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A democracy is for opinion, not for knowledge

We’ve seen systems crop up in the last few years that tap the power of many. Slashdot, Digg, Reddit, Wikipedia, etc. These systems are very powerful – they opened our eyes to the power of collective knowledge. We each know a bit, but together, we know a whole lot more.

We can spots duplicates. We can fact check. We can find patterns. We can dig up information that’s been buried under time and secrecy. Together we are capable of so much. The idea that the many are greater than the few is a powerful meme that we’ve harnessed quite well since the internet came to town.

However, it is not a panacea. Our wisdom of crowds sometimes presents itself as the yelling of the loudest. Our popular pages are just that, popular.

That is what crowds do.

They do not convey the nuance of discussion. They do not reward the facts in the face of widely held opposing opinion. The democratic freedom we’ve unleashed by having everyone be a publisher, everyone be an editor, everyone having the ability to leave a comment or post a response video has lowered the signal in many ways.

When the many start to yell, sometimes it’s not rational. Sometimes the voices of reason are drowned out. Sometimes the knowledgable and the educated are overpowered by those who are not. And this is not good when the subject matter is knowledge itself.

Crowds are good at giving their opinions. We should use them for that.

Experts are good at knowing things. We should use them for that.

We should not conflate the two – and we should be more aware of which one we want at the time we build our systems.

There is debate about the new service coming online in the next few days, Citizendium. The idea is one that the founder, Larry Sanger, has had for years. He wants experts to rule the knowledge, just like I’ve said above. He wanted it when he started Nupedia and he’s wanted it to be a part of Wikipedia from the beginning. He’s now going to fork Wikipedia and try once more. But it is a flawed plan as it stands. Clay Shirky explains why:

Sanger et al. set the bar for editorship, editors self-certify, then, in order to get around the problems this will create, there will be an additional certification and de-certification process internal to the site. On Citizendium, if you are competent but uncredentialed, you will have to be vetted before you are allowed to ascend to the editor’s chair, and if you are credentialed but incompetent, you’re in until decertification. And, critically, Sanger expects that decertification will only take place in unusual cases.

This is wrong; policing certification will be a common case, and a huge time-sink. If there is a value to being an expert, people will self-certify to get at that value, not matter what their credentials. The editor-in-chief will then have to spend considerable time monitoring that process, and most of that time will be spent fighting about edge cases.

What we need is a better way. A middle way. A way where the users are still in control and the administrators won’t be caught on the edge cases. A way where the users decide who to grant more power to and perhaps more importantly, in what context that power holds.

We need the ability to grant cognitive authority to one another and have it matter when the votes come in. When the discussion comes up, those who ‘know stuff’ should have a greater say. Same as in the real world. We grant authority to those who deserve it, and they use it as it was designed.

I’m working on it. Contextual Authority Tagging.

Contextual Authority Tagging is the use of folksonomy to discover and define cognitive authority through reputation within communities of users. Authority is granted by individual users to other individual users with regard to their perceived domains of knowledge via free text tags or labels. This allows discovery of at least two things, 1) which users in a group are authority figures on a certain topic area, and 2) what areas of expertise a particular user possesses. A basic proposal is laid out along with a few examples to foster communication and thought on this new distributed way to discover cognitive authority.

Do let me know what you (all) think.

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