Wikipedia, founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, is today’s most famous example of distributed collaboration. Wikipedia developed out of the failure of Nupedia, the creators’ original idea for a freely distributable online encyclopedia, co-authored by collaborating scholars. Due to the excruciatingly slow process of drafting and publishing an article on Nupedia, the site lacked progress, and the decision to institute a wiki format did not sit well with Nupedia’s advisory board. However, the idea for an open platform of general reference remained, and thus Wikipedia.com (later changed to Wikipedia.org) was born.
Wikipedia is based on Ward Cunningham’s 1995 model of a user-editable website, the wiki. He believed groups of people who want to collaborate also tend to trust one another, and therefore the resulting flexibility of role (a product of mass amateurization) would function harmoniously despite the lack of formal oversight or editorial control. This assumption was proven correct by the increasing number of wiki-users, also combatting the problem of speed that resulted from highly structured work environments.
The balance between Wikipedia’s software and its community ensure the continued success of the site. Only through the efforts of the community does Wikipedia develop new social functions, which in turn establish it as a tool for various new social functions (Shirky uses the example of Wikipedia as a coordinating resource). Wikipedia also thrives on the spontaneous division of labor:
- Someone (likely a non-expert) decides that an article on a particular topic should exist and therefore creates it. This is often called a “stub,” since most new articles are not fully developed at the moment of creation.
- Once the article exists, it starts to gather readers.
- Some of the readers decide to become contributors. Usually contributions are incremental, and can include anything from: adding new text / images, editing the existing article, adding references, fixing spelling and grammatical errors, etc.
One important thing to keep in mind is that Wikipedia is a process, not a product, and is therefore never finished. For Wikipedia to remain viable, good edits simply must outweigh bad ones. Despite occasional vandalism, Wikipedia articles do get better, on average, over time. The wiki system is meant to be effective rather than entirely efficient.
To describe the participation of contributors on Wikipedia, Shirky introduces the power law distribution. The general form of the model almost always appears in social settings where some set of items is ranked by frequency of occurrence. The power law describes data in which the nth position has 1/nth of the first position’s rank, meaning that the higher the ranking of the user, the more extreme the imbalance between him and subsequent users. Power law distributions tend to describe systems of interacting elements, forcing us to analyze Wikipedia as a representation of collective behavior, rather than an example of a non-existent “average” contributor.
The power law distribution depicts not only frequency of contribution, but also communication patterns across online media (such as blogs). Sites which foster millions of readers (minority) cannot engage in conversation with each viewer / commenter, and therefore are forced into a width-versus-depth tradeoff. On the other hand, sites with small concentrations of users (majority) are able to form relatively tight conversational clusters.
So why would anyone actually bother to participate in an open social system like Wikipedia? Shirky examines three likely motivations:
- The chance to exercise some unused mental capacities
- Vanity, or the common human desire to make a mark on the world
- The desire to do a good thing
This nonmarket creation of group value where people are happy to cooperate without needing financial reward is referred to as “commons-based peer production” (Yochai Benkler – see Jessica’s summary below).
Despite Wikipedia’s openness, spontaneous division of labor, and multiple motivations of its users, the quality of Wikipedia’s content continues to rise. But how does it survive both disagreement and vandalism, and why doesn’t it suffer from the Tragedy of the Commons?
All edits on Wikipedia are considered “proposed edits;” any edit or deletion can be further edited or undone. This system allows users to ensure that valuable edits remain and prevents vandals from causing any real damage to articles. Furthermore, Wikipedia remains intact because people care about its content and have the will and tools to quickly defend articles they may be passionate about. In situations of extreme vandalism or heightened controversy, Wikipedia does reserve the right to temporarily lock a page.
In the end, we must remember that Wikipedia is the product not of collectivism, but of unending argumentation. Wikipedia articles are effective, though not always efficient, because they thrive on constant edits and scrutiny from various viewpoints. As Shirky concludes, it is our love and care for Wikipedia’s content that will determine what Wikipedia can do for us.
- Do you see Wikipedia’s ability to lock articles as detrimental or valuable for the preservation of content, even in times of great controversy or excessive vandalism? Is this ability counterproductive to free speech or merely an efficient tactic to deal with unnecessary problems?
- Would you have preferred Wikipedia to be similar to Nupedia where “expert” knowledge dominated the content (assuming the issue of speed could have been resolved), or do you see the self-correcting system of amateur publishing as being more effective for the production of quality information?
Jessica | Yochai Benkler: The Wealth of Networks - Chapter 3
Yochai Benkler explains the new model of production – “Commons-based peer production”. With this model of production, volunteers come together to collaborate on a project.
A new model of production: thousands of volunteers come together to collaborate on a complex economic project. Programmers often time come together to participate in free software projects without following the signals generated by market-based, firm-based, or hybrid models. Free software suggests a new modality of organizing productions with the following characteristics:
The “commons-based peer production” emerged from individuals who share resources and outputs, and cooperate with each other without the signals of traditional models. It refers to a particular institutional form of structuring the rights to access, use, and control resources. Commons can be divided into four types based on the following paramters:
- Whether they are open to anyone or only to a defined group
- Whether a commons system is regulated or unregulated
The process of commons-based peer production is shared freely amongst individuals, and leaves them equally available for all to use as they choose at their individual discretion. Not all commons-based production is considered as peer production. Peer production is a subset of commons-based production and depends on individual action that is “self-selected and decentralized,” rather than hierarchically assigned.
Yochai Benkler also mentioned Richard Stallman, the person that started free software and who developed GNU. Richard Stallman wanted a world in which software enabled people to use information freely. He retained the copyright license to the software he developed but wrote a condition into the license that anyone using or distributing the software as is or with modification would not violate Stallman’s license. Linux Torvalds also began to share his early implementation of Linux around the same time. Linux Torvalds used a model that was based on voluntary contributions and sharing. The term “open-source software” was used as more mainstream technology industry started to recognize the value of free collaborative development.
Wikipedia is one of the most successful collaborative enterprises that is founded by Jimmy Wales. Wikipedia uses three core characteristics,
- Collaborative authorship tool, Wiki
- Self-conscious effort at creating an encyclopedia – represent sympathetically all views on subject
- All content is released under the GNU Free Documentation Licence
Wikipedia grew tremendously in the number of contributors and articles and proved to be extremely successful. Wikipedia now also includes articles in different language. Many scholars criticized on the accuracy and reliability of Wikipedia but through the precise correction mechanism, it made Wikipedia a robust model of reasonably reliable information source. The project relies heavily on social norms to secure the dedication of project participants to objective writing. Wikipedia is substantially more social, human, and intensively discourse and trust-based than other major collaborative projects.
The participants of Wikipedia are plainly people who like to write and entered with the mindset to help make Wikipedia an encyclopedia. Wikipedia participants also have a commitment to a particular style of writing to describe concepts to people. Yochai also talked about Second Life, a collaborative environment where 99% of objects in the game environment and story lines are created by individual users. Second Life became an immersive experience where the users wrote the story lines, made the set and performed the entire play.
Peer production can be implemented in a way to produce relevance and accreditation. The software that mediates the communication among the collaborating peers help facilitates participation to defend the common effort from poor judgment. Through internet, it helps distribute information at cheap cost. Individuals that participate in peer production use their “time, experience, wisdom and creativity” to form new information and knowledge. Yochai Benkler thinks that users’ sharing practices on the internet are similar to peer production of information. Peer to peer file sharing networks are also example of high efficient system to store and access data on the internet. Peer production goes beyond just free software and exists in important ways throughout the networked society.
- What is your opinion on commons-based production or peer production?
- Do you think these collaborative are reliable? For example, how well do you trust information on Wikipedia?