[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
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
"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
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
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.
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