digital rhetoric

web 2.0, "open source," and the filter

Hmmm… some scare quotes in that title huh? Well. It’s a result of my continuing to respond to this conversation on Brittanica Blog. I’m really hoping that the participants will move on to more sophisticated and productive discourse. But here’s some more. Gregory McNamee describes "open source" as a model

in which one opinion is as good as the next until it is shouted down,
regardless of credentials or qualifications—indeed, in which
credentials or qualifications scarcely enter into the discussion. That
sham democracy has to allow for the opinions of people who may not be
qualified to hold them: that’s the built-in dilemma of the enterprise.
Everyone has the right to an opinion, of course, but that does not mean
that one opinion is as good as another…

The interesting dilemma though, if we were to accept this definition, is that open source works. There are many instances of the success of open source. Of course open source projects sometimes fail, but projects of all sorts sometimes fail.

The problem with this entire line of reasoning in most of these posts at Britannica is that they unnecessarily conflate different attributes of a discourse community.

Let me offer some examples. I have some huge lotto-like cash windfall.
I decide to get together with some buddies and create an encyclopedia

on insects. I pay for the book to be published and market it like crazy
and so on. The fact that our book is published in a traditional way,
that is it not open source, that it is copyrighted, and so on, does not
assure anyone that it is not trash. Yes, you could say that’s what
editors and publishers are for; they are there to make sure that books
are quality and accurate. And you would be right in that editors and
publishers do serve as a kind of pre-filter for the public
dissemination of information. As someone with a book coming out this
summer, I know first-hand the great service a good editor and publisher
can offer. At the same time, we all know there’s plenty of trash in

Here’s a counter-example. A group of experts, for example in my own
field of rhetoric and composition, get together and create a website
dedicated to publishing research in their field. They accept
submissions from colleagues, review them according to disciplinary
standards, edit the texts, and publish them on the website. They use a
blogging application to publish their work. The site, technically, is a
blog. Or, if you prefer, they don’t publish traditional scholarship,
but offer more informal, though still expert, discourse about their

Is the question raised by the Britannica bloggers a question of
expertise? Is it a question of technology? Indeed it is a question of
both in that technologies allow citizens to bypass the pre-filtering of editors and publishers. Web 2.0, however, does offer us post-filtering. We might study successful open source communities to see how contributors establish expertise and how the community identifies good information.

Here’s the fairly obvious thing, I think. In the print world, the information-production bottleneck as at the printing press. It made sense to put the filters (i.e the editors and publishers) right in front of the bottleneck. The web bottleneck, such as it is, is the browser. Anyone can put information on the web witih a click, as I hope to in a minute, but as a user I can only read one page at a time or listen to one podcast or watch one video, etc. So the filters go right before the link that I click to go to the site.

These kinds of filters exist in different ways. Google offers one kind of filter based on linking (you may or may not like it). You might trust certain bloggers and follow their links. Most folks have sites they regularly visit or use for specific purposes. Perhaps we need better filters, though to imagine the traditional filters of editors, publishers, and professional reviewers in newspapers and magazines do not have their own problems would be quite naive.

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