I took my little girl to the Sunday toddler drop-in at the local community center and thought about this weekend’s birthdays: Wikipedia’s tenth and the IETF’s twenty-fifth.
The drop-in is a lifesaver when you’ve got a bored pre-schooler and lousy weekend weather. They’ve got a gym with various kind of trikes and ride-ons and climb-ons and balls; across the hall a playroom with a model kitchen; for $3.75 your kid gets quality entertainment and very decent snacks.
In my mind, it’s in the same category as Wikipedia and the IETF: something created by the public for the public. The lone-inventor narrative captures imaginations and makes for a hell of a story; and I guess there’ve been some. But pretty well everything I care about is a group effort, and everything in my history that I’m proud of was a group effort, and the best way I know of to build things that matter is to involve the right people.
Wikipedia · Ten years on, it remains the Internet’s biggest surprise. I am happy to have been one of its loud early defenders in this space, and made a thousand or so contributions, most small. Some other things that seem important:
Wikipedia is under continuous assault from the forces of ignorance and entropy. It has to run really fast to stay in the same spot. If the community of editors let down their guard, it would become a stinking scrap-heap in a matter of months. The fact that this hasn’t happened is a continuing miracle.
Someone’s missing an interesting opportunity for historical research. I first considered Wikipedia seriously in 2004 (if you care, you might want to follow that link, I think it’s one of my better pieces). By the time that people like me started looking seriously, Wikipedia had already grown enough, both in its content and processes, to have become self-sustaining and incredibly useful.
How did that happen? I don’t know, and I’d like to.
Someone’s missing an interesting opportunity for online-community research. Many of you will never have heard of the Open Directory Project, but it’s another heroic community-driven attempt to assemble everything about everything. Rather than an encyclopedia, it is a collection of annotated links structured along the lines of the original Yahoo! hierarchical topic index.
At one time it was on the rise and was being re-used by any number of influential Internet portals; its decline coincided to some degree with the rise of Google and may have been caused by that.
But most people who were involved will probably share my feeling that the ODP’s failure was at least partly a function of toxic culture among the community of editors. I was actually kicked out of the community — stripped of my editing privileges — so I’m biased; but clearly Wikipedia has done this better.
I’m not going to claim that it’s free of editorial politics, because it’s not, nor that it doesn’t get pretty toxic sometimes, because it does, but overall it by and large works.
How did that happen? I don’t know, and I’d like to.
Those who hate Wikipedia are eager to point to the decline in the number of active editors and gleefully diagnose terminal illness. If you’ve been an editor for a while, the answer is obvious: Many of the low-hanging fruit have been picked.
Let me illustrate by example. I was sitting up late in 2005 or so and stumbled into the entry for Apocalypse Now. It was an incoherent, disjointed, mess. I am by no means an authority, but I stayed up even later — I mean way late — gleefully sorting it into a reasonably straightforward recitation of the facts. These days, there are relatively few Big Entries absent or in disrepair. Thus the work of editing consists of documenting new stuff, upgrading the existing content as new knowledge comes to light, and defense against drive-by defacers. Thus, fewer hands are needed.
It’s still possible to enjoy editing Wikipedia. I help maintain three entries: XML, T.E. Lawrence, and Audiophile. It doesn’t take much time and can occasionally veer into sheer looney-tunes fun, as documented in Sex and T.E. Lawrence and On Scholarship. Hmm, I never told the story of my edit war with the deranged Islamist; should do that some day.
Anyhow, if there’s a subject on which you’re authoritative (and if you take the trouble to read here, I bet there is) why not take a little Wikipedia ownership of it and give something back to the world?
The IETF · That stands for Internet Engineering Task Force. I’ve been to some meetings and co-chaired a working group and written text that’s ended up in this RFC and that.
The IETF is idiosyncratic and inefficient and regularly maddening. But hey, these people built the Internet and they’re keeping it going, more or less, in the face of really remarkable odds. So don’t diss ’em.
I have heard credible criticism of the IETF on the grounds of cronyism, sexism, and ethnic bigotry. I, like many others, have shaken my head in uncomprehending horror at ICANN blundering, so I’m not going to claim that all’s right with the world of Internet governance. But that it works at all is a miracle on a scale at least as large as that of Wikipedia.
Take-Aways · Any really large task that’s really worth doing is best tackled collectively. But anyone who’s not an Ayn Rand Airhead™ already knew that.
What’s less obvious is that it’s empirically possible to construct large online communities that function successfully for periods of time measured in decades. We need to learn from these examples and make the process a little more repeatable.