Jana | Clay Shirky: Here Comes Everybody – Chapter 5

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Once the article exists, it starts to gather readers.
  3. 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:

  1. The chance to exercise some unused mental capacities
  2. Vanity, or the common human desire to make a mark on the world
  3. 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.


  1. 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?
  2. 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:

  • Decentralized
  • Collaborative
  • Nonproprietary

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.

  1. What is your opinion on commons-based production or peer production?
  2. Do you think these collaborative are reliable? For example, how well do you trust information on Wikipedia?

9 Responses to “Wikipedia and Commons-Based Peer Production”

  1. janakalnina says:

    I am all for having the content available for editing by the masses. However, it is nice to see that there are citations, or other proof that the content is legitimate. If I am quickly scanning an article, despite knowing that it may not be 100% accurate, I will likely still assume the information I received was correct (in the case of a quick overview of an unfamiliar topic). Therefore notes such as “citation needed” or “this content is highly disputed” definitely helps to bring out information I should be weary of, a necessity when content is being monitored by users of all knowledge levels and motivations.

  2. Kevin says:

    While I value the ease and effectiveness of Wikipedia, it is important that it can be monitored. People use Wikipedia for quick checking of facts and information and to brush up on old material. Therefore, people depend on the information being accurate and it is important to lock the information if it is vandalized or inaccurate. Most people who use Wikipedia don’t have the time to fact check all of the articles and depend on others to do so. This simply ensures that the most accurate information is available. This makes Wikipedia more reliable because users are aware that while it is compiled by amateurs, there is an overseer who makes sure there are checks and balances to the content provided.

    As for Wikipedia’s format, what makes it unique is it’s reliance on collaborative efforts. There are other online encyclopedias and resources out there that people can turn to, so Wikipedia is something different. It empowers users and allows them to not only benefit from reading articles, but also from being able to work on them. That is the appeal of commons-based production. People from different backgrounds and situations being able to work together in bettering the world. I view these projects favorably and think they are the future of all forms of collaboration.

  3. arosen says:

    I completely agree with Kevin when it comes to Wikipedia. I think that the ability for anyone to edit Wikipedia is a good thing, but it definitely needs to be monitored somehow, otherwise it runs the risk of becoming a joke. I feel like there are people on two different spectrums: those who trust Wikipedia as credible information, and those who do not because of the ease that anybody has in editing an article. However, I think that the monitoring of Wikipedia is helpful in that it does not inhibit free speech but allows for a site that can sometimes be used to get a lot of valid information in one place. I think the ability to lock articles shows people that Wikipedia does care about what is put on its site, and only changes content when it feels it is absolutely necessary. It kind of reminds me of the sign I saw in a Chipotle last week that said something like “the store is under surveillance by a video camera. If you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t have to worry about it. But if you are, you should probably leave.” I feel like users of Wikipedia want accurate information and do not mind others overseeing it to make sure it stays that way. The only people who think it is counterproductive are probably those who vandalize it and try to bring the system down.

    I think collaborative production on a site like Wikipedia makes for a reliable site. I feel like since most people use Wikipedia, they want to see accurate information and in turn want to give accurate info to the site. I think it is effective in expanding articles where one person might have a lot of knowledge on one aspect of a subject and then the page becomes enhanced when someone else who is an expert in a different aspect on the same subject submits new ideas. I trust articles on Wikipedia because not only do I feel like people come together to genuinely make the site better, but many of the references are found on the bottom of the page where the user is linked to the original sites that the editor found the information from.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I agree with both comments above me. The possibility for Wikipedia to be edited by anyone is a great tool and allows for knowledge from all over to come together to create one great source, but within that frame the ability for editors to be monitored and pages to be locked is important. I remember when I first discovered Wikipedia back in middle school some of the pages were made as jokes and made all sorts of ridiculous claims about who the president of a school was and what kind of people lived in different towns. As the site grew and editors were monitored, the pages were cleaned up so to speak and now offer us an accurate easy to use tool.

    Wikipedia has become the go to fact site for students and people everywhere. As long as it remains such an integral part of people’s internet research experience, I think we can trust the site to offer reliable information. It’s basic supply and demand. As long as people continue to demand information from the site, Wikipedia will keep its act together.

    I also remember discussing in class one day how it is really only a small (relatively, of course) group of people who edit the pages on Wikipedia. Of course, any one can, but few do. I think this system works well. We’re all happy knowing we can jump in to edit pages at any time, but for the most part trust those few daily editors to keep our information right and safe. So in that sense, I think Wikipedia has become more a community of readers rather than a community of editors.

  5. Hannah Satzke says:

    To answer both reading’s questions, I too would have to agree with Arosen in that locking Wikipedia pages makes Wikipedia more credible. It doesn’t make it less of a wiki or deduct from the open source, collaborative aspect of it. Wikileaks functions in a similar manner in that users submit content that is then fact checked and reviewed before being published, however it still leaves open the notion of collaboration commons-based production – it is just regulated. So, in my opinion I believe this makes Wikipedia more reliable, knowing that not anyone can go on and purposely misconstrue information on a page as I remembering seeing years ago (as I just realized Elizabeth mentioned as well!)

    I believe that commons-based production or peer production in general is becoming more and more reliable and efficient as we see with online news sources and citizen journalists whom publish a wider range of stories at a faster rate than traditional news media. There will always be some downfalls like errors in wikipedia pages, and biases in peer-produced news, but these same issues also occur in traditional media. There’s always a risk of trusting in someone else’s word but it is the same as the old saying (that refered to newspapers an tabloids) “don’t believe everything you read.” However, with multiple proposals coming in from many peers, and tighter regulation via reviewing the proposals and locking pages, Wikipedia is decreasing its chance of error and increasing its credibility.

  6. tommers says:

    I think both of these readings touch upon an issue that has come up in one of my econ classes… Essentially, people tend to understand Adam Smith’s notion that selfishly-motivated human interaction/exchange somehow leads towards a positive outcome for society as a whole — that is, even as people pursue only their own happiness, they inadvertently end up promoting the happiness of others through the mechanisms of cooperation and exchange. However, the part that frustrates even economists is the idea that “step 2″ in this equation is a big question mark. How can it be that greater social utility stems from purely selfish action?

    Smith attributes this mechanism to what I will refer to as the ‘forces of the universe’ (this is for purposes of simplification as he uses a staggering amount of synonyms to try to classify the same abstract without deifying it in a theological sense). However, most people do not share his level of faith in the ‘forces of the universe’ or even economics.

    Essentially, people recognize the ‘invisible hand’ exists, but distrust it because of its elusive, ephemeral nature — there is a tendency to believe that everything can and should be reasoned out, and legitimized by a professional, even if that means breaking a mechanism that has worked perfectly well for thousands of years even without our innate understanding of it. And so, legislators constantly attempt to regulate markets (which generally ends in bigger failure than the ‘market failures’ they were trying to correct in the first place) and institutions attempt to regulate the productions/distribution of knowledge (even though the knowledge they peddle is far less sympathetic to multiple points of view than that compiled by different people from different backgrounds). Thus, even though Wikipedia is actually a very reliable resource for its intended purpose (general reference) people will continue to mistrust it because it does not have the professional legislator/academic’s seal of approval and is instead the product of independent collaboration.

  7. natalieashoory says:

    I feel as if the nature of Wikipedia is changing on a constant basis. As Elizabeth pointed out, Wikipedia was not always considered dependable, particularly in by educators. But as more people find themselves online, seeking information, better contributions are made to the Wiki articles and we continue to get closer to greater accuracy. I often still hear from many professors that Wikipedia is not a credible source, but this rarely stops me from beginning the foundations of my research on its articles. One way to both deepen one’s research and also find proof of Wiki’s legitimacy is to scroll to the bottom of the article where the sources are listed. When sources are lacking, Wikipedia alerts readers to it and asks them to pitch in if they have the means.

    From my understanding, creating an article maybe be fairly simple, but it’s time-consuming and requires dedication, which mostly encompassed in passionate contributors. This is what ultimately keeps Wikipedia alive and well, and in my opinion, on the right path towards becoming a legitimate online encyclopedia of sorts that reaches wider than many of its predecessors.

  8. Danielle Spano says:

    We were just discussing wikipedia in my Amateur Media class, and someone was saying how in one of their classes they were required to post an obviously incorrect fact on a page and to see how quickly it could be taken down, and what the repercussions were. Needless to say, within minutes the comments were removed and his user profile explicitly stated that he had posted false material. With that said, I agree with Wikipedia’s ability to lock articles as detrimental or valuable for the preservation of content. The reason why Wikipedia has been so successful and has not been a tragedy of commons is due to the fact that there are some rules and restrictions, and ultimately they serve for the better of the public, not to infringe on people’s freedom of speech. I think that had the issue of speed not been an issue, I personally would have preferred Wikipedia to mirror Nupedia featurig “expert” knowledge. I think sometimes we forget that what we’re reading really isn’t “expert” knowledge, but instead could be posted by any average Joe.

    As for the second reading, my opinion on commons-based production is that it opens up a lot of doors and provides the public with myriad opportunities that they otherwise may not have had, but you run the risk of errors and false information when you have a multitude of people collaborating on something. Even if they are all experts, you still run this risk. For the second question, as I previously mentioned I think these collaborations should be taken with a grain of salt. With the example of Wikipedia, certain elements could be factually false and if there isn’t an expert of the matter checking over the edits, then this could potentially be overlooked.

  9. Kyle says:

    I trust the information on Wikipedia just as much as I trust the content of anything else. Honestly, no information is pure information and even times when you feel most sure that what you are reading is the truth you could be wrong. A peer website like Wikipedia makes me trust the information more, to be honest, because if everyone has the ability to change or write anything on any page then a collective truth can be reached that in a normal encyclopedia isn’t possible. I think the idea of locking pages does nothing but hurt the idea and core of what Wikipedia is about. If a page is constantly being vandalized or changed enough by so many people that Wikipedia wants to lock it, to me it’s a sign that the people changing the article are correct in what they are doing. I feel like that voice speaks more truth about a subject even if it is untrue information.

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