Failure and the Vision

Despite my great pleasure and excitement that The MIT Press will be publishing my book next year (I sent the manuscript to the copy editor last week!), stories like this, "Despite changes, Wikipedia will still 'fail within 5 years'", makes me wish I could get it out today. Just when questions about Wikipedia's viability ceased predictions of its demise arose in their place -- and it's getting boring.

Ars Technica journalist Nate Anderson has been profiling law professor Eric Goldman's proclamations of doom for a number of years now. In the book, I touch upon this in a chapter about the critical response to Wikipedia and the way it is produced. My cynical take is that one of the best ways to get attention is to make a provocative claim and then walk it back with some nuanced reasoning once you have that attention. (I'm glad to see Goldman has made such an attempt now with a new article, and hope to read it soon.)

On the substance, I expect I don't disagree much with Goldman, though I would take issue with his hyperbole. In the dissertation and book chapter on openness, I argue that one needs to look carefully at existing context before making pronouncements about the openness or closedness of technology mediated community. So, for example, the introduction of flagged revisions into contentious articles on biographies of living people, might actually increase Wikipedia's openness given that simply "protecting" a page has been a practice for many years now. One needs a good definition or criteria of an open content community if one wants to talk about challenges and change.

However, my greatest agitation arises as a historical one. Anderson concludes his article by writing:

But the preservation of credibility this way comes at a huge cost. First, it means that Wikipedia has failed—at least when it comes to the original utopian idea of an encyclopedia that anyone, anywhere can edit at anytime.

Look at Jimmy Wales first message in 2000 to the list for his new free Web encyclopedia:

My dream is that someday this encyclopedia will be available for just the cost of printing to schoolhouses across the world, including '3rd world' countries that won't be able to afford widespread internet access for years. How many African villages can afford a set of Britannicas? I suppose not many... (Wales2000h)

In 2004, when Wikipedia is picking up, Wales writes:

Our mission is to give freely the sum of the world's knowledge to every single person on the planet in the language of their choice, under a free license, so that they can modify, adapt, reuse, or redistribute it, at will. And, by "every single person on the planet," I mean exactly that, so we have to remember that much of our target audience is not yet able to access the Internet reliably, if at all.... (Wales2004fls)

The Wikimedia Foundation's vision statement reads:

Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That's our commitment. (Foundation2007von)

Nowhere do we see a utopian vision for encyclopedia anyone can edit. A central aspiration in the pursuit of a universal encyclopedia is increased access to and freedom of information: an opening of opportunity and capability to anyone with an interest to learn. Ironically, such an encyclopedia only and unintentionally became possible through a happy accident: universal access to its collaborative production -- which was always tempered. Therefore, we should not confuse the means of Wikipedia production with its mission: a high-quality free and accessible reference work. Therefore, continued experiments in balancing freedom and constraint towards that end are wholly appropriate -- as Shirky argued in his essay "News of Wikipedia's Death Greatly Exaggerated" in 2006.


Ported/Archived Responses

Biella on 2009-10-01

Congrats Joe!

Joseph Reagle on 2009-09-03

Hi Brianna, I appreciate your point, and you are exactly right about Stallman. One of the nuances in the fork form Free Software towards Open Source was a shift in focus on the process over ideology. Stallman doesn't care if Free Software is produced by a proprietary organization using ancient bureaucratic methods. It's the end result that is important. Ironically, even though Linus uses the GPL, you can see his concern is on the fun/productive side of things. Similarly, in the Wikipedia case, the vision was about a free encyclopedia, and it just turns out (wonderfully so) that the best way to produce that was through open collaboration. But, as Wikipedians say, "Wikipedia is not an experiment in anarchy." That openness is balanced, experimented with, and forever discussed, because it cannot be an absolute. How "open" would a wiki full of hate speech, spam, and misogyny be to contributors? Not very, IMHO.

The greatest surprise in the outcome of the free culture movement was that the best way to produce open/free content is to produce it in a (relatively) open/free community. And I don't think we can or should divorce the ends from the means, but they are not the same thing and too many people conflate them and maintain overly naive notions of what it means to be "open."

pfctdayelise on 2009-09-03

Nowhere in any of those cases, but of course the English Wikipedia has had taglines for a long time like "the encyclopedia that you can edit" or "that anyone can edit". The WMF mission statement also includes an aim to "to empower and engage people [to] develop educational content".

If the aim is only to provide an encyclopedia, that is a much less powerful thing than trying to make sure everyone (who wants to!) can actually take part in creating it.

But it reminds me of a thought I had during Richard Stallman's keynote at Wikimania last week, where he said a couple of times he didn't care at all about the "wiki" aspect of Wikipedia. I was surprised because this is so similar to the workings of free software communities - building on each other's work, working collaboratively. You could view each edit as a tiny fork, which is all that seems to matter to Stallman, but I don't think that would be really accurate of how either free software or encyclopedia development works.
Doesn't it seem a diminished promise compared to what we have already seen?

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