A busy day at Wikipedia

Sarah Palin was announced as John McCain’s running mate on August 29, 2008. Shortly before the announcement, her Wikipedia page looked like this.

About nine hours and 1100 edits after the announcement, the article was vastly different, and much, much better.

The example comes from an enjoyable talk by David Weinberger that I attended last night. Weinberger also runs a good blog, but note that, like many blogs, you need to look at the back catalogue to see what it’s like outside American election season.

Incidentally, I wonder what a graph of the frequency of edits to Palin’s page would show before the announcement, as compared with other contenders for the VP slot? Her page does seem to get a remarkable amount of editing attention in the runup to the announcement.

Categorized as Wikipedia

Science and Wikipedia

Harvard’s amazing Berkman Center for Internet and Society had their tenth anniversary celebration last week. During one of the talks, the founder of the Berkman Centre, Charles Nesson, asked the
following question about the relationship between Universities and Wikipedia:

Wikipedia is the instantiation of the building of the knowledge commons. Why didn’t it come out of a university?

I think it’s an important question. It bothers me a lot that Wikipedia didn’t come out of a University. Academics make a big song and dance about their role in advancing human knowledge, yet they’ve played only a bit part in developing one of the most important tools for the advancement of human knowledge built in my lifetime.

Anyway, here’s my response to the question, excerpted from a draft of the first chapter of my book:

Given that Wikipedia’s stated vision is to give “every single person in the world free access to the sum of all human knowledge”, you might guess it was started by scientists eager to collect all of human knowledge into a single source. In fact, in the early days very few professional scientists were involved. To contribute would arouse suspicions from your colleagues that you were wasting time that could be spent on more “useful” things, like teaching, or writing papers and grants. Even today, contributing to Wikipedia is regarded as a low-value activity by most professional scientists.

Some scientists reading this will object that contributing to Wikipedia isn’t really science. And that’s certainly true if you take a narrow view of what science is, if you believe it’s about doing research in the ivory tower, and publishing in specialized scientific journals. However, if you take a broader view of what science is, if you believe that it’s about discovering how the world works, and sharing that understanding with the rest of humanity, then the lack of early scientific support for Wikipedia looks like an opportunity lost.

[…] It’s not that scientists disapprove of Wikipedia; indeed, many find it an incredibly valuable resource, not as the final word on a topic, but rather as a starting point and reference work. It’s that within the culture of science there are no incentives to contribute to Wikipedia, and so contributing is a low-status and therefore low-priority activity.

It’s important to appreciate how astonishing this state of affairs is. Wikipedia is one of the most important intellectual innovations of our time. It or its descendants may one day rank alongside innovations such as the Great Library of Alexandria or the US Library of Congress. Yet scientists, supposedly the fount of innovation in our society, not only played virtually no role in setting up Wikipedia, contribution was actually actively discouraged within the scientific community. The early stages of development were instead due to an ad hoc group of people, most from outside science; founder Jimmy Wales had a background in finance and as a web developer for an “erotic search engine”, not science. Nowadays, Wikipedia’s success has to a limited extent legitimized contribution within the scientific community, but the lack of early involvement by scientists is still remarkable.

I don’t see a complete solution to this problem, or how to prevent a repeat as more tools of the same order of importance as Wikipedia are created. A partial solution is to build credible tools for measuring contributions outside the conventional journal-citation system, contributions that are presently considered unconventional.

Categorized as Wikipedia

Architecture is politics: community building and the success of Wikipedia

I find it surprising, almost shocking, that a system as apparently bottom up as Wikipedia works as well as it does. Anybody really can contribute, even anonymously, and without fear of damaging their reputation; while people can be banned, only a tiny fraction of users ever are; it’s easy and very common for people to vandalize pages. A priori it seems like a recipe for disaster, yet for the most part works quite well in practice.

I used to think the explanation for Wikipedia’s success was excellent leadership focused strongly on building a healthy and vibrant community. This certainly does play a significant role – check out this inspiring podcast from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who has thought long and hard about building great communities.

But great leadership and community building is only a partial explanation for Wikipedia’s success. It is clearly also the case that the design of the MediaWiki software underlying Wikipedia contributes in a major way to the success of the project.

This thought crystallized out for me in a particularly nice way this morning in the form of two fantastic slogans, Mitch Kapor’s “architecture is politics” and Lawrence Lessig’s “code is law” (book, free online).

Kapor’s observation, in particular, explains and neatly summarizes a great deal about community-building projects like Wikipedia. Tweak the software even a little, and one can cause enormous changes in how community interaction is mediated, and thus in how the community functions. Wikipedia is less bottom up than it appears, for it is a relatively small group of people who are effectively responsible for the design and development of the underlying software. Provided those people are competent and committed (I have no reason to doubt this), they can exert an enormous positive influence over the project as a whole, dwarfing the impact of random vandals.

An interesting consequence of this is that, in my opinion, other large projects like Wikipedia are going to need their own independent forks of the underlying software. Different communities have different needs, even during their own evolution, and the ability to change the underlying architecture of the system, and thus affect the politics, is an enormously powerful lever to have in forming a healthy community. In practice, I think this means that for ambitious projects the code used will need to be forked from an existing codebase (like MediaWiki), and developed alongside the community. Successful projects will require not just a healthy community, but a healthy co-evolution of community and codebase. To date this seems to have happened relatively rarely, and I wonder if this isn’t part of the reason why more Wiki projects haven’t succeeded on a large scale – maybe the architecture is mismatched to the needs of the community?


Related question: Mel Conway has observed that creative artifacts produced by organizations inevitably reflect the channels of communication and control in those organizations. What does this principle imply about Wikipedia?

Related posts: Kevin Kelly has recently written some great posts (here and here) about Wikipedia. Theresa Nielsen Hayden has written a nice post about building online communities. Clay Shirky also has some very interesting thoughts about the dynamics of online groups.