Yochai Benkler on Wikipedia's 10th Anniversary

Ten years ago, when Jimmy Wales put a few hundred stubs on a web platform to which anyone could write, and which anyone could edit, but no one was paid to do either of these, it was doomed to failure. Or so then-conventional wisdom would have said. Anyone who would have proposed that within five years Nature would claim that Wikipedia's science articles are not fundamentally worse than those of Britannica; or that by the end of a decade it would become the standard reference online would have been laughed out of the room. Wikipedia was impossible. So, by the way, were free or open source software, Yelp, or Tripadvisor. They were all impossible because the dominant model of human behavior said that we were all fundamentally self-interested, and that without systems to reward good behavior and punish or constrain bad behavior, human enterprise cannot flourish. Without law or markets, we would simply devolved to mutual shirking and abuse.

bug_wikipedia.jpg And yet, it moves...

That, to me, is the biggest gift Wikipedia has given us; a way of looking at the world around us and seeing the possibility of effective human cooperation, on really complex, large projects, without relying on either market or government processes. It turns out that we are creative, social beings; we do what we think is fun, not only what is profitable; we do what we think is right and good, not only what we think advances our interests; and we are able to organize ourselves, even at very large scales, into coherent social enterprises. It's not easy; but it is possible, and it is part of who we are and can be. Together with free software, like Linux or Apache, Wikipedia has become the common symbol of the possibility of this kind of human cooperation. Whether we call it crowdsourcing or peer production, online cooperation or "doing it like Wikipedia," social production and exchange have become a solution space for a wide range of information production problems.

When the BBC found out that the only photographs it had of the London underground bombing were from cellphone photos by people trapped there, they quickly built into their system the ability to upload photos and stories of people on the scene. When activists in Kenya realized that they needed information about where violence was occurring because the government was not collecting and disseminating the information, they created Ushahidi as a platform to allow people on the ground to report what was happening and share their observations with each other in real time. The platform has since been used all over the world for uses ranging from monitoring elections to identify fire breakouts. The solution space of social collaboration has moved beyond something that is necessarily outside of the market or the state, to something that has become a central part of the strategies of governments and companies. Whether it's companies like IBM or Google that build critical components of their strategy on open source software developed with collaborative online communities; local governments that build platforms that let citizens report problems and come up with solutions collaboratively; or nonprofits like the Sunlight Foundation, which builds platforms to let citizens examine data from government agencies to collaboratively generate a shared watchdog function for democracy, the kind of social production that Wikipedia represents has turned from a laughable utopia to a practical reality.

That's the biggest gift that Wikipedia has given to us -- a vision of practical utopia that allows us to harness the more sociable, human aspects of who we are to effective collective action. What gift can we best give back? Perhaps it is just this, to recognize the transformative role that the thousands of individuals who make up the core of this grand social experiment have played for all of us in how we can imagine our lives together as productive, engaged, social beings.

Presented by

Yochai Benkler is the Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School and a faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

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