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October 20, 2005

Nick Carr's Amorality

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Posted by Ross Mayfield

Cast aside the anti-hype rhetoric, and keep in mind it is an argument not of fact or policy, but value, and you will find Nicolas Carr’s post on the amorality of Web 2.0 has a salient point — that social software is on an inevitable march of disruption. Commoditization wrought by commons based peer production does enable the triumph of the amateur over the professional. But this does not portend the destruction of mainstream media, only it’s reformation.

Yes, the economics favor the bottom-up. This allows the creation of an alternative we have never had before. A choice. But media selection theory holds that old media simply doesn’t die. Carr’s very desire to retain professional media as his selection is one consumer’s proof point.

The underlying economics of MSM must change, and it will, through creative destruction and unfortunately the loss of many jobs in the transitionary period. Think of social media as a fork in social software, or a third party movement in politics. Unfulfilled demand is self-fullfilled by a new grassroots consituency. New and previously unrepresented constituencies are forming fast as the cost of personal publishing and group forming trend towards zero. But the mainstream gradually co-opts these experiments and movements as their own to stay in power. Today MSM is experimenting with social media in areas where the cost structure previously prevented them to access the market, such as hyperlocal media. To say that mainstream media will not leverage the tools and co-opt the culture of the amateur smacks of technological determinism.

But this is an argument about values, so it’s important to highlight what values needs to diffuse from professional to amateur. Dan Gillmor’s mission to pass on ethical standards from journalists to citizen media is case in point. The former audience is about to go through media training on a massive scale, all in all a good thing, but there is much we can do to pass on practices.

Carr provides a healthy contrarian perspective for the blogosphere. Perhaps by claiming amorality he makes us think, and is advancing our values.

Where I have to take issue on fact is with his post on Wikipedia. I won’t repeat the dead, tired and defeated arguments on quality, so let’s center on fact:

Now, there’s a way around this “collective mediocrity” trap. You can abandon democracy and impose centralized control over the output. That’s one of the things that separates open-source software projects from wikis; they incorporate a rigorous quality-control filter to weed out the crap before it pollutes the product. If Wikipedia wants to achieve it’s goal of being “authoritative,” I think it will have to abandon its current structure, admit that “collective intelligence” makes a pretty buzzphrase but a poor organizational model, and define and impose some kind of hierarchical power structure. But that, of course, would raise a whole other dilemma: Is a wiki still a wiki if it isn’t a pure democracy? Can some wikipedians be more equal than others?

Open source software and Wikipedia are both driven by commons-based peer production. How they differ, and the reason software development requires rigorous quality-control, is that code has dependencies. Writing code is vertical information assembly, while contributions to a wiki is horizontal information assembly. Wikipedia does have quality control and an organiztional model, but it isn’t a feature embodied in code, it is embodied in the group. I know of no goal of being authoritative, but the group voice that emerges on a page with enough edits (not time) represents a social authority that provides choice for the media literate. Carr could create a Wikipedia page to help define what “pure democracy” is to help him answer his rhetorical question — but a wiki is just a tool, and Wikipedia is an exceptional community using it.

Keep in mind that most wiki use is behind the firewall where there is an organizational hierarchy and norms in place. There it taps into similar economics, without the great debates on social truth, and for the competitive advantage of firms.

Back to values, when you tap into the renewable resource of people in mass collaboration, allocated against the scarcity of time, driven by social signals — is this not of greater benefit for social and economic welfare than the disruption that created mainstream media in the first place? I’m glad we agree with Carr on the facts of the disruption. If we can get past the misunderstanding that there is a value difference, we could maybe focus on the right policies that will help us in years to come.

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. Kevin Bjorke on October 20, 2005 4:06 AM writes...

The attacks on wikipedia's "quality" are bizarre because wikipedia uses a very established model of QA -- peer review. It's done ad hoc, rather than by assigned committee, but it is a collective resource, just as the Encyclopedia Britannica or the US Code are collective, continuously-revised, resources. And none of them have valorization beyond what their consumers assign.

Sadly but not surprisingly, wikipedia is not much favored as an acceptable resource for academic papers, even at the high-school and middle-school levels (much less grad school). This seems to me a harmful trend -- even as students grow up with a lot of experience-based trust in large-scale databases and search engines, their teachers deny the viability of this information. I can't help but feel that the net result is not students who view the internet skeptically as much as students who view their teachers skeptically.

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2. Phil on October 20, 2005 5:07 AM writes...

Nice to hear that the Carr/Orlowski critique of the quality of Wikipedia is "dead, tired and defeated". I've got that on your authority, then, Ross?

Kevin - you can't have it both ways. You say that "wikipedia uses a very established model of QA -- peer review" and point out that no systems of peer-reviewed knowledge "have valorization beyond what their consumers assign". This is all fair enough - Wikipedia is an unusual example of a much broader phenomenon, what I've called the knowledge cloud process. But you then criticise some potential wikipedia 'consumers' (academics) for withholding valorisation. I'm not sure that criticism is actually legitimate within the argument you've set up - if participation in the wikipedia conversation is voluntary (as it surely is), non-participation can't be penalised. Even assuming that the criticism can reasonably be made, you don't give us many clues as to what grounds there are for making it. (Other than Wikipedia being cool, of course.)

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3. kris olsen on October 20, 2005 9:36 AM writes...

This quote is buried deep in your post - "Keep in mind that most wiki use is behind the firewall where there is an organizational hierarchy and norms in place." Spot on.

That reality is completely missed by MSM and the Nick Carr's of the world. All this wikipedia debate and the focus on large aggregations of 'communities' completely misses the point about wiki and other social tools.

Like politics, I guess, the wiki debate needs to be national and public, but real action and value will be local (behind the firwall).

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4. JohnO on October 20, 2005 9:52 AM writes...

Old Media isn't going anywhere. Their profits are. Because as we spend time reading blogs, and listening to podcasts, we're not buying MSM. Our time does not scale well - that is MSM's problem.

I don't imagine for a second that the Times, or Post will every be replaced by a group of bloggers. Those will always exist, and should always exist. But, bloggers have conversations about things that aren't on MSM's radar. Classic long-tail problem for MSM.

As for the writing quality on wikipedia, yes it is horrible in spots. I don't know that the facts are incorrect, but at least the organization of certain passages is horrible. I think this can be seen in the peer-review process as mediated by technology. I'm sure that when you're sitting in an editing room with the guy who was paid to write this article, you the editor are a little delicate to not rip his style and flow apart - lest he rip you apart. With technology as the mediation, you don't know who's work you're editing. The words are just words, not sacrosanct at all. People are free to insert snippits of fact into a nicely formed paragraph. Enough people do this we end up with horrible style and flow.

I'm sure one problem is that most people (I know I wasn't until very late) aren't taught how to write correctly. Moreover these are self-proclaimed amateurs, which lowers the quality bar a bit more. Don't take offense either. I don't think we should expect an amateur to be better than a paid staff writer who graduated with a degree in journalism - that is a pretty high bar.

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5. mobius on October 21, 2005 10:27 AM writes...

among the concepts underlying the web 2.0 mentality, as o'reilly put it, is "radical trust." all carr's post reveals is that he has no faith in humanity. rather he puts his faith in the arrogant belief that our leaders are somehow qualified to lead us. he thus prefers authoritarian structures to anarchistic ones.

if we've learned anything from watching the media in the last few years, covering 9/11, the war in iraq, and so forth, we should know beyond a doubt, that you can't trust the mainstream media as far as you can throw them, and their authority rests not in their knowledge or their abilities, but rather in the faith we invest in them.

personally, i'd rather invest my faith in my fellow human being.

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6. Nick Carr on October 21, 2005 1:23 PM writes...

Now, hold on there, mobius. I don't mind Ross Mayfield poking at my argument, but when you start questioning my anarchist credentials, my dander gets up in a hurry. Let me remind you that anarchism takes two forms. There's the hippie-dippie utopian model, subscribed to mainly by people who can't bring themselves tro use capital letters (the rules of punctuation being tools of The Man), and then there's the let's-blow-this-m!therf!cker-up-and-see-what-happens model. I'm a lifelong member of the latter school. (At a purely intellectual level, of course. Explosives scare the hell out of me.)

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7. william on October 22, 2005 1:01 PM writes...

Yes you can say this but are you definitely sure about that. I think you have to take certain changes that how this will help to others. I am not offending your comment; just I want to give my personal suggestion. As this is the only way to help them. This is the only way to tell other people about that. Hope this will be beneficial for them.

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8. Marcelo Lopez on January 24, 2006 4:18 PM writes...

I just love folks who consider themselves enlightened. For all the creativity folks try to expound, we've proverbially all just arrived on the planet just before midnight on the universal scale of "time", or time as we know it. Get over yourselves already.

Nick is spot on, sure maybe the wikipedia reference was a LITTLE thick, but he's not wrong, not by a longshot. And CERTAINLY not far from dead bullseye on the subject of Web 2.0.

That MSM "has" to change is simply because like any market, it had never truly adapted to market forces happening outside it's realm. OMG haven't journalists for an eternity considered themselves the literati of us all? Just because they managed the channels of information to the masses? Or sometimes even steered information into precipitating outcomes as they wished ? You get to see this story, but you don't get to see that one. Yeah, that sounds like the whole Media Machina at work.

The ONLY thing this whole phenomenon has the chance, and it's just as precarious a proposition as Democracy was to the founding fathers of the U.S.A., is to allow person A to refute, restate, rephrase, any statement person B has made. And allow person A to present their point of view, or evidentiary information, to turn around any point that person B has put forward.

It also allows A persons to congregate and share their POV, and B persons to do likewise. But that can be found at almost any local watering hole, or local pub.

What it does, that MSM does not, is allow for the possibility of what I call fresh squeezed data. It is so, because it's plain, it's there, and if you're subscribed to it, it's freshly deposited into a receptacle where you can drink it in, as little or as much as you care to. Something which MSM has hardly ever done for the public at large.

The point that Nick makes is well taken, that "those in the know" ( and you know who you are, or THINK you are, so let's not get bogged down into a name calling contest ) purport it across as a 60's social model applied to internet. Or that the internet is a formless universe where you can be Wonder Woman or Superman, for low low price of admission to your local broadband provider's electron stream.

It didn't work back them ( does anyone remember what most of our wonderful flower power people brought us during the 80's..... ), it really doesn't fly now.

I'm not saying anyone in the whole Web 2.0 wave is amoral, but please, spare me the "it'll change everything" perspectives. Everything changes every day you wake up in the morning and take your first deep breath. Web 2.0 isn't going to change everything, it's not going to take people to some mystical place where magical things are possible. It'll simply make some things easier to do, but in most cases, it'll simply make it so we can fit more things into the time ( little time ) we have now.

Which really makes me wonder why so many of these little Web 2.0 stealth companies are running around like ferrets trying to flesh out investment angels, and VC godfatha's to fund their people engineering web projects. IF they really WERE so altruistic about helping humankind, I think it wouldn't be "about the money". Seriously.

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9. Barbara on February 20, 2006 6:34 AM writes...

about carrier...See:carrier

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