Riding the WikiWave

In Governance, Scaling and Anonymity in Wikipedia, Ross Mayfield roughs out some t transfixing notes from a recent conversation he had with Jimmy Wales, Stuart Brand, and Mitch Kapor on the topic of Wiki governance.

Jimmy says, “Most social software is designed in away that makes no sense.
Hmm…when sociologists and anthropologists are able to prove social theorums in the same way that mathematicians and physicists do, perhaps we can begin to think about designing social software that is unassailably sensible.

“Leave things open when you know people can do bad things. Instead of locking pages, leave a note asking them not to damage it — an opportunity to build trust.”
I call this pre-emptive inclusion. If you want to host a party and you don’t know who the bad characters are, your only alternative is to welcome all comers, ask them to refrain from breaking windows and report acts of vandalism, and kick out the bad folks when they do bad things. If you can’t afford to fix a few broken windows or don’t want to have to clean up afterwards, you might want to avoid hosting parties altogether.

“Governance in Wikipedia is a confusing but workable mix of consensus (0.5% of users generate 50% of the edits, a little over 500 people”
Wow. This, I did not know.

“Stuart Brand asks what the scaling and rule set issues are. […] Is there a pattern over time? Jimmy responds that communities are inherently scalable from village to town to city to metropolis — but new problems arise. The Soviet top-down method of scaling communities does not scale, but market interaction does. People watch each other. More rules are necessary over time, but they encourage not making rules until they are absolutely necessary. Small languages haven’t made the same rules as large ones. The 3 revert law (in one day) in English version was created to prevent revert wars. But in small languages it’s okay to do 10. What I do varies in many languages, I can’t work on the Chinese Wikipedia in the same way as English, so they vote a lot. Dutch Wikipedia had a civil war, 500 users quit.”
One of my long term projects is to identify cultural patterns of Wiki usage over time and figure out how to optimize the underlying software, build out new features, and tweak the default settings accordingly. This is fertile ground for an enterprising researcher or developer. What are your thoughts?

Comments (4)

  1. Lee LeFever says:

    Hey Korby, nice post. I think wikis are one of the more interesting phenomenons around these days. More than anything, I’m fascinated by their emergent nature- how a few simple rules work to govern a group’s cooperation. When it comes to cultural patterns and default settings, I would think those basic rules must play some part.

    One of the real values I see is spontenaeity- the ability (power) for a group create something new on the fly to serve an emerging need.

    The recent <a href="http://barcamp.org">Bar Camp</a> was an interesting example of a wiki being a necessary element of quick event planning. <a href="http://laughingsquid.com/bar-camp-video">This Video</a> makes a special point of that, saying that "they didn’t know where to start, so they put up a wiki and let the world take over".

  2. mike says:

    I wonder if wikis will show any significant difference from, say, forums (going back to CIS, etc.). The extreme difference in postings (small % users == large % posts) is, I suspect, qualitatively similar for most socially based interactions withal, from wikis to PTA (or city council) meetings. 🙂 (The sociologist Mark Smith at MSR has done a lot of work in slicing and dicing newsgroup stats, although I don’t know if he’s published his findings.) It would be interesting to explore the "sensible design" issue raised here. One comment is that I think it was the LiveJournal folks who figured out out (perhaps among many) that letting users shape the way software works was a recipe for success.

    The cultural aspect really is fascinating. Long ago I read a piece on about business meetings in different countries and how surprisingly different they were in purpose and execution. (e.g. in some cultures, a meeting serves to cement consensus on a pre-decided point). I hadn’t thought about that w/r/t wikis, but surely in different cultures the notion of a wide-open and quasi-unregulared forum would be approached differently.