Imagine putting the Feynman Lectures on Physics up for public editing on a wiki (Feynmanpedia). Would they get better or worse?
My immediate gut instinct is “worse”. However, when I posed this question to a colleague I greatly respect he asked me pointedly if I’d actually tried it. It’s a good question. There’s no doubt that with some wiki communities, perhaps most, the Feynman Lectures would rapidly deteriorate in quality. But maybe with the right community they’d improve.
For many wiki communities there’s a useful notion of a “set point”, a quality level that an article written by that community will converge to over time. For a poorly written article, most edits will tend to improve the article, and only a few will make it worse; thus, the article will improve over time. However, for a superb article, many of the edits, even well-intended ones, will make the article worse, and so the article will get worse over time. The set point is the quality level at which edits improving and worsening the article balance each other out.
For Wikipedia the level of the set point is moderately high. I’m pretty sure that if one took a section out of the Feynman lectures and put it up on Wikipedia, it would get worse. On the other hand, if the community started with a blank page on physics, it’d demonstrably get a lot better.
For other wiki communities the set point is different. I’m a fan of the TV show Lost, and there is an amazing fan-created wiki about the show called Lostpedia. The set point of Lostpedia is quite a bit higher than the Wikipedia set point.
The idea of a wiki set point is obviously imprecise. Indeed, any idea that deals with quality judgements and community action necessarily will be. The caveats that need to be applied include: the set point will be different for different articles; even for a given article it will vary over time as contributors change; what does it mean to speak about the quality of an article, anyway; surely it makes more sense to talk about a set quality range, rather than a single point; and so on.
Despite these caveats, I think the set point is a useful way of thinking about wikis, and stimulates many useful questions. What types of wiki community or wiki design increase the set point? What types decrease it? How high can the set point go? How could we design the wiki software and community so that the set point is above the level achievable by any single human being?