Saturday, November 29, 2008

Of Wikis, communities, and connected strangers

This is the graphic that appears on the Wikipedia website if you do a search these days.

If anyone still doubts that open source is a viable model for getting thing done, or thinks that web-collaboration or crowd-sourcing are just the pipe-dreams of wide-eyed optimists, here's hard evidence that it is real, here and now.

In case anyone has been living in a cave, here's the description of Wikipedia on Wikipedia itself:

Wikipedia (pronunciation Spoken content icon) is a free,[5] multilingual encyclopedia project supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Its name is a portmanteau of the words wiki (a technology for creating collaborative websites) and encyclopedia. Wikipedia's 10 million articles have been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world, and almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone who can access the Wikipedia website.[6] Launched in January 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger,[7] it is currently the largest and most popular[1] general reference work on the Internet.[8][9][10]

That a non-profit, collaborative endeavor which is created and consumed only online is trying to raise $6M might seem incredible, but as the graphic indicates they are already past the half-way mark in raising this money.

When the web first became wildly popular there were grandiose pronouncements about how it will change everything and that all shopping will move online, all intermediaries will be made redundant and all customers will talk directly to suppliers.

The reality has been a bit less than that in some ways. Real-world shopping malls have not gone anywhere, bookstores survive even in the age of, and countless websites which were supposed to take over the universe quietly died away.

But even though some of the initial predictions were bordering on the hyperbolic, the world has indeed changed. And the biggest, most profound, change perhaps is the creation of not the largest community in the world, but of the emergence of countless smaller ones which, at one time, would have been too small to survive simply because like-minded people could not find each other.

So we don't have the United States of the Internet - the online community has not become one monolith with its own economy and rules. Instead, we have the wikipedia and the people who donate to it. And countless other such initiatives and niches made possible by the connecting power of the web.

This is the so called Long Tail of the Internet which turns conventional ideas on their head. It makes it viable to build very specialized products & initiatives which appeal to very few people in any one market, but which can find enough followers from a globally connected pool.

So I am able to find out-of-stock books and back issues of magazines online. Fifteen years ago, it would not have been worthwhile to put such items out for sale because few buyers in one area would wander to a bookshop for them.

But there were always enough of us out there to make it a viable business to sell to us. We were just very very dispersed, and not so many to support a global advertising campaign for our benefit.

Enter Amazon and Google and suddenly the man with the back issues can set up shop in an hour with little investment, and people like myself can find his stuff in no time, and you have a nice little business going.

To me this ability of the Internet to connect, organize, enable, and empower widely dispersed people into powerful communities - call it the "power of the connected strangers" - is one of its most fascinating aspects.

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