was “agin’ it.” Baker was aghast that card catalogs were being typed into databases, and then discarded. He characterized these card catalogs as one of a library’s most important works of reference, because librarians would regularly write their comments and cross-references in the margins, and many of these were lost during the typing. Also, the work was being done by $8 per hour students, who had less than ideal work ethics or reverence for the labors of love they were digitizing. He even lamented the loss of the furniture — the catalog shelving itself, with their intricate drawers and reassuring sounds and smells.

    When I read his case, he was persuasive. I feared he was the canary in the coal mine, and we were indeed doomed to lose all of this knowledge. Now I see that data can be mined and appended as easily as flipping through cards and marking them with tiny pencil notations (easier, in fact). He forgot that with the new databases comes the ability to correct as you go, so like the living document whose loss he was decrying, the database itself would be refined, nurtured and improved. By whom? Librarians, of course, who in another generation will look at physical card catalogs as we do rolls of lamb skin.

  12. Will Warner

    Oh, I think librarians already look at paper card catalogs the way they do rolls of lambskin. 🙂

    If the students digitizing card catalogs were careless, if they were irreverent, and if they discarded the handwritten notations, each of those are simply and honestly tragedies. However, there do exist people who were devoutly reverent to all aspects of libraries even during their college years, and I will hold myself up as an example.

    These days, if a library was moving from a card catalog to a database, they could simply put the cards into a scanner one tall stack at a time, and the machine could automatically feed through each card, read off the ISBN, and make a local copy of that book’s complete record from one central database, including keywords, author, title, and so on.

  13. Catherine Weller

    Thank you Danah for your defense. I still remember doing my 3rd grade research paper of the White Whale. I spent hours at the public library and after searching through piles of text was only able to find a few articles that referenced my sought after whales. Today thanks to the internet and open access to information I could have written my paper on everything down to the whales DNA code, and included interviews of individuals that had one on one experiences with these incredible creatures.
    There will always be errors in information, just like when we thought the world was flat. Thankfully to you and others like you, including the operators of Wikipedia, some of that misinformation wall is breaking down….. What may come.

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