[p2p-research] the wikipedia decline

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Thu Nov 26 01:54:52 CET 2009

Michel Bauwens wrote:
> Despite the dismissal by paul hartzog of my interpretation, the fall of
> wikipedia pretty much started with the victory of the exclusionists ... this
> is pretty much confirmed by the article,
> with the revolt of the german wikipedia hackers, we now have a realistic
> chance to regain a inclusionist Wikipedia with a real democratic peer

Here is a cnet article that argues the opposite -- not necessarily saying 
I'm agreeing: :-)
   "The 'wisdom of crowds' loses steam"
If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. That popular 
aphorism never seemed truer than today when reading The Wall Street 
Journal's analysis of Wikipedia's declining volunteer base. Despite 
countless articles extolling the virtues and seeming omnipotence of 
"community" over the past several years, the technology industry seems to be 
settling back into old habits: Command and control.
   It's not that the "wisdom of crowds" idea hasn't influenced the way 
technology is developed, or how news and information are gathered and 
distributed. It has.
   It's just that the promised sea change has proved to be far less 
disruptive than we expected.
   Take Wikipedia. As the Journal calls out, volunteerism has declined as 
the ease of contribution has waned. The easy topics are taken. Rules for 
upping the quality have proliferated. Wikipedia is becoming...corporate.
   Nick Carr has been pointing this out for years, but it's only now 
becoming self-evident. Wikipedia has grown up and, in so doing, is looking 
more and more like the encyclopedic world it sought to displace.
   Nor is it alone. Open-source business models increasingly look like 
proprietary software models, as the Software Freedom Law Center's Bradley 
Kuhn suggests. ...

More in that article looking at other projects, and concluding that at least 
"transparency" has been a benefit. I do think they may be ignoring studies 
by people like Frank von Hippel that most innovation is customer driven when 
they write:
But then, this is the same App Store with more than 100,000 applications and 
2 billion downloads to date. No wonder Apple isn't apologizing: it's clearly 
benefiting most people most of the time, or the application developers would 
take their complaints to a different platform.
   But they haven't, and this calls out the problem with deifying 
"community." It's accepted wisdom that one shouldn't "anger the community," 
as if it's some unknown god that demands the occasional virgin to be thrown 
into the volcano. But the truth is, "community" is not really much different 
from the "customers" and "partners" the industry has sought to satisfy for 
   So, yes, by all means seek to work with your community of users and 
partners, but don't expect "the community" to do your work for you. Guess 
what? "The community" already has a day job, and can't afford to work 
full-time for you unless you pay it.

It's also a bit of a circular argument, because if we had a large gift 
economy that extended more into the physical world (like with 3D printing) 
or a basic income then software developers would not have to be so concerned 
about using the Apple store to earn a living.

Still, I have to say that I half-agree with the article. I think many of the 
most successful efforts tend to be ones that are run by a small group of 
dedicated people (perhaps several full-timers, and where dedicated includes 
a focus on user needs) and that are open and transparent and modular in a 
way that makes it easy for others to extend the system or replace parts of 
it for their needs. There is this hierarchical pyramid of the amount of 
concern people have for the system. (Granted, like with Apache, sometimes 
there might be ten or twenty people a the top of the pyramid making 
decisions somewhat democratically among themselves). And democracy is 
tricky, because it can depend on time-scale. People in Debian may vote for 
someone to do something, but then that person has authority for a time as a 
representative. In practice, systems may have a mix of approaches, and we 
also have a mix of different systems. But it still seems like a core of 
dedicated people is important. In the Wikipedia case, IIRC about two million 
dollars worth of effort was put into it as a commercial effort (to sell 
advertising) before it transformed itself.

If we can understand why some place like Harvard University or the US 
Library of Congress did not create and seed and oversee a Wikipedia on their 
own, we can be well on the way to understanding the sociology of information 
bottlenecks in our society.

If I had had two million dollars back then, like the predecessor to 
Wikipedia, it would have been much more feasible to get OSCOMAK/Stella off 
the ground. :-) There actually were some companies like How Stuff Works and 
eHow that did get a lot of money and made related if less general things.


"So when eHow was in the process of going bankrupt, he and Josh bought it. 
eHow is a fantastic resource that as of May 1, 2006 had 17,000 
professionally written and edited how to articles. Read the History of eHow 
here. "

"In 1998, former North Carolina State University professor Marshall Brain 
started the site as a hobby. In 1999, Brain raised venture capital and 
formed HowStuffWorks, Inc."

There are at several factors here that may require different approaches:
* Getting to a critical mass of content or software;
* Maintaining the server infrastructure for content (less of an issue now 
with cheaper computers and cheaper bandwidth and many solutions);
* Advertising of some sort to get people to know the system exists (paid or 
word of mouth);
* Expanding the content;
* Verifying or policing or specifically altering the content; and
* Dealing with future challenges (legal, technical, organizational, new 
content directions).

Organizations or individuals without a significant amount of resources have 
trouble staying the course through all those steps, even if there is a crowd 
that might help. Still, once a crowd gets large enough, like with Wikipedia 
now raising in the process of raising US$7.5 million in a donation drive 
(looks like they are pulling in about US$100K a day or so?).

As I see it, something like Wikipedia or Debian GNU/Linux is a digital 
public work, like the cyberspace equivalent of physical public works like a 
highway or a bridge or a space program, and ideally they should be funded in 
depth by public means (subject to issues of support compromising integrity 
-- ideally a basic income would fund all this from volunteers).

And further, in the internet age, I'd suggest all charitable dollars should 
be legally required to go with strings requiring any works they subsidize to 
be released under free licenses. That might greatly increase the amount of 
digital collaboration going on, because rather than having to pull academics 
at universities into Wikipedia or whatever else was out there, there would 
be a huge push from all the non-profit digital content piling up that people 
were legally obligated to share under free licenses.

 From something I wrote back in 2001:
   "On Funding Digital Public Works"
The non-profit collaborative communications ecosystem is polluted with 
endless anti-collaborative restrictive terms of use for charitably funded 
materials (both content and software) produced by a wide range of public 
organizations. These restrictions are in effect acting like
"no trespassing -- toxic waste -- keep out -- this means you" signs by 
prohibiting making new derived works directly from pre-existing digital 
public works. The justification is usually that tight control of copyright 
and restricting communications of those materials will produce income for 
the non-profit, and while this is sometimes true, the cost to society in the 
internet age in terms of limiting cooperation is high, and in fact, I would 
argue, too high.

--Paul Fernhout

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