MSNBS is running a story on the Digital Universe. In the middle of last year, I posted about these issues, remaining quiet on the whole Digital Universe thing, since Larry Sanger requested that those he contacted stayed quiet.
But now it seems the cat is out of the bag, and so I can say: I’m worried. They have lined up some great talent, but some of the core issues surrounding Nupedia still remain: namely, how to build participation. They are offering a freely available information source (a good thing), but still hope to monetize it in some way by providing–and here it seems to get a bit strange–dial-up? The money side of it doesn’t make much sense to me, but the production side is particularly difficult.
There are already some “big name” researchers and groups associated with the project. However, it may remain difficult for the Digital Universe project not to appear as something of an arriviste, unwilling to work with academics or organizations who are not well-established, yet not really part of that club yet. I am not a name, nowhere near it, and I therefore probably am of no interest to Digital Universe. But, at the same time, they are not particularly of interest to me. Why would I publish with their project, rather than self-publishing? The claim is that creating material for Digital Universe will carry prestige–and mentions have been made about it applying to tenure, which to me demonstrates a clear case of wishful thinking. But there are plenty of prestigious outlets for such work. If I were seriously trying to reach a public audience, I could blog–which I do sometimes–or I could talk to the Discover Channel, who might actually pay me to put together something educational and interesting. In other words, I think what Wikipedia got right, far more than anything else, was the idea of micro-commitments of time. And the only way for that to really work is for there to be a huge base of people contributing continually.
Now the critique against wikipedia, that it drowns out the more informed voices with more popular voices, I think is a fair one. The anti-elitism leads to deficiencies in some of the content, I think. But this is a minor critique of a resource that simply works. Wouldn’t mutating that working model make more sense than inventing from the ground up?