A closing Keynote by Mitch Kapor at OSBC.
Kinda cool to see Mitch give this talk, as he has a strong interest in the community process behind Wikipedia and I joined him in Frankfurt at the Wikimania conference.
Matt Asay: Grateful to finally have Mitch here. First interaction was
for the organizational meeting for a industry lobbying group two years
ago in Santa Clara. He was quietly typing in the corner, and I was kind
of amazed that this unassuming guy was contributing. Mitch is President
and founder OSAF.
What I want to talk about today is not so much where OSS is today or where it will be in 2007, but slightly beyond. Please suspend a bit of disbelief. The object of meditation is Wikipedia.
It can't possibly work. When I describe it to people as an online encyclopedia is that free and open and written by volunteers, people don't believe it. But it does. One of the top 20 websites in the world. Everyone in the room knows it, visits it, maybe 10% of the audience raises their hand to say they have written in it. The English version is bigger than the Brittanica. Random person off the street will say something, vaugely, about the Seigenthaler affair when asked about Wikipedia. If you use it, you must find it useful. Most people find it more useful than conventional reference sources. Becoming a reference source of choice.
Zen masters give you something to meditate on, like the sound of one
hand clapping, for you to muse over for years in a cave. As long as you
think in conventional terms, you are saddled with thinking that keeps
you from understanding. There is an essential fact, that anyone can
edit any article at any time. Most people start to freak out at this.
How could you trust that? Isn't there vandalism, there is no quality
control? Isn't it not to be trusted? The fact that anyone can is what
attracted people to begin with. As a chronic social outsider from my
youth, I love inviting social systems.
Myths include someone has to be in charge. Mainstream
media sieze on this idea that it is problematic that nobody is in
charge, the stories correspond to and reinforce our prejudices. I
discovered even in myself that I find this to be true. Was talking with
Jimmy Wales about how they do SysAdmin. A complex system with volunteer
SysAdmins. I had assumed that since they need it to be up 24/7 they had
a schedule where people sign up for coverage. Turns out that's not the
case. They have 100 qualified people, so statistically there are always
enough people around. If found that remarkable. I didn't have the
faith. Writing content, sure, but maintaining system integrity?
Without experts, how can you trust the information? Deep seated assumptions that experts actually count. I grew up in the 60s and learned about trust in experts, VietNam. Now it's WMDs. Its a cultural thing where we are wired to not accept things.
Anyone can edit any article at any time -- the very openess that leads perpetually for opportunities for improvement. If there is a problem, it can be spotted and fixed by anyone. MSM failed to notice that after the Siegenthaler affair, the Nature article showed a comparison in favor for the quality of Scientific articles over the Brittanica. The quality was roughly equivalent for Wikipedia and fact, not statistically different. But in the Brittanica article were poor. But after the article came out, the quality of those very articles improved.
I became convinced that Wikipedia was going to be the next big thing. And things like it. I have some history here. Next big things I have gotten right before:
- 1978 the Apple II
- 1982 Lotus 1-2-3
- 1992 UUNET, one of the first ISPs.
- 1995 Real Networks
- 2005 Mozilla/Firefox
I like these weird things just before they hit. So why am I talking about wikis? I made a study of it, here are the learnings:
Community. Genuine community
of people behind the wiki. Not an anthill or marketplace where each
does their own thing and it magically aggregates. People are really
tied together, Wikipedians. They are in relationship to one another and
that is the glue that holds it together. You are not suprised about this
Vision. Promulgated by Jimmy Wales: create a free
encyclopedia of the worlds knowledge for all the worlds people. Jimmy
started as a commodities trader. Thought about what he really wanted to
do. Started a mailing list, hired someone, created Nupedia with a
complex process. Then went to the mailing list and called for help.
Lots of people talking about vision started making progress in two to
three weeks to launch Wikipedia.
Mission. Community of peer production, not abstract. People who do things all see their activity as being related to a larger goal.
Wikipedians. I went to Hamberg for the Wikimania
conference, their first gathering in person. People come from all walks
all over the world, a little different than the software world of open
source. Writing good code is hard. Making contributions from lots of
people work together is even harder. Wikipedia is very modular,
everyone can work on what they want. Every article also has a talk page
to discuss that article, and every user has a talk page for talking
about themselves, some of the best aspects of virtual communities.
People are strangers, but others cluster together.
Leadership. The leader has to
serve the community. They are volunteers, a different paradigm, not a
business paradigm where somewhere under the surface there is a
heirarchy. Leadership in a voluntary inspiration, moral leadership,
empowering and recognizing people. Jimmy calls himself a Libertarian,
which makes sense in some context, but there is something about
empowering a community that can be an unruly bunch that can be
Values. They talk about values openly, not a dirty word.
- Be nice: matters in the community, gets rewarded, people expect it, expect respect in a kindly fashion that expects the best of people. Holds the community together. If someone comes in to slash and burn, they say, well that's not really how we do things around here. And it works. Treating people as people, not objectsx to be moved around for your own goals.
- NPOV: neutral point of view. valuing relevant facts people can agree on. Discourages editorializing or slanted presentation of the evidence. The anti-spin doctrine. I was skeptical about this, don't believe there is an objective truth waiting to be discovered, people bring their stuff with them. There is a saying that in the early days there were more articles about Middle Earth than Africa. If the goal is to be accurately capturing the knowledge of the world, but you have Hobbits over Africa, do you not have an obligation to recruit people who know about Africa? Jimmy said I was right and there has been outreach initatives.
- Don't criticize, improve!
- Real-time peer review. Users have a watchlist to notify of changes to changes you have made. Recent Changes junkies as a volunteer activity, to monitor things like new postings from anonymous contributors. Helps keep the quality up. As it gets more popular, there is more motivation for people who do not share the values of the community to change articles for their point of view. Latest issue of congressional staffers systematically buffing the articles, a hit story in the media. This came out because there is a record of every single edit made. But the net net is that real tiem peer review doesn't keep up with changes, better to catch it earlier than later, so there has been some tightening on editing process ofr these articles
- Dispute resolution. Don't have time to get into it right now. You can loose hours looking at transcripts. As if everything in our government was made out in the open. Tim O'Reilly shouts, wouldn't that be cool!
The challenge of alien invaders. Maybe the ecosystem is fragile. Wikipedians are not that fond of technology, they almost do the thing by writing things down on paper and passing them around. There will be more technology leverage. There is an enormous amount of hard to get knowledge, because there is no machine executed way of getting it. Suppose you had an API for all the world's knowledge. There will be discontinous innovation.
Business Opportunities. Ross Mayfield reminded me before the talk about how Socialtext is building Wikipedias inside of companies. Wikipedia aas a genre isn't limited to encyclopedia. Makes perfect sense, a no brainer. Don't want to say too much about it or I would create competition Ross doesn't want.
Wikipedia hasn't monetized their traffic, a possibility for other communities. A guide to the web with collaboratively edited content about what are interesting website. Tons of interesting types of collaborative filtering, like Digg, is TiVo like, indicating individual preferences, with some algorythm logic. Valid and interesting, but people are not connecting. Different from a bunch of people focusing on creating something. That is higher value than collaborative filtering, my thesis, if you can get people to work together. Look at health information, broadly speaking, why are doctors not collaborating to build such a resource -- the lack of information, locked up in a database that Harvard publishes, kills people. I can feel the opportunity.
Business Models. There isn't a formula, if there was the world would be different. The Firefox experience taught me something, they have 60 million people use it every week, if you can command a lot of attention, attention is what is valuable. Google stepped up and said if you default the seach to us, we will revenue share with you, a $50M per year business. A long line of partners want a piece of it. One route is some kind of Wikipedia application will on a global basis be attracting people. There will be dozens or hundreds of Wikipedias. I was pointing someone now for what was going to be a big thing, it would be doing something where you harness the efforts of a community, one that is truly empowered. People here, basing their business on Linux, having a widespread community is what makes it goes. The community should own the underlying resource, the knowledge base created, because they will contribute if they know it is a commons, not owned by the business organization which commands attention of people who come in. A different kind of business, we see it in the software world, and it will be a good thing for business with jobs and innovation and value being created. A form of business that will be more responsible to the larger society to which it is indebted, a very good thing. I hope this inspires some thoughts within you, and, thank you.