Posts about collaboration

Wiki life

“Everyone brings their crumbs of knowledge to the task and if they don’t, we’re the lesser for it.” I love that line about encouraging more people to bring more knowledge to Wikipedia, from a conversation yesterday with Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Gardner had just presented the results of a gargantuan, one-year-long strategy project made with about 1k Wikipedians in a few dozen languages producing 26k pages and a lot of good ideas, including expert review of articles; offline, distributed use of Wikipedia; and the wiki-based university, where research and knowledge aren’t lost.

Gardner says they started the project with the knowledge that there would be “a high likelihood of failure.” It was possible, though unlikely, that no one would have come to the party. It was more likely, I’d say, that it would be taken over by fringe interests and nutty ideas. The foundation had to invest in success, hiring a facilitator who understood the dangers and a consultant who gave the project “a bedrock of information.”

There’s a lesson there — a lesson in all of this — for companies and government agencies learning how to do their business in public. It’s possible to collaborate at scale even on strategy. It’s risky. It needs care and feeding. But it can and should be done if you want to work in public, collaboratively, with your constituents, as they will expect.

Among the priorities that came out of the project are expanding and deepening Wikipedia in its developing markets and bringing diversity to its developed markets. Gardner quoted Clay Shirky — it’s a law, you know; we social media people are required to do it once a day — separating “let it happen” from “make it happen” projects; the English-language Wikipedia is the former, Hindi the latter. Again, there’s a lesson there for other enterprises: When you can create a platform that lets it happen, do; but also invest in what’s needed and make that happen.

Wikimedia then has to understand the motives of people who will help in either kind of task. They’ve found that people share their effort on Wikipedia in high-minded support of making the world a better place and they’re more likely to do so because Wikipedia is independent of other interests. They also want to show off their mastery. If you’re a news organization, allowing comments on your articles reaches neither of these motives. Helping people improve their own communities would.

The result for Wikipedia is astounding. All the work of these volunteers in nonmonetary exchanges of effort have created an asset worth an estimated $5 billion with impact on the industry that is probably greater than that. The foundation calculated the value of the effort that goes into just editing of Wikipedia – not research or writing – and after ascribing a low per-hour labor value to the work, they were amazed that it added up to $700 million a year. There’s the economic premise Clay Shirky’s (now I’ve met my quota) Cognitive Surplus: Given the time, opportunity, tools, support, and desire, we can create countless Wikipedias of incalculable worth.

So how does one apply these lessons to government and companies? I asked Gardner whether the Wikimedia Foundation would consult or build platforms for others. She said it’s tempting but it’s not their job. I’d like to do research via CUNY on the lessons that Wikipedia and other such collaborative enterprises can teach journalism. Other sectors would be wise to watch and rethink how they operate — and strategize.

The first reflex of open-government folks, I think, would be to bring this experience to policy-setting. That’s OK, but difficult. I see opportunity to create the means for citizens to take over some tasks of government. Recently — for my book, Public Parts — I interviewed Beth Noveck, head of Obama’s open-government initiative, and she raised another example I liked: The Social Security web site needs to present content in other languages. If users could translate Facebook collaboratively, couldn’t citizens translate the site and its information? For that matter, couldn’t they also translate the English into English, making bureaucratese understandable from a nonofficial distance? Of course, we could. We need someone like the Wikimedia Foundation to invest the effort to help us make it happen.

Companies, too, could use this thinking to, for example, get input into product design. Look at Dell: Customers have, since the start of the web, helped each other with service. Since the start of Dell Idea Storm, they’ve given Dell ideas. There’s a huge middle ground in design and manufacturing that could be helped by customers if they had the platform to do it. No, I’m not expecting to see computers designed by democratically run committee or looking like Wikipedia (now that would be Dell Hell) but I do think that customers could help improve any product if companies have the structure and investment, like Wikimedia, to listen. I also interviewed Local Motors‘ Jay Rogers for the book and he will describe just such a process.

The point, in the end, is that Wikimedia by its DNA operates in public and benefits accrue — not just as product and engagement and promotion and distribution but also as strategy. That’s the next step in creating the truly public company or organization.

One more observation: Among the top 50 web entities, Wikipedia stands alone as a the only public service enterprise there. It has gathered not just content but also people, the Wikipedians who create that content and now worked together on their shared strategy. As we discuss issues that matter to us as a new society, there are lessons in the Wikimedia Foundation’s work an structure. What can more of us do together to protect the high-minded purpose and possibility of our internet?


One of my great joys researching Public Parts, my book about the benefits of publicness, is finding parallels between today and the early modern period of the 16th and 17th centuries (aka the renaissance) with the introduction of tools — the press, the stage, music, art, maps, markets — that enabled people to create publics and how that changed how the world operated (the way we are changing it again today).

Here’s one example from Elizabeth Eisenstein’s book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (recommended by Clay Shirky) about how errata in printed books led to collaboration.

In their early days of printing, books — and other publications — were not treated as temples of perfection, as they are today (which is why their contemporary producers — authors, editors, journalists, publishers — look down so on the ever-imperfect internet). Indeed, before Gutenberg, scribes had long entered errors into books as they were copied and recopied. Printing, Eisenstein says, both multiplied errors in so many more copies and also represented a “great leap” toward standardization because the errors were easier to find.

early printing press

Print, at first, did not step toward perfection but away from it. “[A]n age-old process of corruption was aggravated and accelerated after print,” Eisenstein says. Errors could spread farther faster (sound familiar?). It was because of the fear of what this new technology could cause that printers were fined for publishing the “wicked Bible” of 1631 (which omitted the “not” from the Seventh Commandment … look it up).

But this process of error was turned to advantage by some. Sixteenth-century editors and publishers, Eisentein says, “created vast networks of correspondents, solicited criticism of each edition, sometimes publicly promising to mention the names of readers who sent in new information or who spotted the errors which would be weeded out.” So publishing became collaborative; that’s what printing allowed.

Eisenstein quotes Lloyd A. Brown from The Story of Maps about map publisher Ortelius:

By the simple expedient of being honest with his readers and inviting criticism and suggestions, Ortelius made his Theatrum a sort of cooperative enterprise on an international basis. He received helpful suggestions from far and wide and cartographers stumbled over themselves to send him their latest maps of regions not covered in the Theatrum.

We call that transparency and collaboration now.

Eisenstein goes farther. She says that publishers “often encouraged readers to launch their own research projects and field trips…. Thus a knowledge explosion was set off. The ‘fall-out’ from Ortelius’ editions, for example, encompassed treatises on topography and local history ranging from Muscovy to Wales.” (My emphasis) She argues, according to James A. Dewar and Peng Hwa Ang in Agent of Change (a book of essays on Eisenstein), that “this feedback reversed the slow degradation of recorded thought and ushered in the era of accumulation of thought on which the Scientific Revolution was built.” Says Eisenstein: “The closed sphere or single corpus passed down from generation to generation, was replaced by an open-ended investigatory process pressing against every advancing frontiers.”

Demonstrating that there’s nothing new that’s not old, when Cory Doctorow spoke to executives of Holtzbrinck in Berlin a few weeks ago (I also spoke), he told how he is doing similar things with his latest book, giving credit to readers who find errors and constantly making the book better thanks to them. And, of course, Cory’s BoingBoing is the product of sharing and collaboration.

This attitude — from the 16th century and from Cory — changes the way we look at books and media, not as sculpture cut out of rock but as still-wet clay. The problem we’ve had in recent history — from the industrial age to today — is that we made mistakes too expensive to admit and that cut us off from correction and collaboration with our public and from the free explosion of knowledge Eisenstein talks about. But the internet — always wet — begins to fix that, doesn’t it? We go back to the future.

In fact, Eisenstein argues that the printing press fixed this exact same problem vis a vis its predecessor technologies. “The sequence of improved editions and ever-expanding reference-works was a sequence without limits — unlike the great library collections amassed by Alexandrian rulers and Renaissance princes.” Their books were static, finished and done. Printed books had editions and readers who could improve them. We lost that advantage — and attitude — over the centuries.

We also lost the openness to collaboration that this new flexibility brought. It’s not just about technology, though. It’s about a worldview, a different relationship between producer and public. Eisenstein quotes David Hume writing to his publisher: “The Power which Printing gives us of continually improving and correcting our Works in successive Editions appears to me the chief Advantage of that art.”

This cultural attitude in the early days could have just as easily gone the other way (as eventually it did anyway). Ann Blair writes in Agents of Change that in the early modern period a few “humanists called for a system of censorship, never implemented, to guarantee that only high-quality editions be printed.” How often do we hear today suggestions to license or at least anoint quality in our new, uncontrolled press?

I don’t want to make it seem as if early books were all temporary and changeable. As Eisenstein next points out, the advantage of printing was that it made permanent knowledge that had been diffuse and was all too easily lost in a few hand-made copies that could be destroyed. It was printing, she said, that enabled Thomas Jefferson to collect all the laws of Virginia, adding (my emphases):

It seems in character for Jefferson to stress the democratizing aspect of the preservative powers of print which secured precious documents not by putting them under lock and key but by removing them from chests and vaults and duplicating them for all to see.”

Bringing knowledge together and making it public is what enables the public to add to it, to correct it, to be inspired by it.

Sound familiar?

Guardian column: Charity v. collaboration

My Guardian column this week expands on an idea I discussed here, about viewing charity to news organizations as collaboration in the news ecosystem. The kicker: “Charity is likely to be a contributor to the future of news. So will volunteer labour in the form of bloggers and crowdsourcing. But we still need a business model for news. News still needs to be profitable to survive. It’s not a church.”

A challenge from the Times

In a comment under my post about restructuring the Times Company below, someone calling him or herself Timesman says that indeed Bill Keller of the Times does want to work collaboratively with his readers, the question is how:

But what, specifically, should journalists at the Times ask its users to do? Let’s hear some very concrete next steps. We’re listening.

OK, friends, let’s take up that challenge. I’ll start the bidding. Please add your ideas of how the Times and its public can work together to perform concrete acts of journalism. (And spare us the kneejerk Times-bashing; those sentiments are stipulated.) Some suggestions:

* Put large amounts of data or documents online and ask the public to help find the stories there. The Dallas Morning News did this with the just-released JFK documents. The Ft. Myers News Press did it with a FOIA on a botched hurricane-relief effort. The Sunlight Foundation has us exposing earmarks in spending bills. Someone, I can’t recall who, did it with Alberto Gonzales’ testimony before Congress. Use your access to get such data and then ask us to help dig into it because we know what’s going on or simply because you want the help. I’d start with Congress and get help from Sunlight and bloggers to strategize that.

* Ask the public to help gather data points around a story. The quickly classical example of this was Brian Lehrer’s WNYC show asking listeners to find out the prices of milk, lettuce, and beer to find out who is being gouged where (which then enables the journalists to ask why — put their price maps against maps of income and race in New York and stories emerge). This should work particularly well on a local level: Ask people to tell you the price they pay for drugs and doctors and map that. Ask them to tell you just how late or dirty their trains are. And on and on. If you get enough data, you can pay attention to the center of the bell curve; the outliers are either mistakes are damned good stories.

* Get the public to help file no end of FOIAs to birddog government. Create a FOIA repository where you can help train them how to do it and record the responses (that bit’s a great idea from Tom Loosemore in the UK) and collect what’s learned.

* One of the great ideas that came out of my entrepreneurial journalism class — inspired by an idea from an intern I worked with at Burda last summer — is to have the public help assign reporters. Now that could get unwieldy quickly. But my CUNY student, Danny Massey, came up with a very smart structure for capturing what the public wants to know so news organizations can allocate at least some of their resource accordingly. I’ll introduce you.

* Establish communities of experts to help on stories, their reporting and checking and even their assignment. This could take the form of Jay Rosen’s beat-blogging idea or of the Ft. Myers panel of experts. Of course, every reporter has such panels in their Rolodexes. But Ft. Myers has learned that people want to be of service before the reporter happens to call. The Times’ crowd is very wise and filled with experts and so why not use the networking and linking power of the internet to help harness that to help with reporting? Imagine a social network around expertise.

* Hand out camera and recorders and ask citizens to capture meetings, lectures, events of all sorts and turn those into podcasts. Most of the time most of them will not get much audience, but the resource that went into each one is minor and the opportunity to spread a wider blanket of coverage on a community is great.

* Get the advertising side involved in supporting curated, quality blog networks: New York, political, business, and so on. The Washington Post has networks for travel and other topics, the Guardian for environment, Reuters for financial blogs. The Times could support the very best of these blogs and benefit from having a wider net of content and reporting at a low cost and risk. And this is the part they’ll like: They can set the definitions of quality. The Times also has an in-house advantage here because knows how to manage and pay large, distributed networks of contributors based on ad and traffic performance.

These ideas work for most any news organization. As I’ll point out in a post I’m writing now: collaboration to create real value is the next generation of interactivity.

To get started, I’d hire a collaboration editor charged with getting such projects going all around the newsroom. But I’d make sure that job gets phased out as journalists collaborate on their own self-interested initiative.

So what other ideas do you have for how the Times — or any news organization — could work together to create journalism?