Wikipedia: A community of editors or a community of authors?

Having a bit more time than usual over the holidays, I caught up on various types of reading, including following old links. One of the pieces I came across that I can’t believe I missed when it was first published back in 2006 is Aaron Swartz’s Who Writes Wikipedia?

This piece is a must-read for anyone who cares about the future of publishing. Aaron argues that Jimmy Wales’ account of how Wikipedia happens is wrong:

I first met Jimbo Wales, the face of Wikipedia, when he came to speak at Stanford. Wales told us about Wikipedia’s history, technology, and culture, but one thing he said stands out. “The idea that a lot of people have of Wikipedia,” he noted, “is that it’s some emergent phenomenon — the wisdom of mobs, swarm intelligence, that sort of thing — thousands and thousands of individual users each adding a little bit of content and out of this emerges a coherent body of work.” But, he insisted, the truth was rather different: Wikipedia was actually written by “a community … a dedicated group of a few hundred volunteers” where “I know all of them and they all know each other”. Really, “it’s much like any traditional organization.”

The difference, of course, is crucial. Not just for the public, who wants to know how a grand thing like Wikipedia actually gets written, but also for Wales, who wants to know how to run the site. “For me this is really important, because I spend a lot of time listening to those four or five hundred and if … those people were just a bunch of people talking … maybe I can just safely ignore them when setting policy” and instead worry about “the million people writing a sentence each”.

Aaron makes the argument that when you count words rather than edits (as Jimmy Wales does when citing Wikipedia contributor statistics), most of the content in Wikipedia does indeed come from contributors outside the core.

Aaron’s principal point was that from a governance point of view, Wikipedia should focus more on random, individual contributors of content, rather than on the core of editors. (And recent controversies have supported Aaron’s contention that Wikipedia’s core community may be too ingrown.) But I was interested for another reason.

Unlike Aaron, I think that Jimmy is right: Wikipedia does have a lot in common with traditional publishing organizations. But Aaron is also right: you have to value the contributors. Take O’Reilly’s book publishing operations: we have far more outside authors than we have employees. Many of them are passionate experts rather than professional writers or editors, just like Wikipedia authors. Their work is improved by an editing team and brought to market in the context of brands that we’ve created, but we couldn’t do what we do without them. This is just as true of any publishing company. Did Bloomsbury’s editors invent Harry Potter? No, it was a welfare mom who dreamed up the idea while riding on the train.

Any publishing organization needs both: a large network of contributors and a core of committed regulars.

This is why I’ve always found the publishing disdain for “user generated content” to be so perplexing. The fundamental job of publishing is curation — finding good stuff and bringing it to an audience that might not otherwise encounter it. It often (but not always) includes editing and improving it. (Some of our most successful books required very little editing.) Sometimes it involves commissioning or creating it, but that is far from the norm.

This is why publishers should be studying Wikipedia (and YouTube, and Google) — because they are all showing us the new face of publishing. At their heart, they involve new means of content creation yes, but more profoundly, they involve new means of curation. Wikipedia creates a context within which authors can exercise their skills, displaying their knowledge and their passion. Yes, it allows for collaborative creation, and that’s good. But the core framework of Wikipedia was developed by a small team, and a small team provides the editing work that keeps it on track.

This isn’t fundamentally new. It’s a different and better way of doing some tasks that publishers already perform.

Ditto Google. PageRank might be thought of as a way of getting millions of readers to work on the slushpile of web content, and promoting the best material to the top, where it can become professionalized.

(Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why we bring technologists and publishers together at our Tools of Change for Publishing conference. A great deal of what is happening on the web is the reinvention of the practices of publishing, not creating an alternative to them, but recreating them, reinforcing them, and showing publishers what is most important about what they do, and how to re-discover their core competencies in the new medium.)

P.S. If Aaron’s analysis is right, it demonstrates that Wikipedia is significantly different in its contribution pattern from open source software, which Ohloh’s contribution statistics demonstrate have a pattern much like Jimmy Wales’ official story about Wikipedia, that most of the work is done by a small core community.

tags: ,