A fantastic post by Larry Sanger on Edge on Wikipedia and other forms of mass online opinion. It is about subjectivity and objectivity, about equal access and authority, about meritocracy and reputational systems. Sanger is co-founder of Wikipedia and started a competitor called Citizendium (Wikipedia with real names and experts-integration). Sangers' deepens my previous posts on journalists and bloggers, on who controls entries on Wikipedia from a PR point of view and on Jaron Laniers' Digital Maoism. Highly recommended reading and watch out for Citizendium to grow rapidly !
"Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise. An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with.
But that's exactly what happens on wikis, and on Wikipedia. To be able to work together at all, consensus and compromise are the name of the game. As a result, the Wikipedian "crowd" can often agree upon some pretty ridiculous claims, which are very far from both expert opinion and from anything like an "average" of public opinion on a subject. I don't mean to say that the Wikipedia process is not robust and does not produce a lot of correct answers. It is and it does. But the process does not closely resemble the "wise crowd" phenomena that Surowiecki is explaining.
The desire for fairness creates hostility toward any authority—and not just when authority uses its power to gain an unfair advantage, but toward authority as such. That is, the most radical egalitarians advocate that our situations be made as equal as possible, including in terms of authority. But, in our specialist-friendly modern society, expertise can confer much authority not available to non-experts. Perhaps the most important and fundamental authority experts have is the authority to declare what is known. This authority, then, should be placed in the hands of everyone equally, according to a thoroughgoing egalitarianism.
I support meritocracy: I think experts deserve a prominent voice in declaring what is known, because knowledge is their life. As fallible as they are, experts, as society has traditionally identified them, are more likely to be correct than non-experts, particularly when a large majority of independent experts about an issue are in broad agreement about it. In saying this, I am merely giving voice to an assumption that underlies many of our institutions and practices. Experts know particular topics particularly well. By paying closer attention to experts, we improve our chances of getting the truth; by ignoring them, we throw our chances to the wind. Thus, if we reduce experts to the level of the rest of us, even when they speak about their areas of knowledge, we reduce society's collective grasp of the truth.
It is no exaggeration to say that epistemic egalitarianism, as illustrated especially by Wikipedia, places Truth in the service of Equality. Ultimately, at the bottom of the debate, the deep modern commitment to specialization is in an epic struggle with an equally deep modern commitment to egalitarianism. It's Truth versus Equality, and as much as I love Equality, if it comes down to choosing, I'm on the side of Truth."