The cognitive construal of a free encyclopedia

In a parenthetical in my dissertation I note that when I speak of the men in the history of reference works I am being unfortunately literal. Aside from the Suzanne Briet, a French documentalist at the beginning of the 20th century, few women have fallen within the scope of my readings in the secondary literature. (And sadly, Briet doesn’t yet have a Wikipedia article about her.) Consequently I’ve kept my eyes open for such materials when perusing bibliographies. (And as a researcher Wikipedia I’ve been especially engaged by Milos’s Women and Wikimedian projects interviews.) I recently started Gillian Thomas’ (1992) A Position to Command Respect: Women and the Eleventh Britannica in which she writes of her father’s reverence for his EB11:

As far as he was concerned, whatever he read aloud to us from those finely-printed onion-skinned pages was incontrovertible truth. My mother was more skeptical, and would point out that she would put more trust in an “up-to-date” reference book My father bought his copy of the Britannica as a young man intent on self-improvement, like thousands of others, through its widely-advertised installment system. (Thomas 1992:v)

This then made me think about the authority of Wikipedia. Thomas writes: “The outlay of money had been a considerable sacrifice at the time, which was perhaps another reason why he retained a reverent attitude towards its authority” (p. vi). Paying for something, or undertaking a difficult task, is known to positively influence the construal of that something (Tavris and Aronson 2007:17); therefore perhaps the freeness of free content shades how it is perceived. I can imagine interesting cognitive experiments along these lines. For example, reward subjects for accurately answering a factual question while providing them with access to a free or nonfree version of the same reference material – the cost would essentially be against the eventual reward. I expect those who paid for access would have greater confidence in their answer and greater sense of authority in the resource than those who did not. And this is but a single experiment among a whole number of interesting construal tasks where the material essentially stays the same but secondary characteristics are varied: how does the perception of confidence in one’s own answer or authoritativeness of the reference change relative to cost, media presentation (e.g., print or online), timeliness, the number of contributors etc.

Ported/Archived Responses

Joseph Reagle on 2007-11-08

Joe, I think you are right: I imagine among free culture type people today the construal could be different. So much so that they might value allegedly peer-produced content over proprietary content went back which is presented to them in the experiment is exactly the same.

Sage, I love stuff like that. I’ll forward it to my SO who works a shift at a wine bar ;) .

Sage on 2007-11-07

This might be of interest:

Joe on 2007-11-07

I wonder how much of the ‘cost = authority’ equation is culturally determined?

I can certainly imagine future generations seeing a different equation ‘closed source = serving some corporations secret plan’ where ‘closed source’ starts to mean anything where the development process is restricted to invited contributors only and happens out of sight.


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