Wikipedia, competition, and the future

By the time you read this column, Wikipedia will be celebrating its fifth anniversary. It's been a wilder ride than anybody could have imagined, and it's gotten even more so lately. In a widely cited incident, John Seigenthaler, Sr., a prominent journalist, publisher, and political figure, reacted with justifiable horror when he learned that his bio entry in Wikipedia falsely implicated him in the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

The ensuing flap was an ironic validation of Wikipedia's success. Libelous attacks posted to backwater blogs and message boards are easily dismissed. But given Wikipedia's reputation, the insult was magnified accordingly.

Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger foresaw this in an essay published a year ago. He diagnosed the problem as excessive anti-elitism, and he predicted that the project might need to fork -- that is, launch a new version with a governance model that would value experts more highly and rely on them to ensure consistent quality.

Sure enough, Sanger emerged last month as a director of Digital Universe, a new service planned for early 2006. "In the Digital Universe, a Ph.D. matters," founder Joe Firmage told CNET News.com. Credentialed experts will be paid to review articles, and those they approve will be labeled as such.

If Digital Universe does take on Wikipedia in 2006, it's sure to be a media circus. There are aspects of this story that you couldn't make up.

Wired News reported that Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales edited his own Wikipedia bio in order to minimize Larry Sanger's role in the creation of the service, as well as to downplay the adult-oriented nature of Wales' first dot-com venture.

And Joe Firmage, many will remember, was once labeled "Silicon Valley's Fox Mulder." After selling his first software company to Novell and founding USWeb, Firmage experienced a dreamlike encounter that inspired him to write a lengthy, self-published, and widely ridiculed book advancing theories about extraterrestrial visitation and antigravity.

Like I said, you couldn't make this stuff up. But the issues at stake are quite real. It will be fascinating to watch Wikipedia's open content process evolve in response to criticism and competition, and to compare its governance model to that of open source.

It's widely acknowledged that Wikipedia's radically low barrier to entry helped fuel its explosive early growth. That's now been ratcheted up a notch. Only registered users can create new topics. But anyone can still edit an existing article and many registered Wikipedians operate pseudonymously. These freedoms are an essential part of the culture.

The wiki medium, Socialtext's Ross Mayfield has said, "denatures personality." Whereas open source developers are often motivated by a desire to build strong individual reputations, Wikipedians care more about inclusiveness and consensus. Enforcing better accountability without eroding these core values will require tricky social engineering.

Judging the quality of article entries is an even trickier matter. Like open source projects, Wikipedia is a meritocracy that rewards hard work and excellent results. Neither culture values the Ph.D. for its own sake. But where open source operates in a single domain of expertise, Wikipedia spans myriad domains. While it can't hire expertise a la Digital Universe, a program to attract qualified volunteer reviewers could gain traction. Wikipedia is a remarkable service that has earned much goodwill.

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Jon Udell

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