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  • Peter Morville
    Authority (October 11, 2005) http://semanticstudios.com/publications/semantics/000057.php ... I have a problem with authority. It s not that I m independent,
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 11 12:33 PM
      Authority (October 11, 2005)


      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

      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.

      The Wikipedia

      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

      Of course, the Wikipedia is only a foot solider 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:

      1. It's the Findability, Stupid!

      2. 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.

      Authority Unbound

      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!
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