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?