Wiki maniacs were in full attendance at Wikimania last week. Not just the participants in the Wikipedia community, but users and developers of open source wiki. Seventy of 400 attendees were members of the press, which served to amplify the impact of the event, but also highlight the changing of the guard.
Jimmy Wales was busy doing more than putting a face on a community with back to back interviews throughout the conference. One interview with a German daily, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, was poorly translated into a Reuters story that ran with the false lead that Wikipedia was going to tighten editorial controls and consequently Slashdotted. Really, Jimmy was talking about Wikipedia 1.0, an effort to develop a print version. Refutations here and here. When we were laughing about the episode, Jimmy said, "why would we *ever* do that, it's not like a document is ever finished!" If only the story broke on Wikinews.
Back in the trenches, real progress was made. This was the first time much of the virtual community came together face-to-face. The experience was more than meeting someone whose' blog you have read -- but someone you have worked with. Eugene Kim's blog will give you a sense of all the micro-meetings that took place. When you gather enough wiki developers around a table, something good is bound to happen, such as a anti-spam initiative. The event was extremely diverse and full of surprises like none other than Mitch Kapor:
"I've seen things like this happen once or twice before," observed Mitch Kapor, software pioneer and head of the Open Source Foundation. "We're at the Big Bang of the next information revolution."
Mitch isn't overstating it. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales gave his keynote on 10 Things that Will be Free, perhaps because once you have realized freedom, it extends itself:
- Free the Encyclopedia!
- Free the Dictionary!
- Free the Curriculum!
- Free the Music!
- Free the Art!
- Free the File Formats!
- Free the Maps!
- Free the Product Identifiers!
- Free the TV Listings!
- Free the Communities!
I focused my keynote on enterprise wiki case studies, but noted what should be an obvious extension -- the freedom to share will be free, as in beer. Stay with me on this...
Recall that commons-based peer production provides a framework for understanding the difference between production models driven by price (market), contract (firm) or sharing (commons). Philip Evans provides a hint at why production may be shifting from markets to the commons:
One of the simplest arguments I've used to get people out of a traditional mindset is to point out a statistic -- the cost of transactions in the U.S. More than 50% of the non-government GDP in the U.S. is based on transaction costs.
Supposedly, price should be an efficient signal for communicating what to produce. However, when you have price, so to follows a panoply of middlemen from accountants to lawyers. When you take price out of the equation, particularly in small groups and with network distribution, you reduce market friction. Wikipedia is demonstrating a model of content production based upon open licensing with collaboration at scale. Whereas open source software development pioneered this model, they are scaling it even further, if for no other reason than content does not have the interdependency that constrains the development of code. When you look at Jimmy's list, note that each are ripe for models of scaled open production.
Our freedom to share is clearly under attack by prior property regimes and new ones such as DRM. As producers, we have discovered our own power to share under new regimes such as Creative Commons licensing or production and distribution models such as open source and open content. As consumers, most of us have yet to recognize the limitations we face or the new ones being constructed around us. As either a consumer or producer, the shift from markets to commons is one of freedom -- and economic benefit.
If you wonder if there is a business in all this, let me make a simple argument. The disruption of open models of production is the greatest arbitrage opportunity in modern industry. We do not yet know what value will remain from the 50% of GDP that is transaction costs. Steven Weber noted that unlike transaction cost analysis to inform buy vs. build decisions -- we do not have a framework for when to open property, but many companies are taking the risk. Craigslist, for example, generated $10 million in revenue while cannibalizing $50-65 million from Bay Area newspapers. This is not just because the net decreased distribution and search costs to unlock latent demand in long tail-esque fashion. Strangers are trusting one another to build a common resource and community -- with a network enabled structure that has decreased coordination costs and greater social incentives. The chasm of the long tail is peer production, and we are just beginning to understand it. We are driving transaction costs out of the equation so we can reinvest and create higher order value.
Hopefully that help clarify the shift from markets to commons, but what about the shift from firms to the commons? Again, transaction costs come into play, but beyond Coase's argument that decreased transaction costs lead to vertical disintegration of the firm. Thomas Malone has argued the trend of decentralization as an inevitability because decreasing transaction and coordination costs make it possible while providing greater social incentives for employees and better decision making at scale. John Seely Brown and John Hagel also point to the increasingly distributed nature of business, but they make a more profound argument for the value of social networks within the enterprise to provide a sustainable edge through innovation. Enterprises have sought to drive down costs through business process automation and outsourcing as a competitive advantage. But only putting people back in the process to handle exceptions with the freedom to innovate provides a sustainable advancement. The only thing is, to unleash the creative capability of employees requires sharing control.
Which brings me back to sharing will be free, as in beer. Under the construct of a firm, employees are contracted to produce and the firm gains property. They largely have the freedom to share ideas and they have the right to break the contract at-will in many jurisdictions. But while under contract, they do not have the right to share, that is owned by the employer for the purpose of exclusive sharing with the firm itself.
But what happens when an employee wishes to contribute to the commons? Contribute to an open source project? Or blog? Or contribute to Wikipedia? In many companies the employee does not have the right to engage in external productive communities without pre-approval. So they do so anonymously, or on their own time, without support from their firm. My suggestion, is that as companies open they will learn that they are loosing value by not letting employees own the right to share.
The right to share is different from the freedom to share, because when you own the right you can contribute property to the commons at your best discretion. When a developer has a great idea at two in the morning for an open source project, having to seek permission from an employer before engaging hinders the creative process. When you look at commercial open source companies, you may see new frameworks arise that grant this right to employees.
The frontier of decentralized organization is granting employees the right to decide how to share, not just the freedom to share in condoned mechanisms, in areas they are not paid to do so. I think we just beginning to understand how to enable self-organization so we can innovate at scale. I'm sharing this thought in hopes we might learn where we are going.