Friday, March 17, 2006

The Wisdom of the Wiki
What's the secret of Wikipedia's success?

The Wikipedia is a manifestation of a concept that seems astonishing at first: an encyclopedia that consists entirely of entries written and edited by volunteer, anonymous contributors. But isn't that almost a contradiction in terms? Aren't encyclopedias (or encyclopediae to be precise) supposed to be the epitome of accuracy, authority, and accountability? Welcome to the world of social computing, which eschews hierarchical, centrally-driven ways of doing things, instead valuing interactions between peers.

Take a look at the Wikipedia statistics: it appears in 215 languages, has 83000 contributors (up from 10 in Jan 2001), features 2.6 Million articles, and adds 6000 new articles per day. A search for 'wikipedia' on Google produces 361 Million hits. These are hardly statistics that represent a product that is struggling to get off the ground - indeed, they offer ample proof that the Wikipedia has taken off and gained a huge following. It crossed the 500,000-article milestone two years ago, in February 2004 - date that can thus roughly be taken to represent the "take-off" stage for the project.

Opinion on the success of the Wikipedia is, of course, not undivided. The concept has many detractors. Reams of newsprint, websites and blogs have been dedicated to arguing its merits and otherwise. It is of course prone to malicious use too.

Here's the horse sense view: The wikipedia is a phenomenal source of information - arguably the single best source of information on any topic under the sun. It has gotten to the stage where, when looking for information on many topics, I often look directly in it rather than first do a Google search (which is of course the default way to look for information!). The only caveat is that, if you're researching material for an article or business report then it may be a good idea to treat what you find in Wikipedia as only a starting point and then verify it independently, but otherwise the material in Wikipedia is good enough for most uses.

What's the secret of its success? At one level, it's success is simply the success of social computing in general - the steady march of advances in computing that have put more computing power in the hands of the masses, allowing them to use it to achieve ends that they truly consider useful. At another level, its the 'Wisdom of Crowds' phenomenon - a large number of people tend to be smarter than a few individuals, no matter how qualified.

In the final analysis, however, the Wikipedia is emblematic of the steady powershift that technology itself embodies - from Governments, large institutions and organizations to the individual. Nobody decides on behalf of the user - the user is in charge, for better or worse. This stunningly simple principle is what has made Wikipedia, and indeed wikis in general, a phenomenon so powerful that it can be termed a profound social megatrend.