Part of the beauty of Wikipedia is the hope that through its openness and its anonymity it could democratize the process of how knowledge gets built and organized. Last year The Awl published an essay “Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert,” in which Maria Bustillos argued, “Wikipedia, along with other crowd-sourced resources, is wreaking a certain amount of McLuhanesque havoc on conventional notions of ‘authority,’ ‘authorship,’ and even ‘knowledge.’ ” Online, the crowd was knocking the individual off its throne as the arbiter of information. As Bustillos quoted Clay Shirky, “On Wikipedia ‘the author’ is distributed, and this fact is indigestible to current models of thinking.”
But, of course, this kind of collaboration doesn’t itself imply the absence of expertise. Experts can, after all, collaborate together. And Wikipedia certainly benefits from academics with specialized knowledge developing and patrolling articles they care about. (This is particularly true when measured in terms of Wikipedia’s breadth — it’s hard to imagine many of the extremely technical scientific articles existing at all without the input of scientists who made it their business to fill out the encyclopedia’s periphery.)
So “experts” in the traditional sense (e.g. academic pedigrees) do still matter in this collaborative environment. But a new study from researchers at Stanford University and Yahoo Research points to a complementary phenomenon: The definition of what makes someone an expert is changing. They search for expertise in Wikipedia’s pages, and they find it, but what they’re looking for — what they call expertise — uses different signals to project itself. Expertise, to these researchers, isn’t who a writer is but what a writer knows, as measured by what they read online.
Read more. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]