Web 2.0: an unlimited resource of something

Two-pointopians rejoiced at the news yesterday (AP wire report) and it seemed as if a blow had been struck against the cult of the expert. A 5th grade student visiting the Smithsonian noticed an error on a display that had been up for 27 years. A sign incorrectly referred to the Precambrian as an era, the boy dutifully pointed this out on a comment card and the paleobiology department acknowledged that the kid was right and corrected the display.

At first glance, this looks like an excellent anecdote to trot out when crowd-sourced resources such as Wikipedia are brusquely dismissed. One could hardly invent a more apt sound-bite than the combined authorities of the Smithsonian shown up by a schoolboy. Thus the smug disdain of the educated elite who dismiss publicly-authored documents in favor of the authority of established experts is refuted. Well, until today’s news anyway.

Counterpoint quickly comes in the form of comments on a peer review 2.0 project at MIT Press that showed, unsurprisingly, that open review isn’t yet ready to provide us with a replacement for good old peer review. (Chronicle, Ars Technica) So perhaps the revolution is not so quite so revolutionary after all.

I’m pretty squarely on the fence when it comes to crowd-sourcing, Web 2.0, or whatever we are calling it today. All of my bookmarks have been converted to del.icio.us and Facebook has become my favored means of communication must faster than I’m comfortable with. So clearly I’m an adopter. I find some of these new tools and new ways of communicating both useful and fun. On the other hand, one of the major aspects of my job is helping students understand why their professors demand they use peer reviewed sources. Our peer review systems are far from perfect, but they provide a service the academy cannot live without. Plus, I always chuckle when I read the Annoyed Librarian skewer technological evangelism. Of course, she doesn’t really deal with the technologies themselves, just the uncritical adulation they inspire amongst librarians (myself included). Whatever we decide to call the new technology’s participatory culture, it doesn’t replace our existing authority schemes. It’s new, it’s fun, it’s interesting for certain, but just how useful is it? When my cell-phone beeps at 4am telling me I have a new facebook friend, should I call that progress?

It will likely take us some time to figure out what exactly to make of the new participatory culture. We know it is something, I just don’t know how to correctly assess its value. I’m behind the times and haven’t read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody yet, but I’m sure when I do I’ll understand a little better. For a counterpoint I guess I’ll have to go back to Marshall MacLuhan soon. A look forward through the rear-view mirror will be rewarding, I think. He predicted the “global village”, but let us not forget it was a dystopian vision. We have a need for critics who understand new communication methods without getting swept away by irrational exuberance. So many criticisms of Web 2.0 seem based in nostalgia and snobbery, rather than in an engagement with and an understanding of what is actually going on that I have difficulty crediting otherwise valid points.

Returning to our heroic school-boy who set the Smithsonian’s Paleobiologists straight, I think we can draw one solid conclusion about crowd-sourced review from his story. Notice the following section from the wire report:

While no previous visitors to the museum had brought up the error, it has long rankled the paleobiology department’s staff, who noticed it even before the Tower of Time was erected 27 years ago, she said.

“The question is, why was it put up with that on it in the first place?” Ramsdell said.

A closer look at the story shows that the kid didn’t know anything that experts didn’t. He didn’t have access to a better source of information, he just cared more. Hats off to him for it! For 27 years, no one with the expertise to know that the Precambrian was not, in fact, an era had the necessary amount of pathos to do anything about the error. With new media technologies and the internet, pathos is an unlimited resource. So while crowd-sourcing may not be a replacement for peer review, it is, at least, an excellent source of copy editing.