Wikinomics 2: peer production

Here we continue our analysis of <italic>Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything</italic> (co-authored by Don Tapscott) with a look at peer production. (See first post here.

Here we continue our analysis of <italic>Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything</italic> (co-authored by Don Tapscott) with a look at peer production. (See first post here.) In the Wikinomics formulation, peer production occurs when people come together spontaneously to create content, ideally without being paid. The largest and best-known example of peer production is probably the Wikipedia, though Linux, a hugely successful open source operating system, runs a close second. ("Wikis" are environments in which multiple people can work collaboratively on the same document. The Wikipedia is a wiki.)

Don Tapscott tells this story about the Wikipedia: On July 7th, 2005, minutes after the bombs went off in London, an entry describing what was known at that moment (not much, admittedly) appeared in the Wikipedia. Within an hour, several hundred people had contributed content, research, or editing skills. 24 hours later, 2,500 (that's twenty-five hundred) people had produced a 14-page article more comprehensive than any single newscast or newspaper had been able to provide. (Indeed, the news outlets themselves began using the article for background.)

So What?

2500-to-14 is an amazing "minds per page" ratio, and it's this feature of the Wikipedia that I think is the most impressive. Can you imagine organizing even a few dozen people to produce 14 coherent pages using e-mail and a text editor or even a shared document repository? Neither can I. And yet the Wikipedia does it again and again to the point that it now boasts some 1.9 million collaboratively-produced articles. All that unpaid intellectual power, combined and laser focused on a single goal. Incredible.

Who are these people, what motivates them, and where do they find the time? According to Don Tapscott, they're largely passionate hobbyists and even self-confessed "Wikipedia addicts." These are people who love to write. Many come back again and again and write articles on a wide range of topics; others are passionate about a particular topic–they write and maintain a narrow range of articles. As to where they find the time: If you're really passionate about a hobby, you'll make the time.

The Wikipedia isn't the only public wiki out there, by the way, though it gets all the press: Check out this list of wikis. You may be struck by how short (fewer than 100 entries) the list is given that there are over a billion people on the Internet. This may simply mean that the Wikipedia says it all and thus few other wikis are necessary. Or it may mean that building a successful public wiki is harder than one might think (see below). It might also mean that there are millions of wikis too small to hit the Wikipedia's radar.

So (you are no doubt wondering), could I harness the power of the masses to create content that would benefit my organization? Well, maybe. The problem with the public wiki phenomenon is that you only hear about the winners. The losers--the empty wikis that will never be filled--seldom make the news. It's hard to judge how many failures there are, though the open source movement may provide a clue: For every screaming success (like Linux), there are numerous open source projects that languish, forgotten. It's not usually enough to announce, "This is my open source project! Come and dedicate your life to it!" There's something more that makes for a successful peer production effort, something we don't yet understand.

Don Tapscott is (as usual) right, however: Spontaneous peer production is powerful, even awe inspiring...when it works. But attracting the necessary participation--creating spontaneity, if that's not a contradiction in terms--may be a black art.