I love your writing style; it’s very funny and irreverent, and makes us all think about things from a fresh angle. Your post about the amorality of Web 2.0 is a classic read: "This isn’t the language of exposition. It’s the language of rapture": great stuff! You and Kevin Kelly have like an asynchronous online version of Crossfire going on; for sure, please keep shaking things up.
But I have to take issue with the attacks you and The Register have written on Wikipedia, and the participative nature of Web 2.0. In particular, you build up a black & white worldview defined by "amateurs" and "professionals" that I think is very counter-productive to thinking about the real challenges of Web 2.0.
On "Amateurs" vs "Professionals"
So you write,
"The promoters of Web 2.0 venerate the amateur and distrust the professional… Perhaps nowhere, though, is their love of amateurism so apparent as in
their promotion of blogging as an alternative to what they call ‘the
mainstream media’ "
But exactly what is the definition of an "amateur"? Or a "professional"? And who decides what label you deserve?
I read blogs written by prominent venture capitalists, marketing gurus, university professors, successful entrepreneurs, engineers, hedge fund managers, equity analysts, and many others who are unquestionably considered "professionals" within their chosen field of work.
These people are anything but "amateurs". Besides their "offline" qualifications, they’re people who help bring down racist politicians; raise awareness of crappy products; come together to organize relief efforts; provide companies with early feedback; and so on.
Do you honestly believe these people are "amateurs"?
Something else you write:
"Forced to choose between reading blogs and subscribing to, say, the New
York Times, the Financial Times, the Atlantic, and the Economist, I
will choose the latter. I will take the professionals over the amateurs."
Your choice of examples for the "professionals" is certainly good. But it doesn’t have to be such a stark choice. I think blogs can play a complementary role to the MSM in various ways, one of which is to fisk very obviously wrong information that goes uncorrected.
In my own blog, I’ve taken issue in the past with the sloppy data that the Economist Intelligence Unit are using to publish their MBA rankings. Now, I have nothing to do with any MBA programs, I’m not a journalist, nor do I know anything about how these rankings are compiled, and nor do I really care. In this subject matter, at least, I’m very much an amateur.
But I find it very irritating to see a brand that I respect like the Economist let their standards slip like this, so I blogged about it. And from the small but steady traffic that post continues to generate every day, from readers all over the world, I think I’ve been able to make a small contribution to the integrity of the discussion of MBA rankings.
You really came down hard on Wikipedia in your post. So let me give you another example, one that actually involves Wikipedia.
I live in Spain, a country that has experienced spectacular population growth in the past 6 years. Fertility rates in Spain have been below replacement level for long enough now that all of this growth has come from immigrants attracted to the warm climate and growing economy.
Around 2000, the population of Spain was about 40 million, and it was expected to stay at pretty much exactly that level for many years before starting to decline. Instead, massive immigration has pushed the population to an estimated 44 million. Ten percent growth in 6 years, all from immigrants!
"Population: 40,341,462 (July 2005 est.)"
This is just flat out, factually wrong. And not just a little wrong, but almost 10% off.
As if to complete the illusion of rigor, we’re told this is a "July 2005 estimate".
I fully realize the folks at the CIA are all overworked and busy trying to find this bad guy, but surely they could spare an intern to check up on the data they’re disseminating to the world?
Estimating the population of Spain shouldn’t be that tough- we’re talking about a modern Western European country. One could check the local press for population figures like these:
January 1, 2005: 43,975,375 (estimated- official data come out early 2006)
Or even better, surf on over to the national statistics institute and get the latest, official census data:
January 1, 2004: 43,197,684 (official data)
You might be wondering why I care about this? For the same reason that I came down hard on the Economist: it irritates me to see brands I respect issuing research that is so obviously wrong. Now when I look at EIU or CIA data, I start to second guess whether what I’m reading is actually accurate. How many of the world’s business plans, economic models, and research projects use as base assumptions the numbers that come out of the CIA World FactBook or the EIU World in Figures?
But here’s the funny bit: what if that CIA intern, assigned to double-check the population estimate of Spain, doesn’t speak Spanish and so can’t navigate the Spain’s statistics institute website? Easy, just head over to…Wikipedia! For in this very same place that you called an "incoherent hodge-podge of dubious factoids" is the following figure for the population of Spain:
Population: 43,209,511 July 2005, estimated
Ok, the figure isn’t sourced, and still seems to underestimate what the INE and other sources have published. But it’s still far more accurate than the CIA’s estimate!
I know that you "wouldn’t depend on it as a source, and..certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a student writing a research paper", but let’s admit that it’s a whole lot more transparent, and adaptable, than the opaque processes at work behind sources such as the CIA and EIU. And as we’ve just seen, in some cases it’s quite significantly more accurate as well.
On "Scary Economics"
Well, that what you called it. But if you look at software development, from any angle, over the years much of what was once work done by paid-for employees has vanished under the tide of ever improving programming languages, debugging tools, development environments, version control software, and the opening of vast, indexed content/tutorials/fixes/code samples/etc available to all at any time.
Far from putting all programmers out of work, these improvements have made programmers much more productive, and therefore more capable of spending their time on solving more important problems.
I’ve worked for consulting firms where the respective telecoms practices would invest a lot of consultant and researcher time to benchmark things like mobile phone and internet access tariffs in countries around the world. No value added, just aggregating the data. And this work was probably being duplicated simultaneously by dozens of firms, none of which would dream of sharing the data with one another.
What a waste. Instead, today we have the BroadbandWiki, which in less than a few weeks has collected and made freely available, loads of useful information about broadband markets in dozens of countries. This is maybe the building blocks of what equity analyst James Enck was calling "open source research".
And rather than being a "threat", it’s actually a great opportunity to free many man-hours around the world to solve more interesting problems than redundantly compiling information inside closed environments (your company).
Your "scary economics" strike me as just modern-day luddite fear of a world where content and the technical and social systems that help people find, create, manage, and distribute it are constantly improving. Welcome to the world of programmers; don’t worry, you’ll survive! And if you’re willing to adapt, you’ll be grateful for all the change.
Phrasing for the real issue here could be called "challenging economics", which Om, Silicon Beat, and others raise the alarm about: Web 2.0 participation is moving ahead but still sorely lacks new business models to compensate companies sharing data, and users sharing content/time. To address this problem, have a look at some stimulating ideas by venture capitalist Peter Rip. I believe many of the problems that you describe in your blog will be resolved by systems along the lines of what Peter is hinting at.
Finally, I can’t emphasize any better the positive aspects of the participative nature of Web 2.0 than by this very blog post, because I’m just a guy with a humble blog, working on a vertical search startup (yeah, yeah- who isn’t), writing from Barcelona, Spain. One of the amateurs, by your definition! But thanks to Web 2.0, here we are having this discussion.