In my upcoming book, Outside Innovation, I’m using as one organizing principle the different roles that customers can (and should) play in shaping your business and its products. I’ve identified lots of different roles. Now the challenge is to describe and differentiate them.
Engaging customers as collaborators is one of the most advanced, and the most challenging, business propositions. Open source software development is a prototypical example of customers as collaborators. Customer collaboration is when customers band together to co-create something new and complex. They work together in an open, transparent environment to co-create new products, solutions, and works of art. Each customer contributes his or her own intellectual property and/or builds on a contribution made by a colleague.
Wikipedia is a good example of the power and pitfalls of the “customer as collaborator” role. Launched in January 2001, and based on the open source model of collaborative development, Wikipedia is the world’s fastest growing, most current, and largest encyclopedia. Wikipedia provides a great example of how complex projects like writing software, solving really difficult problems, and creating and classifying knowledge are increasingly becoming customer-collaborative projects.
Here’s the official description: “Wikipedia is currently the world's fastest-growing, most current, and largest encyclopedia, with 2.5 million articles under active development in over 120 languages. It is created entirely by volunteers who contribute, update, and revise articles in a collaborative process. The content¬¬––text, images and sounds—that is contributed to Wikipedia is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation Licence (GFDL), which lets users copy and modify each other's work based on a principle known as ‘copyleft.’ The entire database is freely downloadable.”
Anyone can author or edit content to contribute to Wikipedia. And thousands do. For example, 28,258 people contributed at least five times each (Active Wikipedians) in October 2005. In the same month, there were 4,573 “Very Active” Wikipedians (people who contributed at least 100 times that month). There’s a close-knit cadre of about 1,000 volunteer authors and editors who monitor the newly-submitted edits and articles. Articles are categorized by the community as Good or Featured articles. In order to qualify as Featured articles, they need to be nominated, meet specific criteria, and gain approval by a consensus of reviewers.
The world is definitely a better place post-Wikipedia. No matter what topic you need to know about, “Google it” and you’ll probably get a Wikipedia entry with a great definition and overview, and a good starting point for locating other resources. What’s really great about Wikipedia is that it’s free to all. It’s available around the globe in many languages. It’s more current than any printed source. Most importantly, it closes the knowledge gap.
But there is a dark side. Watching the Wikipedia Foundation deal with the dark side provides a good source of lessons learned for any company that would like to unleash the power of customer collaboration to provide tangible results that would be too costly and time-consuming to create by any other means.
You Can’t Put the Feathers Back in the Pillow
In his editorial to USA Today on November 29, John Seigenthaler, Sr. told this story: “When I was a child, my mother lectured me on the evils of "gossip." She held a feather pillow and said, ‘If I tear this open, the feathers will fly to the four winds, and I could never get them back in the pillow. That's how it is when you spread mean things about people.’ John went on to say, “For me, that pillow is a metaphor for Wikipedia.”
John was slandered by someone who maliciously edited his Wikipedia biography, falsely accusing him of being a suspect in heinous crimes. The libelous material remained on Wikipedia for four months, during which time it was syndicated by other heavily-trafficked information sources, including Reference.com and Answers.com. Once he was alerted to the slander, John and his lawyer spent four months trying to locate the slanderer and to seek redress. Wikipedia couldn’t identify the culprit. All of its postings were anonymous. Wikipedia could (and did) remove the offending material, but it couldn’t pinpoint its source. Because Wikipedia is classified as an information service, not as a publisher, it’s exempt under U.S. laws from being libel for the damaging misinformation that was propagated from its site.
Another interesting part of the Seigenthaler saga is that according to an article in Editor and Publisher, the culprit did confess and apologize, but only after he was tracked down by Daniel Brandt of San Antonio. Daniel Brandt has been very vocal in his criticism of the Wikipedia Foundation on his Wikipedia-watch.org Web site and has been labeled as a kook by members of the Wikipedia community. Daniel asserts that Wikipedia has been structured so that it actually encourages slander, pranks, and misinformation, and promotes libel. It was nice of him to help resolve the Seigenthaler issue. Here’s a prescient editorial that Brandt wrote calling attention to many of the issues now under discussion.
Seigenthaler wasn’t the only prominent person libeled in Wikipedia. Norway’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenburg, discovered in November 2005 that his Wikipedia biography had been inappropriately updated and contained a number of libelous statements. By the way, Europe’s libel laws are not as charitable to Internet service providers. And, once print editions of Wikipedia are produced, libel will definitely become a legal concern.
In another high-profile example, in December 2005, MTV star Adam Curry admitted to having edited the entry on Podcasting to give himself more credit than others for inventing the popular genre.
How is Wikipedia Dealing with These “Unintended” Consequences?
The Wikipedia core community of volunteer, dedicated contributors and editors has been operating under the assumption that their communally-created and refined knowledgebase will be self correcting. Errors will get caught and reported by the general public who reference the material. Misapprehensions or misstatements of fact will be challenged and addressed. What the founders and the community apparently didn’t think (enough) about is the possibility of slander, character assassination, and pranks with unintended consequences.
How Wikipedia Is Changing Its Modus Operandi
Experiment: Article Authors Are No Longer Anonymous. In response to the Seigenthaler flap, Wikipedia has entered an “experimental” period of disallowing anonymous people to create articles on the English version of Wikipedia. Only registered (and presumably traceable) users will now apparently be allowed to create and post articles. In its press release of December 5, 2005, the Wikipedia Foundation wrote: “Founder Jimmy Wales… experimentally removed the ability of unregistered users to create new articles in Wikipedia. Unregistered users will still be able to fix spelling mistakes and add to existing articles but are required to register a user account before creating new pages. Wales said: ‘This will reduce the work load on the volunteer editors controlling contributions to the project.’”
This is a good first step, but it clearly doesn’t prevent the kind of slander to which John Seigenthaler and Jens Stoltenburg fell victim. In both those cases, it appears that anonymous editors made changes to their respective biographies. A better approach would be to require all contributors—both article creators and editors—to be registered and traceable users. I suspect that the Wikipedia community will eventually decide that anonymity for editors as a public good is outweighed by the need for accountability and redress.
Semi-Protection Policy Approved. There are two types of vandalism that have plagued Wikipedia. The first type is an occasional malicious change made to an article by an individual (which may or may not get detected and corrected). The second type is a pattern of rapidly-recurring changes to a particular article. The most notable of these is the incessant vandalism of the George W. Bush article.
To deal with this kind of “piling on,” the Wikipedia board has approved a change (which as of this writing has not yet been implemented in software), to wit: “Semi-protection of a page prevents the newest X% of registered users and all unregistered users from editing that page.” If a page is being repeatedly vandalized, it can be protected by request. As the policy explains, this is not a pre-emptive measure against vandalism, but it’s a response to vandalism.
Published Version Is Reviewed. The Wikipedia Foundation is now discussing the possibility of having two versions of the site: a stable, published version and an editable version. The articles that appear in the stable published version would have been through a community review process (not necessarily an expert peer review process). Essentially, the author of any “featured article” submission can request “creative feedback” (also labeled peer review) from the community. The purpose of the stable site is to improve the quality of and trust in Wikipedia information. Presumably if you are reading an article on the stable site, you’ll be seeing neutral information that has been checked (at least by members of the community) for obvious vandalism, editorial slant, and proper citations.
I think this is an excellent solution. When you’re searching for information, you could check both sources. The stable source would be the most reliable. The editable source might have more up-to-date information on a topic, but it might also contain information that is suspect. Caveat Lector.
Dealing with Vandalism and Slander Is Different from Improving Information Accuracy and Authority
The Wikipedia Foundation appears to have taken the first baby steps in confronting the biggest problem with Wikipedia: vandalism and slander. Now, it will be interesting to see how well the community deals with the second challenge: improving the accuracy and authoritativeness of its articles.
Should Wikipedia Be the Last Word or the First Word? Wikipedians want their collaborative brain child to be viewed as a free alternative to the Encyclopedia Britannica and other published works that many people in the world may not be able to afford. That means that its information needs to be trustworthy. The “we’re as accurate as the other guys” argument seems to have been bolstered by the special report published in the journal Nature, comparing the accuracy of scientific articles published in the Encyclopedia Britannica and those in Wikipedia, and essentially declaring a tie. “Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.”
At the same time, Wikipedians appear to be contemptuous of people who actually rely on it as if it were an authoritative source. They are critical of reporters who take them to task for not being trustworthy, suggesting that reporters, in particular, should know a thing or two about source checking. In the summary of its “Researching with Wikipedia” article, the Wikipedia Press Kit suggests “In some cases, it's better to use Wikipedia as the first step in the research process, rather than the last step.” In fact, the BBC’s Bill Thompson was praised by one Wikipedian for this quote: “I use the Wikipedia a lot. It is a good starting point for serious research, but I would never accept something that I read there without checking.” Nice to see at least someone in the media knows how to use Wikipedia! :)
The Most Current Word and the First Word. Over time, as the Wikipedia Foundation tightens up its quality control and peer review processes, the published/standard versions will become a more trusted source. But my prediction is that Wikipedia will never become the most trusted source of information—the last word—on anything. What it will do is fill a hugely important gap in every field of endeavor. Wikipedia will become the first place you go to find out the latest information on a topic.