Have you ever taken a look at Wikipedia? I have over the last couple years. In the beginning I thought it was a big joke. I thought the premise was noble but that it would never work in a practical sense.
For those that are unfamiliar with Wikipedia, it’s basically an encyclopedia but with one major feature that makes it different than any other encyclopedia you have ever seen: YOU can write for it! Yes, that was not a typo… you (*Eric points directly at you through the screen*) can write and edit any entry in the encyclopedia. You don’t need permission, you don’t need approval, you don’t need to have a PHD, and all you need to have is a keyboard.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve written in it a few times… just for kicks. I’ve tweaked a few entries to include something interesting that I know about, or to make a linkage between two entries. For example, I’m a big music buff so on the entry for my city (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), last year I added a couple of sentences listing a few of the good music bands that have grown out of my city.
Another neat feature is that you can examine the edits that people make to any particular page. The entire history of the changes is kept! Very cool!
What is created from this is a “public good” type of information repository: a place where no one polices except the users themselves. However, when I think of other “public goods,” like the air around us for example, everyone thinks it’s great for breathing and for diluting pollutants in, but no one wants to be responsible for cleaning it up and keeping it in a high quality state. I thought the same would apply for the Wikipedia: it’s a nice place to visit but it’s likely to be vandalized seriously and populated with loads and loads of inaccurate or irrelevant content. Boy was my gut feeling wrong. Check out the Wikipedia and let me know what you think.
Before you do that, check out this nice Flash movie with audio commentary created by Jon Udell that documents the changes in one particular entry in the Wikipedia over the past couple years. It’s great.