Why Make Room for Experts
in Web 2.0?
Keynote delivered at SDForum, San Jose, California, Oct. 24, 2006.
There's a bit of conventional
wisdom about Web 2.0 that is wrong.
to this conventional wisdom, Web 2.0 involves bringing the power of publishing
to the masses.
It's all about harnessing
the "wisdom of crowds" and not the
wisdom of experts.
So, a project that gives
experts a special role couldn't be a Web 2.0 project--even if the expert's
role were part of an online, open, dynamic, collaborative community.
This conventional wisdom
Experts can have a special and positive role in Web 2.0 projects, or so
As we'll see, it's quite
understandable why so many people dislike
the idea of special experts in open, online collaboration.
But, as it turns out, there is no good reason
that Web 2.0 projects cannot make room for experts.
So this talk will be
I'm a philosopher, so
it's probably going to sound a little like a philosophy paper.
Sorry about that.
Anyway, I'll begin with an explanation of what
Web 2.0 is, as I understand it, and I'll explain what makes it work.
Then I'll elaborate my claim that experts can
and should be given special roles in Web 2.0 projects.
Then I'll spend a lot of time replying to objections.
1. A way to understand Web 2.0
I want to begin by
saying how I understand the Web 2.0 phenomenon.
I don't want to discuss the meaning of the term at length, because that
topic has been done to death and frankly I find it pretty dull.
I am more interested in the phenomenon that
the term vaguely gestures toward, not the meaning of the term itself.
In my mouth, anyway, "Web 2.0" refers to
Internet services, such as Google Search and "mashups" like Weather Bonk, and
community projects, such as MySpace, Wikipedia, or Digg, which create content
(or links to content).
Web 2.0 projects
use two main methods: radical collaboration and aggregation of data from a very
wide range of sources.
Now, I think what
makes Web 2.0 interesting, and what makes the wide variety of Web 2.0 projects
seem to "hang together," is that they are viral,
and they are viral for similar reasons.
let me explain what I mean by "viral." Sorry if this is a bit remedial, but it's an important point.
A virally-built resource is one where the
output of the resource serves as an attractor of further output.
So it's a positive feedback loop.
Wikipedia and MySpace are both excellent
examples of viral websites.
nature is something we noticed pretty early on in Wikipedia's development.
Every time Google spidered the wiki, there'd
be a spike in traffic.
The extra traffic
would make the number of new articles spike upward as well.
Then there'd be more articles for Google to
spider the next time around, and then more visitors who would become contributors,
and so on.
MySpace was also built
virally but in a slightly different way: people, mostly young people, would
send links to their MySpace pages to their friends, who would join, create more
content, and invite their friends,
and pretty soon it became a very "in" place for kids to hang out online.
A lot of people are
very excited about Web 2.0 precisely because
People dream about profiting virally.
Everyone wants to be the next YouTube, which
is a perfect example of a virally-built resource that has made a few people
Personally, though it might
be crazy to say, this isn't my interest.
What I love about the viral potential of Web 2.0 isn't that it can make
money virally, but that it can create loads
of useful content virally.
what I love.
So, what explains why Web 2.0 projects grow
I don't pretend to have the
last word on this, but here is my take--a combination of at least five reasons.
virally-growing project has to have a clear
purpose, an attractive reason for its existence.
In other words, it has to fill a niche that
its users and contributors can understand.
The Internet is full of many dead wikis and many dead link-gathering
projects--projects that were really stillborn, because no one really thought
much about what their purposes or niches were.
Meanwhile, if you look at the most successful Web 2.0 projects, you'll
see that every one of them has a purpose and a niche that can be stated in one
or two sentences at most.
certainly true of MySpace and Wikipedia.
Second, to grow
virally, the project has to be fairly simple
to use and contribute to.
are too complicated don't enough attract users and contributors for the simple
reason that you can't usually get a quorum of people to take the time to
understand and to follow a complex system.
This is one reason why Wikipedia's parent project, Nupedia, failed.
Third, to grow
virally, the content needs to be open--it's open both to view and, at least in some sense, to
Not every Web 2.0 project produces something freely reusable, but
it is typical.
The openness and freedom of
Wikipedia has been the main key to attracting contributors.
Actually, openness and freedom are absolutely
essential to the virality of Web 2.0 in general: most contributors to a free
project start out as users.
Fourth, to grow
virally, the project at some point reaches a quorum both of developers and of
Sometimes it takes a long time,
and sometimes it happens right after launch.
But at some point, a successful Web 2.0 project has enough people
involved that it can be expected to continue
to grow, for a good while at least.
until you have a quorum, few people actually want to contribute.
The reason they don't want to contribute, of
course, is that it's not happening,
and they don't want to waste their time by contributing to something that isn't
Fifth and finally, to
grow virally, the project has to rely mainly on bottom-up organization. In other words, participants decide what
they want to do, how much they want to do it, and when they want to do it.
They have total independence in determining
the nature of their contribution.
something very similar to what Eric Raymond famously called the "bazaar" model
of software development.
matter how many people you have ready to work on a project, if you have to get
permission from a bureaucracy for every little change you make, it simply won't
take off in Wikipedia or YouTube fashion.
Internet forums like Slashdot illustrate the phenomenon perfectly: Slashdot
staff posts a story, and the Slashdot crowd proceeds to discuss it, without
asking permission from anyone of course, even as "anonymous cowards" if they
Google Search itself is the
ultimate in bottom-up organization.
get into the Google database, all you have to do is make a website and post the
URL somewhere for Google to spider.
way to publish, it's hard to get more bottom-up than that.
Web 2.0 projects take
off virally, then, for at least those five reasons.
They have a clear purpose, are simple,
and are open to users and developers;
and these three things help attract a quorum
of users and developers.
organized from the bottom up, which
ensures that work is done as efficiently as possible.
The results attract more users and
contributors--and (with any luck) viral growth follows.
Note that this is
exactly why "bazaar"-developed open source software has taken off in the past
In fact, all five points characterize and explain the virality of a whole
bunch of different projects: Linux, other open source software projects, DMOZ
to some extent, RSS and the blogosphere (if you want to take it as a single
thing, I know many don't), Wikipedia, MySpace, YouTube, and dozens of others.
2. The thesis
much for background.
Now, here's the thesis I want to defend:
experts can play special roles in Web 2.0 projects without "breaking" such
And in some cases they should.
To put it more elaborately, people who know a
great deal about a subject, who are recognized by various societal mechanisms
for that knowledge, can add a great of value to Web 2.0 projects, if they are
given special roles that recognize their expertise.
And they can add that value without threatening the health of the
This claim is pretty vague, but
it's vague because the point I'm trying to make is both very general and,
unfortunately, controversial even at this very general level.
The fact is that, with
the exception of open source software projects, almost all Web 2.0 projects do not make any special role for
Now, software projects do make special room for software
But those projects do not
typically put people into leadership positions simply because society recognizes that they have software expertise;
the software experts have to demonstrate their expertise through their coding
for the project.
So what I'm proposing
this morning is pretty radical.
Recently, I announced
a new wiki encyclopedia project, which I'm calling the Citizendium, or the Citizens' Compendium.
It will be based on Wikipedia, but it will
add gentle expert guidance.
editors will work shoulder-to-shoulder with non-expert authors on the same wiki.
But the editors will be able to make binding
decisions when controversial issues arise, and they will be able to bless
certain versions of articles as "approved"--without, of course, preventing
further improvements to the article on the wiki.
So that's an example of what I mean by "special roles in Web 2.0 projects."
Now, there's an
obvious and common-sense argument that experts should be given such special roles.
I mean, this argument really couldn't be more obvious, to me at least.
So the argument is
It has two premises and a
First premise: some collaborative
projects concern things that are directly
within the expertise of some people.
is true, for example, of encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks, and
authoritative links databases.
Second premise: for
such projects, entrusting some
decisions to people who are experts will ensure that those decisions are more
likely to be correct.
If you disagree
with that, then you're saying that no matter how much you study or get
experience with a subject, you never really improve the reliability of your
judgment about the subject.
Conclusion: it follows
that encyclopedia projects, and other projects, will benefit by entrusting some
decision-making to the relevant experts.
If you want to make sure you're doing a good job with some knowledge
project, it's a good idea to let people who have the relevant knowledge to make
3. Replies to some "lightweight" objections
Personally, as I said,
I think this is totally obvious.
there are a lot of people who will want to disagree with me, so I will spend
much of the rest of my talk by answering objections they might raise, in
I hope this will be both
enlightening and entertaining.
with some relatively lightweight objections.
First, someone might
say that Web 2.0 projects do make
room for experts.
participate just like anyone else.
Nothing is stopping any Nobel laureate from participating in Wikipedia,
Now, this is correct, but
it simply misses my point.
I am not
saying that experts can participate
in Web 2.0 projects without messing them up; I am saying that they can be given
special decision-making roles without
messing them up.
And, as probably
everybody knows by now, experts definitely do not have any special
decision-making roles in Wikipedia.
A second objection
typically comes in the form of a question: "what's an expert?" or "who decides
who the experts are?" This question is
usually expressed as if it were making some very profound point; it's a
People who ask this
don't really want a definition of
"expert," or an explanation of how experts are chosen for their expert
Instead, the force of the
question is to assert something.
this: "Nobody has the right to place one person above another person in point
It's just offensive to me
that you would think so." People who ask
this rhetorical question, "what's an expert?" are expecting you to feel guilty
about the assumption that anyone should be in charge of saying who are the "knowers" of society, because in our relativistic age, everyone is supposed to
have equal access to the truth.
as an conceptual objection or as an operational puzzle,
I don't regard the difficulty of identifying experts as a serious problem.
A third objection is one
that hardly anyone ever actually comes out and owns up to believing wholeheartedly.
It is that experts simply aren't needed--that
the wisdom of crowds solves all problems, that the aggregate opinion and the
average effort is, magically somehow, superior to expert knowledge and practice.
No offense to anyone, but this point would be
simply inane to offer as a reply to my thesis.
My thesis is a modest one.
some Web 2.0 projects could be improved if some of their decision-making were specially
done by experts.
To reply to that by
saying that the wisdom of crowds is always
going to be better than the wisdom of experts is just a nonstarter, I
It doesn't even merit reply,
except to say that it's daft.
kindly, I might say that the general claim is totally unproven.
For whatever reason, some people clearly want it to be true.
4. Do experts have cultures that are
incompatible with Web 2.0 culture?
So much for the lightweight objections.
are a couple of much more interesting ones, though.
Probably the most interesting and most
powerful argument against my thesis is that experts, meaning here especially
academics, scientists, and professionals generally, have a culture that is
totally incompatible with the culture behind Web 2.0.
There is, I think, a set of basic values that many people at work on Web
2.0 projects share.
In fact, these are
some of the same things that make Web 2.0 projects grow virally.
These values are simplicity, openness, and
bottom-up organization--and these values are
not shared by your average non-plugged-in professor or doctor or
And I agree with this.
Ask most Wikipedians, or YouTube
contributors, or Slashdot denizens, and they will agree: it's extremely important that the production
system be maximally simple, open, and bottom-up.
By contrast, most expert types just totally
don't get this.
When they sit down to
design content creation systems, they frequently add complication on top of
complication, until it has a zillion steps and can move only sluggishly if it
can move at all.
Simplicity is, for such
project designers, clearly not a high priority.
Similarly, expert types often require high application hurdles that keep
out the riff-raff, and they keep their projects closed off from outsiders until
the content is in pristine condition.
That's how professionals routinely work, and anything smacking of
openness, especially openness to the extent of Wikipedia or MySpace, just makes
Finally, experts almost
always arrange themselves into bureaucracies when they organize projects.
For many, it's the only way they can feel
I agree with this indictment.
Those really are
characteristics of many experts, and those characteristics really are incompatible with Web 2.0 projects.
Having admitted this, I would like to point
out that nothing in particular follows from it.
While there are many stodgy old sticks-in-the-mud,
there are also in fact many experts
who are comfortable with the values that make Web 2.0 possible.
Thousands of them have contributed to
Wikipedia; there are many hundreds of regular
Wikipedia contributors who are experts on anybody's reckoning.
And they're quickly lining up to join the Citizendium--we were up to 180 plausible
editor applications last night--and it will be a pretty open wiki project
featuring the public guided by and working right alongside experts.
Like Web 2.0 projects generally, it'll
feature simplicity, openness, and bottom-up organization.
But it will
make room for experts.
I can draw something relevant from my own experience here.
When I first introduced the idea of a wiki
encyclopedia to the experts-only Nupedia Advisory Board, they wouldn't have
anything to do with it.
Something that simple, open, and uncontrolled could
produce nothing but garbage.
So the old Nupedia Advisory Board turned out to be mistaken, I think.
They were correct that the wide-open system
we proposed for Wikipedia would not produce very
But they were
incorrect about something more important.
They didn't see that it could produce something of great value, and
clearly Wikipedia is tremendously valuable.
But fast forward now--it is now five years later.
The power of the wiki model is impossible for
anyone to deny.
A lot of experts who
would not have thought twice about contributing to Wikipedia in the early days
later became regular contributors.
in fact, some of the old Nupedians are involved in the Citizendium, I would like to
My point, then, is that Wikipedia has taught literally thousands of
academics, scientists, researchers, and other professionals the potential of
the Web 2.0 model of content creation.
And more are learning every day.
To be sure, there will be an old guard that will never accept anything
as ridiculous as a wiki.
But some of the
old guard is learning; and there are now people
entering graduate school who used Wikipedia in high school.
The new guard will understand implicitly the
value of, and the values behind, Web 2.0.
So, if the question is whether there is potentially now a quorum for
expert involvement as part of Web 2.0 projects, the answer is unequivocally
"Yes." We have plenty of evidence of
I should also discuss a related point briefly.
Some will say that the very proposal
itself--to install experts in special roles in Web 2.0 projects--will itself keep projects from becoming
"viral." After all, if someone has
special authority to make a decision, that means the project will then be, to
that extent, not "bottom-up" but instead "top-down."
My answer is this.
That's true as
far as it goes--but it doesn't go very far.
We can easily imagine expert content filtering done that does not change
the bottom-up nature of content creation.
Imagine that content selection is merely reactive.
Then work does not
have to be assigned from the top down; it can still be done where, when, and as
much as a contributor wishes.
is that it is possible to make small changes to the most radical Web 2.0 model
without breaking the model.
And it is possible for expert involvement to be
a small change.
5. Conclusion: why experts are
out in the cold
I'm going to wrap this up now.
Most Web 2.0 projects don't make any special role for experts.
But I think they could involve experts, and they would benefit from involving experts so in many cases.
And so they should.
There are a lot of arguments against such
expert involvement, but none of them are any good at all, as far as I can tell.
If it's not on the basis of some solid
reasoning, why are experts left out
in the cold, when it comes to Web 2.0?
I think there's a couple of reasons that have
nothing to do with the arguments I went over earlier.
Basically, it's like this: geeks and business
people start Web 2.0 projects, and they don't want to give up their authority over
The attitude is that if
you give academics and professionals some power, they're going to try to seize
control totally--because that's what those people try to do, you know.
And when they seize control, they'll ruin the
They'll make it into another
top-down, closed, overly complex bureaucracy.
I think there's probably some fear along these lines this lurking in the
background, that explains why, for instance, Wikipedia has not installed
anything like an expert Advisory Board, or any role
for experts for that matter.
management could have made such changes years ago; clearly, they have
explicitly chosen not to make such changes.
Fear of power-mongering intellectual bureaucrats is very probably part
of the reason.
Frankly, I will own up to having that fear myself.
It's one reason that, for the Citizendium project, we will have a
charter that will be difficult to change.
The charter will have term limits for responsible positions.
I myself am committed to stepping down after
one to three years, in order to set a healthy precedent.
The charter will help guarantee that the
project does not morph into the kind of top-down bureaucracy that could kill
The charter will also make sure that
ordinary authors continue to be able to work shoulder-to-shoulder with experts
on the wiki.
We're also planning a
separation of powers.
We will have the
content decision-making power of editors, on the one hand, separate from the
enforcement power of the community managers, on the other.
Anyway, there's one reason experts are out in the cold: people fear that
they'll try to take over; give 'em an inch, they'll take a mile.
I don't think that's necessarily true, but
the fear explains a lot.
Another reason that experts aren't a louder part of the Web 2.0 party is
a bit ironic.
Web 2.0 culture is itself rather exclusive in its own
Western cosmopolitan culture in
general is broadly egalitarian, and online culture is even more so.
In most Web 2.0 communities, real-world
identities and accomplishments are not supposed to matter.
This tends to drive off persons who expect at
least some sort of special acknowledgment
of their real-world accomplishments.
cultural differences also put off professional types, who tend to be relatively
mature adults; much of Web 2.0 culture seems to be part of youth culture.
It's hard for a professional to take a lot of
Web 2.0 projects seriously if they seem dominated by younger people.
Clearly there's cultural divide between the Web 2.0 egalitarians and the
academic and professional worlds.
the divide might close somewhat in coming years.
We forget, sometimes, that the Web in
particular is still quite new, that most people online today weren't online ten
years ago, and old habits die hard.
fully expect that online open collaboration will become more mature, not less,
as a lot of Internet users age.
Moreover, more mature people will get used to, and start influencing the
culture of, the Internet.
So, as far as I can tell, there is no reason to think that limited
expert oversight would break the model that makes Web projects like Wikipedia
and Digg so successful.
The resistance to such efforts is primarily
cultural, I think; it's not based on well-justified ideas of what makes
In fact, expert-led
collaboration and aggregation might combine dynamism with reliability.
It's certainly worth a try--and we shouldn't let
dismissive attitudes toward untested possibilities stand in the way.