Why Make Room for Experts
in Web 2.0?

Larry Sanger

Keynote delivered at SDForum, San Jose, California, Oct. 24, 2006.

There's a bit of conventional wisdom about Web 2.0 that is wrong. According 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 is wrong. Experts can have a special and positive role in Web 2.0 projects, or so I'll argue. 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 argumentative. 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. First, 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. Its viral 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 it's viral. 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 very rich. 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. That's what I love.

So, what explains why Web 2.0 projects grow virally? I don't pretend to have the last word on this, but here is my take--a combination of at least five reasons.

First, a 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. That is certainly true of MySpace and Wikipedia.

Second, to grow virally, the project has to be fairly simple to use and contribute to. Projects that 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 reuse. 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 users. 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. But 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 happening.

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. I mean something very similar to what Eric Raymond famously called the "bazaar" model of software development. It doesn't 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 wish. Google Search itself is the ultimate in bottom-up organization. To get into the Google database, all you have to do is make a website and post the URL somewhere for Google to spider. As a 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. Work is 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 decade. 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

So 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 projects. 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 project. 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 experts. Now, software projects do make special room for software experts. 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. Expert 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 this. It has two premises and a conclusion.

First premise: some collaborative projects concern things that are directly within the expertise of some people. This 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 some decisions.

3. Replies to some "lightweight" objections

Personally, as I said, I think this is totally obvious. But 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 advance. I hope this will be both enlightening and entertaining. I'll begin with some relatively lightweight objections.

First, someone might say that Web 2.0 projects do make room for experts. Experts can participate just like anyone else. Nothing is stopping any Nobel laureate from participating in Wikipedia, for instance. 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 rhetorical question. People who ask this don't really want a definition of "expert," or an explanation of how experts are chosen for their expert roles. Instead, the force of the question is to assert something. Namely this: "Nobody has the right to place one person above another person in point of knowledge. 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. Either 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. It's that 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 think. It doesn't even merit reply, except to say that it's daft. More 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. There 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 lawyer. 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 them cringe. Finally, experts almost always arrange themselves into bureaucracies when they organize projects. For many, it's the only way they can feel truly comfortable.

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. That was the consensus.

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 reliable material. 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. And, in fact, some of the old Nupedians are involved in the Citizendium, I would like to point out.

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 that.

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. The point 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 those projects. 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 project. 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. Wikipedia 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 it. 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 way. 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. Other 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. But 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. I 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 collaboration work. 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.

Home