I have a problem with authority. It’s not that I’m independent, insubordinate, and contrarian. I am, but that’s not my problem. My problem is with the rising abuse of the word amongst bloggers, wikipedians, folksonomists, and other social software activists.
In the good old days, not so long ago, in the context of the written word, authority was a term used primarily by librarians as a criteria of evaluation. Along with accuracy, objectivity, and currency, we judged source authority. Who is the author? Who is the publisher? What are their individual and institutional qualifications and reputations? Have the contents been edited and refereed? Is this an authoritative source?
But then, authority was appropriated by the Technorati mob, where it swiftly lost definition in a tangled tag soup of popularity, power, trust, credibility, and relevance. These words were tossed around indiscriminately in a Bacchanalian festival of semantic anarchy.
For those of us who value a taste of hierarchy along with our hypertext, things were beginning to look a bit dicey. Fortunately, before the tag clouds could totally eclipse the sun, a new entity emerged as a source of authority and illumination.
Just as we feared that nobody was in control, the world’s largest, most accessible, and most widely used encyclopedia appeared to reassure us that, to the contrary, everybody is in control.
From evolution to intelligent design, the accuracy, objectivity, and currency is surprisingly good. And, in fact, the entry on authority is really quite helpful:
People obey authority out of respect, while they obey power out of fear…Authority need not be consistent or rational, it only needs to be accepted as a source of permission or truth.
The article describes Maximilian Weber’s three types of authority (traditional, rational-legal, charismatic) and offers links to related concepts like law, power, and trust. Or, at least it did at the precise moment in time when I visited. The words may since have changed.
But this fluidity, while problematic for citations, does not by necessity harm its cognitive authority. Now, some old-fashioned librarians may claim that due to the pseudo-anonymous, multi-author nature of the Wikipedia, its articles have no authority. But they’d be wrong. Authority derives from the information architecture, visual design, governance, and brand of the Wikipedia, and from widespread faith in intellectual honesty and the power of collective intelligence.
Of course, sometimes trolls intentionally post lies, and sometimes amateurs mistakenly post untruths, but before we cast stones at the Wikipedia, it’s worth revisiting our faith in the authority of traditional printed sources, for even the revered Encyclopaedia Britannica is riddled with errors, not to mention the subtle yet pervasive biases of individual subjectivity and corporate correctness.
And anyone who reads newspapers, books, or academic journals knows things are only getting worse. As the industry endures a perfect storm of rising competition and falling readership, traditional publishing has entered an era of error. Proper spelling and punctuation are but trivial casualties in a war of attrition that long since killed off the fact checkers.
The Hyperbole of Folksonomy
In this disruptive milieu, the emergence of the Wikipedia as a poster child for bottom-up publishing and collaborative categorization (along with the relatively minor successes of de.licio.us and Flickr), has inspired a motley crew of rapture-ready anarchists, anti-taxonomists, and folksonomy fetishists to predict not just the demise of traditional publishing but the end of hierarchy itself.
Though folksonomy was born on an information architecture list, it was quickly hijacked by the Technorati. Says Dave Sifry:
Tags are a simple, yet powerful, social software innovation. Today millions of people are freely and openly assigning metadata to content and conversations. Unlike rigid taxonomy schemes that people dislike, the ease of tagging for personal organization with social incentives leads to a rich and discoverable folksonomy. Intelligence is provided by real people from the bottom-up to aid social discovery. And with the right tag search and navigation, folksonomy outperforms more structured approaches to classification.
Now don’t get me wrong. I like tags as much as the next geek. And I enjoy the revolutionary rhetoric of the free-tagging movement, to a point. But when Tim O’Reilly, the publisher behind the lemur and polar bear books, starts predicting the death of taxonomy, it’s time to set the record straight.
You see, tags are only the visible, superficial symbols of a much deeper, more interesting revolution in findability and authority. Wikipedia doesn’t beat Britannica because it has better folksonomies. It wins because it’s more findable. And its success didn’t come without structure. In fact, the Wikipedia has a traditional information architecture (with strong design conventions and a fixed left-hand navigation bar) and a traditional governance model (with Jimbo Wales and his Board of Trustees as the ultimate corporate authority).
Of course, the Wikipedia is only a foot soldier in this revolution led by Google. After all, Larry and Sergey were the first to capitalize on folksonomies in the 1990s with the advent of the PageRank algorithm which uses links as indicators of authority and aboutness. In this sense, Google is by far the biggest story in free tagging. And along the way, Google has taught us a couple of lessons:
- It’s the Findability, Stupid!
- The Revolution is Multi-Algorithmic.
Google is worth nearly $90 billion because Google helps us find what we seek. And Google has delivered superior findability via a multi-algorithmic approach that recognizes the value of:
- Full Text. Matching keywords in the query and content.
- Information Architecture. Analyzing the internal link structure and hand-crafted metadata of each web site.
- Free Tagging. Leveraging the links between web sites.
And while famous Googlebombs like miserable failure show us that sometimes the authority of the masses can redefine the aboutness of the object, usually there’s a good match between the words of the author and searcher. As leading indicatrs of semantic serendipity, the folksonomies of Flickr and del.icio.us are cool, but when it comes to findability or re-findability, stacked up against Google and Google Images and Google Desktop, they barely merit attention.
Herbert Simon’s conclusion that we satisfice under conditions of bounded rationality was decidedly optimistic. Anyone who’s studied bias in decision making knows that “unbounded irrationality” is a more fair and balanced description of human psychology and behavior. Well-documented decision making traps include:
- Anchoring. When considering a decision, we are unduly influenced by the first information we find.
- Confirmation. Through selective search and perception, we subconsciously seek data that supports our existing point of view, and avoid contradictory evidence.
This puts into context the amazing power of Google and the Wikipedia and other highly findable sources of information to influence what we learn, who we trust, and how we make decisions.
Of course, we must also recognize the power that devolves to the individual in an open media landscape that enables us to select our sources and choose our news. In today’s Google economy, we are increasingly becoming our own authority.
The real upheaval lies just ahead, as a generation of school kids (and their teachers and librarians) struggle to reconcile traditional notions of education and objectivity and authority with the constructivist web of social facts and collective intelligence where folksonomies flourish and the truth is a virus of many colors. I can hardly wait.
Viva La Revolution!
by Peter Morville