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?

  • Jeff,

    My concern with applying the same Wikimedia model to Government or Business is the predisposition of the group to move away from Communication and towards Rhetoric on bi-polar basis. The Wikipedia/Wikimedia process advances because it centers on communication as a process; where devotes of a topic can express knowledge in a medium without commentary (though from a rhetorical theory stand point each entry in Wikipedia will have the authors beliefs intermixed).

    How does Wikipedia avoid those entries that merely want to pontificate or cast aspersions? How would a Government or Business do the same?

    It would seem that Wikipedia by it’s size and scope alone finds its self in a unique universe; where Business and Government may be too narrow to benefit from a similar approach.


    • cm

      Absolutely. While the crumbs of knowledge are few, the loaves of irrationality are many. That’s one of the biggest problems with overly accessible mechanisms for contribution and collaboration.

      USA, and many other countries, have witnessed how relatively few but passionate people (think Christian zealot pressure groups etc) have been able to push collaborate to pressurize politicians to act in ways that do not represent the interests and will of the majority.

      Pretty much all collaborative ventures (eg. Linux) only work with strong leadership and vision. In other words Dictators. None of the effective collaborative projects have been democratic.

      If history is anything to go by, you can have collaboration or a democracy. Not both.

  • By the way, there is a little needle going on about Wikipedia and hyperlocal journalism at Lost Remote.

  • I’ve investigated what Yochai Benkler called Social Production – that is, the economic force behind projects like Wikipedia – at length. It’s a powerful, and – to be honest – a beautiful force. There’s a huge spectrum of positive and constructive motivational resources in the way society is organized today. The important thing is simply to understand how these resources need to be tapped through the good foundations and organization of projects. Today, there is little understanding of why some such projects succeed, and others fail.

  • Jeff, I really enjoyed your post. I enjoyed seeing Sue speak at Wiki Conference NYC on Sunday, and there were some really interesting ideas being presented. Wikimedia is doing great things with Wikipedia especially, but Wikiversity is looking very promising as well.

    I am working on similar goals on my news oriented startup, quippd - — where stories are editable, much like Wikipedia or Wikinews. While Wikinews focuses mainly on trying to create new articles with original content, our goal is to simply aggregate all the relevant (and high quality content) around a particular news story. As Wikinews and Wikipedia struggle with the idea of notability (well, the foundation doesn’t, but contributors do), I hope that we can utilize the cognitive surplus to create a truly worthy news gathering enterprise, one that can give us a better idea of what it means when people think President Obama is a Muslim, or what the implications of the “Ground Zero mosque” are.

    Collaboration is going to be big in the future, and it would be amazing if we could use that mechanism to educate, not just with Wikipedia and Wikiversity, but with news as well. The media helps shape the news, but as social media gains more and more attention and power (see CNN using Twitter posts), the people themselves should get involved in shaping the conversation as well.

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  • i had some crazy ideas how “open-source” companies could work. can you imagine a mobile for example that was designed by the whole world for its own benefits. like selling it without a “profit”. the future is public. thanks, nice article.

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