economics of wiki

About wiki

The first rule is that there are no rules. Take a relatively simple program, put in on the internet and create a blank page up on the internet. Leave a little note that says “please edit this page.” Let each and every passerby say whatever they feel like saying, and see what evolves.

This is the essence of wiki. It is no different conceptually than a blank tablet with a pencil on a string, except on the internet. In the words of one of its founders, wiki is “The simplest online database that could possibly work.”

The unexpected result of having a page “open to edit” is that a group of people will use the forum to collaborate – in strictly the opposite fashion as one might hoard material resources, people willfully share intellectual and information resources and get far more back than they put in. In this way, wiki’s become the 21st century alternative to the salons of the nineteenth century, but in a way where competitive behavior is replaced by collaborative behavior.

The Application: Wikipedia

Wheras the Encyclopedia Brittanica has 120,000 articles in english. Wikipedia, the open source encyclopedia on the net now has over 400,000 articles and is updated on a daily basis, to be the worlds most comprehensive and up to date universal knowledge resource. Wiki technology has made possible the "global consensus" of the internet community to tell the history of the world and all the people and events in it.

See: www.wikipedia.org

The economics of Wiki and "truth telling"

As wiki technology makes it possible an "open source" source encyclopedia, the first question most people ask is "but if you don't have experts and editors controlling the process, won't it be all junk?" As wikipedia seems to indicate - probably not. Participatory projects like wikipedia seem to tap into a deep human need to "tell the truth." This article discusses why wiki seems to wokr, and why it may work much better as a decision making environment than traditional communications media like meetings, conversations, email, web forums,

The economics of vandalism.

The first expectation one might have about a wiki is that by posting a site that was “open to edit” by anyone in the public, it would be an easy target for online graffiti artists. The fear seems to be unfounded: while graffiti in all it’s colorful forms is endemic in any urban environment, the motivation to write graffiti comes from the territorial instinct: the urge to leave one’s thoughts or marks to proclaim that “I occupy this space.”

The intrinsic reward of graffitti is having many other people see your "territorial markings." If the cost of making graffitti was very high, or the impact (in terms of the number of people who would ultimately see it was small - one would expect to see less graffitti.

The first reason why you don't see much vandalism in wiki's Is that in most wikis the "payoff" for vandals is negligible, since it takes less time to remove (revert) the vandalism than it takes to post it, vandals will quickly become bored if their "contributions" dissappear almost as quickly as they are posted.

A second reason that few vandals exist in wikis is that on the internet, the territory available is nearly infinite, and so the urge to define ones space in any sort of a negative way to protect it from invaders is therefore pointless. Everybody can do or say their own thing any way they want, so they might as well do it right.

A third reason why vandalism is rare is the inherently "non-heirarchical" nature of wikis. Wikis open and egalitarian process is just not a target for vandalism of a political nature.

While this impulse is certainly not shared by all participants in wiki's wide open process, the wide majority of participants make "constructive" contributions.

The economics of arguing.

The nature of the “editing process” used in wiki is quite different from an ”argumentative process.” Wikis tend to emphasize areas of agreement, arguments (and their internet cousin the weblog) tend to focus on differences.
Wikis tend to de-escalate heated debates because they always display the 95% that the participants agree on, as well as the 5% that they disagree on. In an argument, however small points of disagreement can quickly absorb all the bandwidth of discussion, differences are amplified while agreement is forgotten. From an outsiders perspective, wiki helps people differentiate between positions that are widely agreed upon (and thus never change in a wiki) knowing what the “consensus” is has more informational value than the individual differences. (which are changing frequently in any given wiki page).

Wiki as "truth seeking"

Because it focuses on building consensus, the wiki can function as a truth seeking tool. In a wiki on policy issues or other informative topics people tend to want to replace "false" with "true."
Of course, by the scientific method, there is really no such thing as a “true" statement, only one which has "not been falsified yet". For instance, once could say that the acceleration of gravity is 9.8 meters per second per second is a true statement. Technically, this is approximately true for all objects near the surface of the earth, but it certainly wont be true on the moon or halfway in between the earth ans the moon. Socrates made a carreer out of falsifying statements people felt were true.
False statements do not merit scrutiny because they have been shown to be false and therefore are not useful. Wiki’s remove false statements by the editing process, and leave true statements, as each individual “edits out” what they consider to be false and “leaves in” or “adds in” what they believe is true. In an iterative process, ideally involving many and diverse individuals the dynamic outcome of a wiki is a core group of related “true” statements that stand up over time and an ephemeral or “flickering” set of false statements.

While it is certainly possible for individuals to “play false” and edit out what they know are valid statements and replace them with lies or propaganda, there is really little point to doing so: one of two outcomes is inevitable: the propagandists will be “edited out” by a larger number of genuine truth seekers, or truth seekers will “opt out” for a new wiki, presumably without telling the propagandists where.

One obvious observation that almost goes without saying is that the truths discovered will be relative to the population of any given wiki, but as the population can be consciously observed and altered, it is not difficult to correct bias if so desired.

The information economics of wiki

The deeper answer as to why wikis work is they take advantage of the unique economic properties of public information. Public Information is generally freely shared and replicable at no cost, so that people working with public information must must add value to it. While people aren't likely to make money directly by contributing to "public information" they can benefit by becoming "famous" if people find their contributions valuable.

Adding value to information is done in several ways:

by collecting and organizing it
by increasing the content of true statements in a batch
by compressing valuable information into smaller bundles by editing out redundancies and irrelevancies
by translating or simplifying the information.

Under normal conditions anyone falsifying, or subtracting value from an information bundle will go bankrupt, they will not be able to sell their information for more than what it cost them. It is possible to make money from bad public information only if you can effectively transfer it to the majority of a population simultaneously.