The Coop

Not the Harvard Cooperative Society, but Cooperation, this afternoon’s theme.

Yochai Benkler (now at Harvard Law School, author of The Wealth of Networks) and Jimmy Wales (who “needs no introduction” according to Benkler, although if he does, you can read (ooh, self-referential) the Wikipedia entry on the (co-)founder of Wikipedia) are speaking in this session; each will speak for a few minutes each, and then proceed for a more free-flowing discussion. The blurb:

Wikipedia has become the icon of a different way of looking at how we can be productive and collaborative. Peer production has emerged as a defining feature of the networked information economy and the networked public sphere. Can we seriously begin to imagine that these practices should change our understanding of the possibilities of cooperative human relations? What are the forces pushing against cooperation, and how can they be addressed? What can we learn from life online about how better to design systems, both technical and institutional that will foster cooperation?

Wales referred back to Zittrain’s notion (from his book and his talk of this morning) that the Wikipedia idea is a crazy one. He started with the history, remarking that Usenet groups were not just unmoderated but, in practice, unmoderatable, and the ease of entry and ease of destruction were two sides of the same coin. And there’s flaming and all that – so Wikipedia is therefore impossible. Yet you can go to a restaurant with knives; we have social and legal tools to deal with a situation. Can Wikipedia be the same?

How does it work, then? “Neutrality (NPOV) is absolute and non-negotiable”. If you want your contributions to survive, you have to ‘write for the enemy’, i.e. so that the people who disagree with you can agree to the statement. Then there’s consensus – not based on voting because the minority *is* a problem and therefore that should be taken on board until “all but the most unreasonable, who often exhibit behavioural problems too” can agree. And then, he sums up and hands over to Benkler.

Benkler’s title today is “Cooperation, Human Systems Disign, and Peer Production”. He talked about the history of Britannica, going from expensive volumes to a ‘cheap’ digitised version (and now, the CD Britannica is remaindered!) The idea that there would even be a plausible argument, discussed by nature, about Britannica vs Wikipedia, would have itself been incredible ten years ago. And then he launches into a wide-ranging discussion that is impossible to live-blog (but is still remarkable), Obama to friendship to Mechanical Turk to make-your-own-tshirts to evolutionary biology and more. He speaks even faster than I do.

In the discussion, then, Wales was quite critical of crowdsourcing, which was interesting – it’s easy to group Wikipedia into that general category but he clearly disagrees. The question on companies (and others) editing their own entries was put to him, and he responded that this is overstated and does not happen as often as is understood. But there is also the issue of encouraging people who are not Wikipedians to participate in the conversation.

An Italian participant, who has had direct involvement in cases against Wikipedia, asks about who pays for lawsuits. Wales responds that the number is particularly small, with only one in the US, and a handful in Europe, and that from their point of view, it’s much more important than merely avoiding libel. Libel shouldn’t be a wikipedia issue as that relates in most cases to investigative journalism, which isn’t Wiki territory. (Thanks to jessamyn on the IRC backchannel for supplying the link to the Italian case mentioned by the questioner.

Hitting publish now, and will add in the later questions if I get a chance.

* Wales likes Uncyclopedia, says it’s very funny and it works.
* Benkler mentions Sunstein’s experiments on polarisation, but notes that some other work gives different results, and that the difference is that the type of interaction has an impact (i.e. structured v unstructured)
* Ethan Zuckerman mentions hybrid models, particularly where trying to avoid excluding people from the process. Mentions correlation with social welfare systems and university systems (i.e. more time to spend as an active Wikipedian). “Cultural barriers to entry” are an issue.
* Muppet Wiki would probably not have much of an economic model…

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