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Business - Written by on Wednesday, July 2, 2008 11:34 - 1 Comment

Denis Hancock
Wikipedia – from ‘anyone can edit’ to ‘any reasonable person can join us in writing and editing…’

I have to credit Nicholas Carr’s blog for pointing me towards this interesting little article by Jimmy Wales, founder of wikipedia. For a long time, wikipedia promoted itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Now, Wales describes it as “the online encyclopedia in which any reasonable person can join us in writing and editing stories on any encyclopedic topic.” While at first it doesn’t appear to be a huge difference, there are a lot of little insights that can be pulled from the subtle changes. Off the top of my head:

1. the word “free” is gone. While Wales goes on to add it is a “charitable humanitarian effort”, one could hypothesize the “free” part is now of much lower importance to the wikipedia value proposition. When it first started, one might argue that “free” was one of the key differentiators, and now it is just par for the course.

2. “Anyone” can’t edit anymore. While there has always been an editorial process to weed out the bad and/or malicious contributions, and “reasonable person” would hardly be seen as exclusionary by most, it is a subtle movement away from what some might consider a “pure” mass collaboration. In reality it’s just articulating what most organizations have found that have gone down the road of collaboration – you simply don’t want everyone, because there are always some people with bad intentions.

3. “Join us” is far more explicit in highlighting the community element of the wikipedia offering than simply saying “anyone can edit” – it’s not about your individual contribution so much as your connection with the broader group of collaborators. Again, this isn’t a fundamental change, but an interesting little alteration in the positioning statement that highlights the community element.

4. “Any encyclopedic topic”, while still fairly broad, provides a clearer direction on what belongs on the site. Of course, it leads to the question of what exactly is an encyclopedic topic – is it defined in relation to (and this might sound blasphemous) what Encyclopedia Britannica might publish? I find this topic particularly interesting, as it’s similar to a question I brought up in the long tail post a few days ago – how long can you define what’s relevant in a digital context in relation to the “old” world – be it established publishing models or bricks and mortar stores.

Wikipedia is almost always one of the first examples all organizations look to when they start trying to implement the principles of mass collaboration. Not surprisingly, it seems that more of than not organizations start out with a positioning similar to what wikipedia started with – pretty much anyone can do anything. I believe more organizations need to look at the evolution of wikipedia, and see which principles that could apply to their own strategies- particularly in terms of fine tuning the proposition in terms of who you want to contribute, what kind of contributions you want, and why people should want to collaborate with you. This process will be much harder for most companies that have a more ‘narrow’ offering than wikipedia, and is particularly challenging for those that are trying to make money off of mass collaboration. In turn, this makes doing it properly even more important.

1 Comment

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David M. Patt, CAE
Jul 3, 2008 17:00

The problem with Wikipedia is that people think it is a factual site, but it is really a conglomeration of opinions. The more people can author and edit, the less reliable it is as an authoritative site. I use it for background, not for facts.

For example, the “social media” page links to only one consultant. The “List of Jewish American politicians” includes many prominent officials but also a current member of the Chicago City Council, who does not belong on that list.

If anyone can post anything, then anything will be posted. Organizations that create wikis should clearly identify them as editorial opinions, not facts.

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