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Long-Armed Law of the Wiki

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I’m just an amateur, but it seems to me that Mike Langberg is afraid of loosing his job. Can’t blame him, The Mercury News just went through a round of layoffs and print media economics are in shambles.

But one of my favorite local columnists took the easy way out when buying into Nick Carr’s argument on the amorality of Web 2.0 with a column called An Internet fed mostly by amateurs is frightening.

Oh, wait, I am a pro, at least about one thing — wikis. So I guess I have to speak up about this:

Carr added some perspective last week by proposing what he called the Law of the Wiki: “Output quality declines as the number of contributors increases. Making matters worse, the best contributors will tend to become more and more alienated as they watch their work get mucked up by the knuckleheads, and they’ll eventually stop contributing altogether, leading to a further fall in quality.”

Wrong.

I’m very much on Carr’s side of the fence. I don’t want to read blogs by political extremists, listen to podcasts recorded by droning amateurs, or watch videos produced by talentless would-be directors — even though the Internet makes all that possible.

I want to get my news from highly skilled professionals, listen to music by the world’s most brilliant performers and composers, and be entertained by big-budget Hollywood extravaganzas.

Of course, I’m biased. I make my living writing this column, and my paycheck is threatened if everyone decides freely available blogs — even at lesser quality — are an acceptable substitute.

Output quality increases with edits over time. Yes, you can find one edit where it declines, but odds are the next edit will revert or improve it. Now I don’t know what quality is, but I know it when I see it, and I’m a lot better seeing it with a group. It’s not that Wikipedia is faster, it’s that the community process that once wondered about quantity continues to raise the bar with quality. Don’t take Jimmy Wales’ comment that two pages need improvement as a sign of systemic failure (no, I haven’t talked with him about it). Authority is another matter.

See my response to Carr for more on how Wikipedia works.

Back to being an amateur. The frickin Internet was made by amateurs. I’m in good company. Mike should know that, given the exposure he has in the Silicon Valley. Or from his peers and former colleagues. Mike may be writing tongue-in-cheek, but ‘Nuff said.

Carr’s argument concerns me for the same reason IT Doesn’t Matter did. The claim then was that IT no longer provided competitive advantage, music to the ears of every other industry under disruption. JSB and Hagel and others tore apart that argument, fortunately, and today those other industries are working with tech to invest in competitive advantage again. The concern is it is an argument that will resonate with the disrupted, gaining a core constituency and create a false divide the engenders further disruption.

Case in point, let’s get back to Mike’s job. If every columnist seizes on the threat of disruption that social media represents and and argues for the status quo, they will be left in it. This can easily seep into the newsroom and when the publisher side of media relates the disruption to revenue, a core bias can set in (note that Mike more than disclosed the inherent bias — and I have to disclaim that I wish him well and it is unfortunate I am using his single column as an example).

Don’t argue for quality, deliver it. There will always be demand for quality. The masses are not asses. This isn’t a broadcast degradation of news into entertainment. Readers are becoming more savvy, not less.

Social media presents an opportunity for mainstream media to save itself — not from blogs or people spending more time online — but from a 20 year trend of bad economics. If print media asserts it will stand on it’s brand it will end up on the cutting room floor. Now is the time for piloting things where the economics were the barrier before, because amateurs are here to participate.

UPDATE: Techdirt, Jeff Jarvis, Om, Mitch

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Ross Mayfield is CEO and co-founder of Socialtext, an emerging provider of Enterprise Social Software that dramatically increases group productivity and develops a group memory.

He also writes Ross Mayfield’s Weblog which focuses on markets, technology and musings.

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