plus/minus epsilon

Wikipedia, part 2

9 Sep 2020

Disruptive innovation requires the creation of a new disruptive technology. So if Wikipedia is an example of disruptive innovation, what technology did they create? Like most people, I hear “new technology” and my mind naturally starts looking for machinery and gears combining to accomplish something that nobody thought was possible before. But that’s not here: Wikipedia is widely considered technically unremarkable. Instead, what stands out to me about Wikipedia and makes me think “that shouldn’t work” is anonymous contribution.

Most people’s knee-jerk reaction to allowing anonymous contribution (in any context) is that vandalism will prevent a project from being widely useful or trustworthy. At first this is true, it does. But people have natural desires compatible with Wikipedia’s goals: they want to share their knowledge, they want to fix mistakes they find, they want to revel in open-source ideals. In most other scenarios in life, these desires are stifled by processes that were put in place to prevent vandalism outright. For example, this level of openness is never found in OSS because vandalized code could result in malware being distributed to users.

Restricting the ability to contribute to those with “power,” maintainers, encourages territorial (exclusive / hurtful) behavior and reviews create a burdensome workload for the maintainers. It also discourages outside contributors that don’t want to wait for a review of their change, don’t want to deal with follow-up arguments with the maintainer, don’t want a sense of wasted effort if their change is rejected.

Anonymous contribution on the other hand has a very low transaction cost: if you want to make a change, there’s almost no reason not to. And for maintainers, there’s no social obligation to continue doing work they don’t want to do. Changes are accepted and published immediately, as are reversions.

Where people’s knee-jerk reaction fell short, is in understanding that vandalism can become better controlled over time as more people get involved and the right low-touch technical investments can be made.

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