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Published: May 29, 2007

 
 

The Ignorance of Crowds

If Raymond made a mistake in his paper, it was in drawing too sharp a distinction between the cathedral and the bazaar. They’re not two different and incompatible approaches to innovation. Their relationship is symbiotic. Without the bazaar, the cathedral model moves too slowly. Without the cathedral, the bazaar model lacks focus and discipline.

The People’s Encyclopedia
Outside the realm of software, the best-known example of a work created through peer production is Wikipedia, the giant online encyclopedia that is being written by many thousands of volunteers. The creation of Wikipedia, and its predecessor, Nupedia, was directly inspired by the open source movement. In fact, Jimmy Wales, a cofounder of the encyclopedia, has said that Eric Raymond’s essay “opened my eyes to the possibility of mass collaboration.”

Wikipedia has been a roaring success by many measures. Its original English-language version contains well over a million articles, covering everything from Aachen to ZZ Top, and it has become one of the most visited sites on the Web, attracting more than 150 million people a month. Its achievement underscores the power of peer production to dramatically accelerate narrowly defined tasks that require little coordination — in this case, finding and paraphrasing descriptions of many different subjects — and reinforces the important role that diversity plays in such efforts. In contributing to the encyclopedia, each Wikipedia volunteer naturally focuses on those subjects that interest him or her, and it’s the wide range of those interests that has enabled the encyclopedia to get so big so fast.

But for all its breadth and popularity, Wikipedia is a deeply flawed product. Individual articles are often poorly written and badly organized, and the encyclopedia as a whole is unbalanced, skewed toward popular culture and fads. It’s hardly elitist to point out that something’s wrong with an encyclopedia when its entry on the Flintstones is twice as long as its entry on Homer. Eric Raymond himself has become one of Wikipedia’s harshest critics. “The more you look at what some of the Wikipedia contributors have done, the better [Encyclopaedia] Britannica looks,” he told the New Yorker in 2006. If Wikipedia weren’t free, it is unlikely its readers would be so forgiving of its failings.

The Linux operating system, in contrast, is renowned for its high quality. It routinely runs for months on end without crashing. What explains the difference? Wikipedia’s problems seem to stem from the fact that the encyclopedia lacks the kind of strong central authority that exerts quality control over the work of the Linux crowd. The contributions of Wikipedia’s volunteers go directly into the product without passing through any editorial filter. The process is more democratic, but the quality of the product suffers.

Aware of Wikipedia’s flaws, Wales and other contributors have been trying hard to improve the quality of the site’s content. A management team has slowly been taking shape, and it is establishing editorial policies and policing contributions. But even though this nascent hierarchy has already become much more bureaucratic than Linux’s lean managerial structure, it hasn’t yet been able to substantially improve Wikipedia. The failure appears to stem from the makeup of the supervisory group. Whereas the Linux team is a strict meritocracy, Wikipedia’s administrators represent a broader mix of contributors. They’re often chosen on the basis of how much they’ve contributed or how long they’ve contributed rather than on the quality of their contributions or their editorial skill. It seems fair to say that although the bazaar should be defined by diversity, the cathedral should be defined by talent. When you move from the bazaar to the cathedral, it’s best to leave your democratic ideals behind.

 
 
 
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