Friday, 28 September 2007

Te Ara - the pompous talking to the stupid ?

Can't help but share and respond to a challenging comment to my last post from John, who takes strong exception to my enthusiasm for Te Ara. So, thanks for the comment John. I guess if you begin a post with a bias warning, then you can expect an equally robust response. But it could provoke a counter response. I'm up for others two cents worth - but here's mine. So here we go.

First, thanks for the comment/response. You obviously feel very strongly about Te Ara, so I guess there must be some kind of professional, or maybe even, on the taxpayer thing, some political angle to the strength of your views?

Te Ara Design
As to the design - for sure it could lighten up a bit, and it does get a tad dense on occasion - but I totally stand by my own opinion around the information architecture - the use of themes instead of an A/Z encyclopedia approach, and the way they have chunked the material into different sizes for different kinds of audiences is, IMHO, very effective.

Pompous people to stupid people
That said I'm more interested in engaging with your other strongly held critique - that .." Te Ara is a top down elitist channel from pompous people to stupid people.... that people don't need experts .. that the material is badly written .. and that the primary audience is other pompous people"

Frankly, I think the tone of the above is sheer tosh. But whatever.

The Expert?
However, I do think your post is well worth engaging with on the issue of the place for the 'authoritative expert' in this brave new world of web 2.0 citizen created content.

Curiously, I'm the guy who is more often or not seen as the champion of the non authoritative voice. But as I suspect you long since guessed, I'm also on the side of the expert, and totally believe there is a need for peer reviewed walled gardens.

However, before you explode into another bout of well structured and well written - bah humbug - I'm also equally clear that the the gates to the walled garden need unlocked , and that ultimately, the voice of the expert is best heard inside a conversation in which other voices can both participate and contribute to the ongoing vitality of the topic.

But let's be clear here - that doesn't at all mean that the primary loci of the online expert voices abandon their individuality, structure, and give way to a cacophony of other voices.

Moreover, offering Wikipedia as an alternative doesn't help here - the notion that Wikipedia doesn't have subject experts is superficial at best - most articles are shaped and grown by a panel of contributors, who, by definition, have assigned themself an authority to speak. Indeed, increasingly, this authority to speak is in turn validated by the growing structure of editorial control that has crept into Wikipedia.

Collaboration Spaces
However I do believe, and I suspect we might even manage a grudging agreement here, that Te Ara, and other formal sources need to allow their pages to be exported into new collaboration, and/or learning spaces. I also believe that Wikipedia should do the same.

In short, I believe the future is not around trying to navigate debates around the benefit of formal - informal : expert- citizen created content.

Rather I strongly hold the view our energies should be pointed at either writing or persuading people to develop open API's, federated search and discovery tools, which people can use inside their own digital spaces

My Studio
As to what these personal collaboration spaces might look like? Who knows? But I'm equally strongly of the view that the likes of My Space and Facebook are pale shadows of the potential that we could build to manage our growing digital lives.

My own way of talking about this is to imagine what might be in an online space I call My Studio.
As it happens , it would probably be full of what you call pompous voices - but thats my choice, and hey, we don't have to share. But we could if we choose.

For myself, I'm totally up for the challenge of not just making studio spaces - and finding partners who share the potential of the idea - and persuading the mainstream knowledge factories , both public and commercial to put their content into them - and that includes Te Ara.

So, for me, not only is Te Ara welcome to their money, I totally believe, they are a welcome part of a learning revolution in which the expert voice is as welcome around the fireseide as yourself.
p.s. my favourite example of so called experts talking about their subjects is In Our Time - BBC Radio series - the new series has just started at
But hey - maybe its just more deluded pompous people talking to more stupid people.


bill said...

I agree with you Paul. The anti-intellectual tone of John's comments are a little depressing when you consider that some of us are trying to build a competitive knowledge economy in NZ. Maybe I'll console myself later with a large glass of whatever John's been drinking.

Kebabette said...

In response to your post on nz-libs "Is it, for example, a regular source for Any Question material?", I am an AQ operator and I do make use of Te Ara a lot, and students are generally pleased with what they get from it.

It is a brilliant thing, I agree.

My only gripe is that it doesn't link to further information and web sites in a natural, flowing way. This relates to your point about collaboration space and the authoritative, expert voice.

Anonymous said...

"loci" - what is that??

Could you please use understandable language if you want us to know what you are trying to convey.

Deborah Fitchett said...

"loci" = "places" (from Latin 'locus', as in 'location' - sorry, ex-linguistics student here so this stuff interests me)

Anonymous said...

Not being familiar with Te Ara, I've just gone to have a look. I tried to search for the first thing that came into my head - Haast Pass - and a lot of links came up. Clicked on one and it took me to a page about European exploration, with no mention of Haast or his pass but lots more links. I don't want to wander round in circles. Wikipedia was much simpler - a map, brief history, simple links to related topics. I don't know what the target audience of Te Ara is. I'm very interested in NZ history but after this bad first impression Te Ara would not be my first port of call. Can't see my children using it either.

Anonymous said...

Uh, first of all, apologies for the spelling mistakes in my last comment. I should have proofed before I pressed 'publish'. No wonder Bill thought I was drinking something.

Thanks for your thoughtful response Paul. It's much more than I expected.

I don't actually have an agenda about Te Ara, except as a user. I am not in any relevant industry and I don't have a beef about taxpayer funding generally. My particular agenda is that of a very frustrated user. I really really want a site like this to be available for my research needs. I have visited it - and the Dictionary of NZ Biography - countless times, looking for fast research details. It never delivers. I still haven't given up, but I am very frustrated about it. DNZB actually does deliver sometimes - it tells me new stuff I can't get elsewhere, even if it is written in a way that is accessible only to clever people. But DNZB (it's a warning sign when it comes with an acronym) is even worse designed. Actually, much worse designed. I take back some of what I said about Te Ara design, because I actually had them confused. (My bad, sorry.) And I agree with your main point about organisation around themes. I can see the idea behind that. But the thematic approach means some basics aren't covered. It only really works if you start at the beginning. You can't easily alight looking for a simple starter phrase.

So then I look at the reason it doesn't deliver for a user like me. And I think the reason is that the whole idea of the site is that there is a body of knowledge existing in the heads of authors, which needs to be handed down to people who don't have that knowledge.

I was arguing this is an old-fashionaed approach to the web - it's one that I think Paul you have been sceptical of. Web 2.0 didn't rise because someone thought it was a good idea. It arrived as a better alternative to knowledge aggregation and creation. Maybe that is all I was raving about: Te Ara is so Web 1.0. (I'm not geeky enough to use a statement like that, but you started it...). You get the feeling in another 15 years Te Ara will be the same as it is now - a high-spec brochure sitting on a shelf, waiting for someone to pick it up and browse. Maybe trying ever harder to be more inviting and logical when that user picks it up. But still a brochure written by people who think they know a lot for people who don't.

I am fully in favour of taxpayer funding for stuff that grows the total body of knoweldge. But Te Ara doesn't do that.

That's because it is not a source of information unavailable elsewhere. If it added stuff you just can't get elsewhere, then it would be sensational. How would it do that? Maybe it would hand pick its way through links, and it would write original commentary about that material. Plus it would make available source documentation from NZ's archives, museums, libraries and other sources that are currently difficult to access.

This is not, in my view anti-intellectual. It is anti- the prioritisation of knowledge held by high priests over knowledge held elsewhere. I am not saying everyone's ideas are as good as everyone else's; I am saying there are other sources of knowledge. What happens when you hand over the responsibility for imparting knowledge to a priesthood - "pompous people" if you will, though I can see that description is unwelcome - is that the priesthood controls the information. The priority then is no longer purely growing knowledge of others, but it also becomes controlling that knowledge. Hence the example of the use of macrons to spell "pakeha". The use of macrons is an example of people using their knowledge and power as controllers of TeAra, to control the way others get knowledge. Actually, macrons have no place in the spelling of "pakeha". Others would have that they do have a place, and good luck to them. But you just know someone made a policy decision that 'by God we are going to use them on this site.'

What happens when hundreds and hundreds of those trivial policy decisions are added up? Users find they can't get what they want. Plus effort goes into correct form, instead of into growing knowledge. Users then can't be bothered. The site becomes a waste. And that is what is frustrating. Wouldn't everyone rather have something that grew the sum of knowledge?

How is it anti-intellectual to argue for that?

I couldn't find Goldie adequately there. Another commenter couldn't find Haast Pass.

Both of us can find a lot of stuff with one click at Google. But we also want better.

Bill's comments about anti-intellectualism are off topic, but I want to respond, if it isn't trolling to do so. If you think intellectuals are building the knowledge economy, then I disagree, strongly. A knowledge economy is built by gathering, growing and aggregating knowledge. My complaint about Te Ara is that it doesn't do that. Bill obviously identifies TeAra as an intellectual site. These points can only be reconciled if Te Ara is an intellectual site which doesn't gather, grow and impart knowledge. Ummmm QED.

I absolutely agree with you Paul, ungrudgingly, in fact emphatically, about the value of allowing content to be aggregated elsewhere. And I wish Te Arta would aggregate info from elsewhere itself.

Finally, I would still like to know what Te Ara means, and why someone thought it was the right title for a site like it aims to be? Perhpas it was an ironic joke against users, about the site's possession by a previously-informed priesthood. Now that would be clever.

* Sorry for the long comment. People with comments this long should get their own blogs, don't you think?


Anonymous said...

most of the time I 'google' things but the other day I wanted a bit of info on Dominion Day and truthfully my first thought was "I will 'Te Ara' that" - OK I did not get that much info but I got 2 fantastic pictures and some interesting cross-references to other bits of the encyclopedia - however I agree there is lots of room for improvement including better linking in with other resources on the web but I like what it could be a much richer source of information - the great thing about the web is that it is not set in stone so I guess if you sent them feedback they might improve it - and v. good idea to give specific examples like Haast Pass


Clenda said...

As a high school librarian, I find that Te Ara is a great place for our students to find information about New Zealand remembering that it is designed to be an encyclopedia - that is, a starting point for information rather than a complete guide. Also, it is a work in progress so it is not going to contain quantities of information about everything imaginable.
Our students enjoy browsing Te Ara. We have it on our library front page as a 'reference link' and it gets used. Of course, maybe you could argue that schools are dated institutions which value pompous expert information anyway?!
By the way, Te Ara means the pathway. You can find that in the "About this site" information and on number 1 of the welcome pages.

Joann Ransom said...

What a great thought provoking discussion ...

I don't use Te Ara either when I need to find something, but it is gorgeous to look at and lovely to browse through.

Like the Hasst user I did a search for something important locally: "horowhenua snail" because I know they are a pretty special wee bush beastie up our way. Alas nothing on Te Ara, but half a dozen on Google.

I think Te Ara is beautiful and I would love the work to keep up but I do wish it had everything I could possibly need in a really easy to use way ..... (wanders off humming: to dream the impossible dream ....)

Anonymous said...

I looked on the front page of Te Ara and it immediately told me what Te Ara meant - the pathway, with the idea being to lead you on a journey of discovery. Perhaps that is why the site succeds for some but not for others.

Some people want to enjoy the journey, and the discoveries they make along the way; other people just want the answer to their question, in a format that is useful to them.

From a user persective, If I don't know an answer to a question, or want to know more about a topic (ie I am 'stupid') I don't want to be led up the garden path on an artificially constructed (read 'pompous') 'pathway' of learning.

I should be able to search and get the results that are relevant and go away happy, not get stuck on someone else's bandwagon.

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