Wikis: The private production of public goods

Sometime in the next few days or weeks, one of the world’s most comprehensive online reference sites will publish its 200,000th article. More accurately, one of the site’s contributors will publish the article.

Wikipedia, an encyclopedia created and operated by volunteers, is one of the most fascinating developments of the Digital Age. In just over three years of existence, it has become a valuable resource and an example of how the grass roots in today’s interconnected world can do extraordinary things.

Almost anyone can be a contributor to the Wikipedia. Almost anyone can edit almost any page. (Only serious misbehavior gets people banned.) Thousands of people around the world have added their expertise, and new volunteers show up every day.

It defies first-glance assumptions. After all, one might imagine, if anyone can edit anything, surely cyber-vandals will wreck it. Surely flame wars over article content will stymie good intentions. And, of course, the articles will all be amateurish nonsense. Right?

Well, no.

Wikipedia does have its flaws — including recent hardware problems that have made the site hard to use pending the installation of new server computers. But its very nature protects it from some of those other woes, and it has emerged as a credible resource.

Wikipedia is based on a kind of software called Wiki. A Wiki allows any user to edit any page. It keeps track of every change. Anyone can follow the changes in detail.

A Wiki engenders a community when it works correctly. And a community that has the right tools can take care of itself.

The Wikipedia articles tend to be neutral in tone, and when the topic is controversial, they will explain the varying viewpoints in addition to offering the basic facts. When anyone can edit what you’ve just posted, such fairness becomes essential.

“The only way you can write something that survives is that someone who’s your diametrical opposite can agree with it,” says Jimmy Wales, a founder of Wikipedia…

Wikipedia has about 200 truly hard-core users who show up daily, or almost daily, to work on the site, Wales says. He estimates that an additional 1,000 or so are regular contributors. Tens of thousands more are occasional or one-time contributors.

Read the whole story. Note also that the Wikipedia is only the beginning:

The Wikipedia is the biggest public Wiki, but far from the only one. There are Wikis covering travel, food and a variety of other topics. You can find a Wiki category page on Cunningham’s site.

Wikis are going private, too. They’re increasingly being used behind corporate firewalls as planning and collaboration tools.

Entrepreneurs are even starting to form companies around the technology, extending it for wider uses. One is SocialText in Palo Alto, which has been selling its software and services to some major companies, says Ross Mayfield, the company’s founder and chief executive.

My take: We’re just seeing the beginning of this innovation. Thanks to the ever-interesting www.geekpress.com for the link.