The Amateurs' Hour

In Reason, David Harsanyi reviews The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, by Andrew Keen.

“Can a social worker in Des Moines really be considered credible in arguing with a trained physicist over string theory?” he asks, referring to Wikipedia, the online, user created encyclopedia. “Can a car mechanic have as knowledgeable a ‘POV’ as that of a trained geneticist on the nature of hereditary diseases? Can we trust a religious fundamentalist to know more about the origins of mankind than a PhD in evolutionary biology?”

Well, yes and no. I, of course, have the prerogative to trust whomever I want. In the same way I once gathered my news from The National Inquirer and listened to Art Bell’s late-night radio broadcasts for clues to my place in the universe, today I can ferret out similarly useless information webwide.

The more significant point, one that Keen ignores, is that the Web 2.0 explosion has provided me with something I’ve never had before: access to ongoing discussions between and among trained physicists, trained geneticists, and religious fundamentalists. Laymen as well as experts are now invited to sit in on these conversations. On occasion, the amateurs get it right, triggering dramatic results. Matt Drudge can announce the Monica Lewinsky scandal while Newsweek dithers about publishing it. Or a blog like Little Green Footballs can help catch Dan Rather peddling forged documents about the president’s service record. Rather than undermining information, this new access has expanded users’ understanding of the world.

I’d like to add just a bit to Harsanyi’s defense of the conversational nature of Wikipedia. The social worker who isn’t qualified to argue with a trained physicist over string theory can, of course, contribute to an article on social work. But more important, if the social worker asks questions on the string theory discussion page, or even makes bad edits in the article itself, that’s a sign that at least one member of the audience doesn’t understand the Wikipedia article, and it’s a beacon calling for others to fix the problem, making the article more accessible to the social workers of the world, and in the process, improving it.

This is, of course, the very reason why Wikipedia is not a reliable source for college research papers (or even middle-school ones), but quite frankly nobody should turn to any encyclopedia, not even the printed encyclopedias gathering dust on the library shelves, as the final destination of any serious research. (Encyclopedias provide a general overview, putting a topic into a general context, but you won’t find original research in any encyclopedia, you’ll just find someone’s summary of sources that a serious research should really go read first-hand.)

Because the discussion over each article happens transparently, with each mis-step and correction chronicled in the article history page, the enemy of usefulness on the internet is not the nature of the information itself, but rather the naive attitude of a reader who does not approach that information with the proper critical standpoint.  Each year when I explain to freshmen my attitude towards Wikipedia, somebody in the class is shocked to learn that anybody — anybody — can edit an article. Recently, one young man said, “They wouldn’t let them put it on the internet if it wasn’t true!”

I have high praise for the high school teacher who, instead of banning Wikipedia, instead assigns students to read the discussion page of a controversial topic, so that the students who go on to college will arrive with the idea that college is not all about hunting through textbooks or listening to lectures to find the “right answers,” but rather that college is an opportunity to learn the skills necessary to succeed in an information-centered world.