Comment Imagine that one giant manufacturer dominated the car market. The cars it made weren’t very good, but they were much cheaper and easier to buy than cars from anyone else, so the car company had ended up dominating the market.
These cars would often break down, spew noxious gasses, and a lot of the time, didn’t go where you wanted them to go.
Car travel was unreliable and sometimes even dangerous. People kept using them hoping that the crashes would happen to somebody else, and the health consequences of the pollution wouldn’t hit them for years.
For us, it isn’t difficult to imagine a better world, a world of reliable and safe cars.
Wikipedia at 15 is the monopoly car company of digital knowledge. But we seem to find imagining a better world of knowledge difficult. Which is very weird when you think about it. We supposedly live in a “knowledge economy” or an “information society”, but the price of free means that we put up with a lot of problems with the stuff (the information, the knowledge) that supposedly defines our society.
Free and easily accessible overrides other considerations.
Is Wikipedia the best humanity can achieve? Is a Wikipedia monopoly a good thing? Or can free online knowledge improve on the trail that Wikipedia blazed?
Wikipedia has taken advantage of new network technology to create a vast body of distributed “content”. It’s taken advantage of the utopianism of the early internet to gather a core of committed “content creators”, who (conveniently) don’t mind forgoing monetary payment. And Wikipedia has taken advantage of the primitive Stone Age economics of the internet to use “free” to monopolise the market.
But in reality, how well has it done, really?
Even by its own measures, Wikipedia falls seriously short of its stated ambitions. Wikipedia content is unsuitable for education, particularly primary education. It’s NSFS (Not Safe For Schools). Domain knowledge is fiercely guarded by anonymous subject warriors. The quality of writing and accuracy often falls short of the material produced by any other content producer. Hoaxes can linger for years. The absence of financial incentives from Wikimedia means contributors find their own.
Diversity is a serious problem, one acknowledged by the Wikimedia Foundation itself for years. It’s a site dominated by white males and creates content that’s largely consumed by white males. WIkipedia has even “licensed the brand” to produce PR material for an authoritarian regime. Yet its dominance continues.
Perhaps the answer to the puzzle is simpler than we think. With Wikipedia, what we have done is trade convenience for quality. Fair enough. But it would be odd if we couldn’t imagine a better world of knowledge. We can easily imagine how most things could be better. My oven already cleans itself. My self-driving armchair will whizz me to the pub, one day, and then back again. Is it so hard for imaginative people to imagine a better digital resource of knowledge? We seem to put up with it because, like the Wikicar World, we’ve never seen a freely available digital content of Wikipedia’s depth without Wikipedia’s problems.
To refuse to accept Better Knowledge is possible would be to assume one of two things: that either things can’t possibly get any better, or that nobody can do better than Wikipedia, which will amble along until it fixes things. Both assumptions seem to be on pretty shaky ground today. Particularly since the internal tensions between the community and the $200m-cash rich Foundation (the result of endless nagging for donations) are now out in the open.
With $200m in the bank and only $3m a year running costs, you can potentially reward the smartest people in the world to do amazing stuff.
The clue to Wikipedia comes from Andreas Kolbe, who characterises it primarily as a social network for amateur content creators. For Kolbe, anonymity is the reason why so much goes wrong. Wikipedia contributors are the most influential “content creators” in the world – but many hide behind a cloak of anonymity. Anonymity ensures a lack of accountability, and deters high quality contributors. Yet Wikipedia values this very highly: Wikipedia would rather be secretive than right.
So here’s a modest prediction.
Wiki-style knowledge resources will develop in two interesting ways. The Wikipedia of today will remain anonymous, but will largely create content for machines, not humans. Kolbe alluded to this in both of his must-read pieces for The Register – you’ll need them both. The info box is content repurposed for machines. However, this removes attribution and increases the problem of citizenesis.
The other path takes us down two non-anonymous routes: paid and unpaid. Wikipedia is the result of several things, including some noble ideals and not-so-noble motivations. If Wikipedia contributors really are amongst the most influential “content creators” in the world why do they insist on taking their reward in non-monetary forms?
Perhaps it’s a question that answers itself; we’re left with people who find dominating a subject area, and influencing a billion people, to be sufficient reward in itself.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the output will be great.
That returns us to Kolbe’s characterisation of Wikipedia as a social network. Is it primarily a hobby for a few people, and a comfortable sinecure for the 300 lucky members of the Wiki nonprofit outift, the WMF? Or is the mission really about spreading high quality knowledge? If Wiki's problems continue – if it can't currently produce a resource for schools; if it can't produce well written content; if it can't produce more accurate information – then it's falling short on the promise of the internet.
Now the early idealism of the net utopianism has worn off, those tough choices get ever closer. ®