The Self Assembling Bird’s Nest[]

Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales had a problem. The free online encyclopedia they had set up – Nupedia – was growing at snails pace. Nupedia relied on voluntary contributions but had such an elaborate system for peer review that only highly qualified contributors could get their material accepted. After several months only a few articles had made it through the process. On January 2, 2001 Sanger had dinner with a computer programmer Ben Kovitz who explained a new development in websites called Wikis which he thought might breathe new life into Nupedia. Wikis are websites that can be edited by any user, using nothing more powerful than a standard web browser. They allow people to dip into a text, contribute to it, leave their mark and exit. The text then grows as a collective creation, and collaborative piece of work, being edited by several hands. Sanger immediately saw the potential for using a wiki to rescue Nupedia and he quickly persuaded Wales to set up a wiki version of the encyclopaedia. The reviewers and editors on Nupedia did not like the idea. In common with professionals in many other walks of life, they felt under threat and resisted. They did not want their work to be associated with something as low-brow as a wiki, something that anyone could edit. There was, they complained, no guarantee of quality. So Wikipedia was launched with is own domain name on January 15th 2001. A month later it already had 1,000 articles and reached 10,000 by September. By March 2005 the English Wiki had more than 500,000 articles, many of them based on multiple contributions. In its first four years Wikipedia attracted 2m entries, in 105 languages. Nupedia meanwhile was closed down and only ever attracted 24 entries.

Wikipedia is an dizzying collaborative creation. Anyone can edit it, take away the information and use it. There are no editors, fact checkers or proof-readers, at least not ones that are paid. An encyclopaedia is an august body of knowledge, a bit like a monument, compiled by experts through an editorial process few know about and at great expense. Wikipedia is a constantly evolving account of a huge range of things, continuously updated and mainly compiled by a breed of committed amateurs, through a process which seems completely transparent. The Encyclopedia Britannica has 44m words of text. Wikipedia already has 250m. Quantity, of course, does not necessarily equate with quality. It is not Wikipedia’s aim to replace encyclopaedias or to supplant all forms of expert knowledge. Many critics argue Wikipedia’s democratic approach gives it a populist edge: the contributions on popular culture such as Coronation Street or Barbie dolls are sometimes far longer than those on art or politics. Wikipedia has had its problems. Some small sections of the site – the section on President George Bush and the war in Iraq - had to be closed down because contributions to them became a kind of political warfare. The site has suffered some vandalism, inaccuracies and some people have tampered with entries to self-promote themselves or attack others. It is far from perfect. Yet on the whole Wikipedia is an easy to use, well organised, starting point for research on many subjects. Attempts to doctor it will be found out, probably more easily than reporters on the New York Times making up quotes from invented interviewees. It is not the final story on that subject but often a good place to start. And it invites you to contribute because you are giving something back to the community you have drawn from.

What is remarkable is how Wikipedia manages to make it all work. It is as much a social innovation as a technological one. Wikipedia recruited its first full time employee in January 2005. Its annual running costs are less than $100,000. Wales, a former options trader, bankrolled it in its first four years to a tune of about $300,000, a pittance compared to the money that venture capitalists poured into the Internet during the dot.com boom. One secret of Wikipedia’s success is that it is very easy to use: costs of entry are virtually zero. Anyone can take part, you do not have to show your credentials at the door. (Imagine a company that allowed people to come to work for it first and only asked questions about their credentials, once they had seen the quality of their work.) But because there are so many people swarming over the site you had better be reasonably sure that what you are going to add is accurate, because if not then other people will correct it. That process of peer review is not in itself new, it will be familiar to most academics and scientists. But Wikipedia has been able to successfully scale up this process, for three main reasons. First, everyone contributing is in effect asked to sign up to Wikipedia’s norms and values to adopt a neutral point of view and not to grind an axe. As Wales explains, this helps to set the tone in which discussions take place, a common goal that people can aim for through their co-operative effort (wording?). Second, the peer reviewing system does not descend into chaos, grind to a halt, nor allow through rubbish because it has evolved very delicately. When individuals get into a dispute about an entry they can propose a vote on the issue. If that does not work there is mediation, then an arbitration committee and finally Wales himself might have to make a judgement. This set of checks and balances means the whole community is governed by consent. Although there is vandalism the community is largely self-healing: it sorts it out itself. Third, the community has developed its own social structure. Not all Wikipedians are equal. Those involved in the project for longest form a kind of aristocracy. Policies and strategies are openly debated, posted online and voted on. That commitment to transparency means it is very difficult for a group to change strategy without anyone else knowing. Few managers in large companies could bear to operate with the transparency of Wikipedia. Most of the work is actually done by about 1,100 people. Outside that core group a few thousand more make more than 100 edits each a month. Then there is a long tail who have done little more than add an entry here and there. The power of communities like Wikipedia is this sliding-scale of contribution. Traditional companies do not have good ways for people to make occasional contributions when they feel like it. Employment contracts are too cumbersome for that. But Wikipedia has the flexibility to mix committed and occasional contributors seemingly effortlessly.

Wales is an unlikely looking leader of a rebellion: self-deprecating, softly spoken and charmingly modest. When I met him in July 2005 in Oxford and in May 2006 in Norway he was wearing ill pressed black trousers and the same a black cheesecloth shirt embroidered with a red pattern (I assumed it had been washed in between.) He looked like a folk singer. “Wikipedia is governed in a set of different ways,” he explained. “In part it is anarchy, really no one is in control of the content, its up to people to sort it out for themselves. In part it is democracy because some things do get voted on. There is also an element of aristocracy: people who have been involved in the community longer, who have acquired a reputation, have a higher standing in the community. And then there is monarchy - that’s me – but I try to get involved as little as possible.” Wales’ aim is that Wikipedia should become the Red Cross of information, a global resource, to put the extent of knowledge contained in a large encyclopaedia in the hands of everyone on the planet, for free. Already it has more than 1,000 articles in 100 languages. In some African states, Wales explained, teachers are downloading Wikipedia onto CDs which they then take to villages with a PC but no Internet connections.

Listening to Jimmy Wales spin his tale of Wikipedia’s birth and growth I imagined was like listening to Henry Ford on the eve of his launching his moving assembly line at Highland Park in 1913. Until Ford came along car production had been an odd-ball activity. The US produced 7,000 cars a year, mainly from small workshops owned by rich people and they were then sold to other rich people. No one had dared think cars could be for the masses. They could not see how that might be done. But for most of that decade, Ford a renegade outsider and his team of engineers, had been experimenting with a fundamentally different approach to production, with the aim of creating a product for a mass market of mid-Western farmers. A bit like the encyclopaedias of today, the car workshops of 1913 used only skilled craftsmen to make bespoke products. Ford wanted to use a rag-bag army of barely literate workers to achieve the task. To most of the rest of the car industry it must have sounded crazy. Yet most of the ingredients of Ford’s mass production system were already around to be borrowed: the moving line came from the meat packing industry; the interchangeable parts came from the machine tool industry; the scheduling skills came from railroads. Ford’s genius was to understand how they could be brought together. Ford created a new way to see organisations: how to mobilise resources on a mass scale, to make standardised products for mass markets and in the process bring about far reaching social and economic changes. What Ford did for the industrial economy Jimmy Wales is doing for the knowledge economy. And like Ford he is doing it by borrowing ideas from many different sources. None of the organisational ingredients that make up Wikipedia are in themselves new: peer review comes from academia and science; the wiki was a tool developed elsewhere on the net; the encyclopedia is a well established form; the way Wikipedia settles disputes borrows from other, older communities; the barefoot philosophy of amateurs doing jobs previously reserved for professionals was pioneered by social entrepreneurs. What is new is the way that Wales and Wikipedia has put it all together. Even now most people cannot see how the mass of people could become participants in innovation rather than merely consumers. Yet just as Ford transformed the way we made products, so Wales and others of his ilk are transforming the way we create ideas, together.

To underline just how different is Wikipedia’s approach to organisation, consider what it does not do. There is no Wikipedia head office and no research lab in the woods. There are no corporate perks, learning programmes, nor memos from head office about travel expenses. Wikipedia might exclude trouble-makers but it has not downsized large swathes of its workforce. There is no human resource department in charge of recruitment. People recruit themselves. Their role depends on their enthusiasm and skills and the judgement of their peers. Wikipedia does not have to employ consultants to devise knowledge management programmes to get people to share ideas. People do that automatically. Had large corporations adopted Wikipedia’s recipe the entire knowledge management industry of the last ten years might have been redundant. What to Wikipedia comes naturally has to be forced, engineered and aligned in most organisations: that is a measure of how dysfunctional they are. There is nothing to outsource to India because everything was open source from the outset. (Strictly speaking Wikipedia operates under a GNU Free Documentation Licence, which allows rival sites to set up using the same software. As of summer 2005 one rival existed Enciclopedia Libre.) Companies are always in search of a better fit with their elusive customers. In Wikipedia the customers are contributors and designers of the content. They are fused together. Wales will not hand over the community to his offspring. He could not appoint his best mate to become finance officer, with rich stock options. Contributors to Wikipedia work through peer review the whole time. They do not have to subject themselves to embarrassing 360 degree career reviews or submit to sessions with a personnel manager. In short, Wikipedia does not carry the dispiriting and dysfunctional baggage of life in big business. It is a self-organising community that works for non-commercial motives. It should not work, but it does, and because it does we have options for how we work together that we never had before.

Wikipedia resembles a bird’s nest lovingly constructed from millions of little pieces of information, each laid delicately together to form a robust, safe structure, which is nevertheless comfortable for its inhabitants. Yet it is a bird’s nest that assembles itself, as if the grass and twigs themselves knew exactly where they should go.

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