Learning from the Wikipedia

by Mitch Kapor

Wikipedia uses MySQL as their backend. Wikipedia is known among geeks, but hasn’t quite hit society at large, but probably will soon. What lessons can we learn from Wikipedia? People who hear about the concept of wikipedia say “It can’t possibly work — an encyclopedia written by volunteers, that is completely open?”

But we know it does. It’s increasingly becoming the web page of choice for a wide range of factual topics. [as a side note, I go there when I hear of something and know nothing about it, and I get a good overview]

The mainstream media has been skeptical about Wikipedia, and makes stories about it. People sometimes will put untrue facts in Wikipedia, so mainstream media siezes on it as proof that Wikipedia does not work. But we know that that is the exception, not the rule.

So how and why does it work, if it’s so counter-intuitive? Most people have erroneous assumptions about how the world is, so that’s why people think it won’t work.

For example — “anyone can edit any article at any time” — this feels dangerous and uncontrolled to people. Why would you trust an encyclopedia like that? But the radical openness actually helps. Wikipedia is “more open” than open source, because there’s less technological barrier to entry, and there is less wait (no compiling) — a change is in right away.

Someone has to be in charge. Why is authority required to guarantee quality? Open source developers know that there isn’t a single authority that checks everything, etc. Many people, for instance, volunteer to sysadmin Wikipedia — there’s no schedule, and yet every problem gets resolved. So even the operations of Wikipedia is freeform. Let’s say that again: even the operations of Wikipedia are done in a “do what you can, when you can” mentality.

How can you trust information without experts? Who’s the certified authority? But you know what? Not everyone who is in authority makes the right decisions, or does the right thing; not all experts have the right answers. Do we fear that the “radical openness” will lead to anarchy and chaos in society itself?

Maybe this is an opportunity?

There are lots of mistakes. Sure there are, but the next day, they are fixed! You can’t say that for a printed encyclopedia. When problems are brought to light, it’s an opportunity to change, not something to be chagrined about.

Wikipedia beat news organizations by HOURS when Cardinal Ratzenberger was named the new pope. This is because there were many articles put up before the fact about who might be named pope, what their qualifications were, and when the new pope was named, a 2-sentence edit to the page was all that was needed.

The Wikipedia coverage of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana, US was one of the best, because it lets anyone edit anything.

In 1978, the Apple II came out with 32K of memory. But the idea was to change who uses the computer. Non-technical people could interact with complex machinery like a computer. That changed the way the world used computing machines.

In 1982, Lotus 1-2-3 was a tool implemented that unified how business was done. In 1992, UUNET came out (one of the first internet ISP’s, for businesses only). This started the idea that every business might want to connect to the internet. And there were people who thought global connectivity was too radical and would never work and would not be important.

In 1995 Real Networks streaming media — radio over the internet. In 2005, Mozilla/Firefox got big, and 2006 is Wikipedia’s year. Not to become rich, but that “collaborative knowledge will produce works of incredible economic value”.

What has to happen for Wikipedia to succeed?
It’s the community that makes it strong. The many people who are active editors are “the soul of Wikipedia.”

The vision of Wikipedia “A free encyclopedia of the world’s knowledge, for the world’s people, in their own languages.” The vision came first! Basically folks looked for experts and tried to figure it out, and finally just opened it up, and that was when the magic happened.

Wikipedian editors knew each other at the first gathering in Frankfurt, Germany (the 2nd one will be in Cambridge, MA USA!)

People are in Wikipedia because they WANT to be, not because they have to be. There’s no monetary incentive. This conflicts with our stereotype that nobody willingly does work; we all do it because our bosses tell us to; because we need the paycheck; etc. “Moral leadership by example” — the opposite of marshalling the troops. There are only 2 paid employees of Wikipedia! (“They don’t teach this at Harvard Business School, as far as I can tell”)

The communities have leadership and values, they’re just not handed down from above.

Be nice! Be respectful. Make your opponent’s case for him or her. Let them know you understand their side, you just don’t agree with it. The right thing to do is to find the parts of the opponent’s point of view you agree with and edit them in yourself. It’s not about “I’m better than you,” it’s about “I have good points, so do you, here’s what I agree with.” (this does not work all the time, but it does work most of it)

NPOV is the single most common acronym. Wikipedians believe in the “neutral point of view”

Practices How Wikipedians do things — do not just criticize, improve. If you can, fix it, if you can’t, go to the Talk page and say, “I’m not sure this is right, for these reasons, but I don’t know how to fix it.”

Real-time peer review Many people get a feed of changed articles and so it is self-policing, like a neighborhood crime watch to make sure pages don’t get vandalized.

Dispute resolution practices and policies

All of these have to work — the technology isn’t hard, it’s the VALUES that have to work.

The challenge of alien invaders For instance, political candidates’ offices spun their candidates’ entries to make them look better, but they were tracked by IP and held accountable for their actions. So the history is VERY useful. This will only get worse, the more and more popular Wikipedia becomes.

Wikipedia technology, apparently isn’t that great. Not the MySQL backend, but the code. It needs to get better for Wikipedia to be more successful.

Business opportunities Wikia is a roll-your-own Wikipedia — ie, for the “ultimate X site” to have more in-depth information about topics. This is a for-profit startup.

“We are imperfect, we are always going to screw up.” Kapor does not believe in “technologist’s rapture” — that is, that one answer is the end-all, be-all. There will always be room for improvement.

My comments:

Think of the Mining Company, and About.com. That had volunteer ‘experts’ and failed.

Look at MySQL itself — it thrives because of community.

Personally, I recommend James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations”.

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