Monday, January 26, 2009

Wikipedia and Britannica are Converging

Is there a network equivalent of market forces? The crowdsource equivalent (or perhaps generalisation) of Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand"?

When I was in my early teens my school got the new edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in over 30 volumes costing around £1,000. It was a huge wealth of authoritative information on just about everything. I spent quite a few lunch hours just reading about stuff.

In the 90s Microsoft bought out Encarta on CD-ROM. It was a lot less information, but it cost a lot less than £1,000. Britannica has been in trouble ever since. Now there is Wikipedia, which is free, a bit less authoritative than Britannica, but has even more information and a great deal more mindshare.

So Britannica has responded by taking a page out of Jimbo Wales's book; its going to start accepting user-generated content, albeit with a stiff editorial barrier to acceptance into the core Encyclopaedia.

Meanwhile the latest controversy on Wikipedia is about whether user-generated content needs more controls. I say "more" because Wikipedia has always had some limits; locked pages, banned editors, and in extreme cases even the deletion of changes (as opposed to reversion, which preserves them in the page history). Increasingly sophisticated editorial policies have been put in place, such as "No Original Research" (originally put in to stop crank science, but now an important guiding principle).

When you look at Wikipedia's history there is a clear trend; every so often Wikipedia reaches a threshold of size and importance where its current level of openness doesn't work. At this point Jimbo Wales adds a minimal level of editorial control. Locked pages, for instance, were added because certain pages attracted unmanageably high levels of vandalism.

It seems that Wikipedia and Britannica are actually converging on the same model from different ends of the spectrum: Wikipedia started out completely open and is having to impose controls to manage quality. Meanwhile the Britannica started out completely closed and is having to allow in user-generated content because comissioning experts to write it is too expensive. Somewhere in the middle is a happy medium that gets good quality content without having to charge subscribers.

Not charging is important. In these days of the hyperlink, an encyclopedia is not just a source of knowledge, it is a medium of communication. If I want to tell people that they should read about the history of the Britannica then I refer to the Wikipedia page because very few people who read this are going to be able to follow a link to a Britannica article (even if I were a subscriber, which I am not).

Wikipedia is often said to have been inspired by the "open source" model in that anyone can edit Wikipedia just as anyone can edit the Linux source code. In fact the cases are not parallel. The GPL allows me to download a copy of the Linux source code, hack it to my heart's content, and give copies of my new version to anyone who wants them. What it does not do is authorise me to upload my version to and pass it off as the work of Linus Torvalds. Getting my changes into the official kernel means passing through a strict quality assurance process including peer review and extensive testing on multiple architectures.

So I think that this proposal to create "flagged revisions" for editorial review moves Wikipedia towards the open source model rather than away from it. Anyone will always be able to fork Wikipedia if they wish: the license guarantees it. But the offical version at will earn increasing trust as the quality assurance improves, just as the official version of the Linux kernel is trusted because of its quality assurance.

1 comment:

shreevatsa said...

Those are great observations! They do seem to be approaching from different directions.

I disagree with your conclusion, though. I believe Wikipedia will be *less* successful if it moves closer to the open-source model; it is not possible to attract as many contributors without giving everyone the commit bit. Take away the satisfaction of seeing one's edits instantly appear on the Wikipedia page, and fewer people will be drawn in. (It's okay to offer "flagged versions" of each page; they just shouldn't be the *default* version that people see, IMHO.)