Thursday, July 31, 2008

Knol: So The Pushiest Loudmouths Don't Always Win

Google recently introduced Knol, a project many observers deem directly competitive with Wikipedia. Read the announcement for a very concise explanation of what Knol's about.

I was once an active Wikipedia editor (as Slog readers might guess, rarely on food topics), and frequently I'd do an edit, and find, the next day, that the original author had changed it back. Sometimes I'd gingerly redo my edit, nuancing it a bit to be more acceptable to the author and inserting a note in the articles "talk" page. Inevitably, it'd be hastily reversed again, with nary a reply to my note.

My recourse at that point was to launch a full-out war, or make a fuss, or present a case to the powers that be for the veracity of my point. I never did any of these things, because while I'm passionate about my points, I got out of the habit around age eight or so of needing to try to "win" every argument. I'd let the original authors have their way.

Needless to say, that sort of restraint is unheard of with some people. During my years (ack, decades) of running Chowhound and other online communities, I've been dismayed to observe a very powerful dynamic: the pushy loudmouths always win. They scramble to the top of the hill, start shouting, and relentlessly push back down the hill all non-like-minded comers. And here's the big problem: the comers are rarely as relentless as the pushers. They tend to cede the turf. Reasonable people, alas, behave reasonably. So the pushiest and most intolerant loudmouths always win, because they are inherently less accommodating than their opposition. We've seen this dynamic in reality tv shows, online communities, kindergarten, American politics, and, for sure, on Wikipedia, which is like cyberchocolate to the uncompromising loudmouth.

Two bedrock policies at Wikipedia make it so: first, everyone's effectively anonymous (and many are completely so), and as we all know from driving, people act their very worst in an anonymous public flow. And, second, the Wikipedia credo involves a very low degree of moderation (though it's ratcheted up a bit over the years), and, as any Somali (or Usenet discussion participant) will tell you, anarchy is not a felicitous condition for human communities - though, like Communism, it sounds great on paper. The big difference of Knol is that it changes both those variables.

To be sure, Knol allows the pushy loudmouths their place in the sun (as if they could easily be deflected!). They get to make their points AND to get credit - and that sort loves credit. But it also allows the rest of us a chance to pitch in without having to don battle gear. And it allows us to collaborate with each other a little more sensitively. The result, if Google plays it right, and if it unfolds optimally (i.e. not as a vast delta of individually-authored parallel articles on any given topic), will be a bifold resource, consisting of a toxic collection of the minor fiefdoms of loudmouthed crackpots (some of them good, and they'll "float" up to visibility), and a much larger collaborative part resembling Wikipedia, only without the loudmouthed crackpots, and benefitting from the higher quality that results from sensitive gardening (i.e. moderation) the greater degree of individual responsibility that comes from naming names.


alyce said...

Jim, "They tend to cede the turf." Do you think this describes Pres. Obama's natural inclination as a reasonable person when up against the unreasonable loudmouths on other side of the aisle? I do it all the time so I understand the inclination.


PS. (am pecking this out on cell phone.)

Jim Leff said...

No. He never gives up. You may think he over-compromises, but he never cedes the ground out of exasperation, the way many moderates and leftists have withdrawn from political life in disgust as a result of the relentlessness of right-wing radicalism.

More on ceding:

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