Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
January 8, 2009 7:06 AM

Why Business Needs To Stop Worrying And Love Wikipedia

There is a huge disconnect when it comes to understanding Wikipedia.

My nephew is in elementary school. In case you have been wondering, elementary school does not look anything like the school you went to when you were growing up. Kids are not only using computers to write up reports, they are using the computers to create videos instead of written reports.

Many technologists argue that this is the first time in history in which the younger generation is showing the older generation how to do things - before the mass penetration of technology, it was always the other way around.

Let's be honest, most 12-year-olds are the system administrators of our household computers. At the very least, they are the ones who are showing us how to download music, and how to sync that over to your iPod. While they go to school, we get schooled by them in the ways of the technological world and how things connect.

I asked my nephew if he ever uses Wikipedia for research on his school projects - to which he admitted that he does, but that the teachers do not encourage its use because the content is not "trustworthy."

When people say that Wikipedia is not trustworthy, it reminds me of the same folks who still think they can get a computer virus from a website that has Flash animation on it. It's simply not true. It's about time to understand the power of Wikipedia and what it means to business today.

Odds are you have seen Wikipedia either by going directly to the website when you needed some kind of information about a topic, or when you do a search on any of the major search engines. Without question, Wikipedia is the largest repository of information, but what makes it ever-more fascinating is that Wikipedia was created and is edited and curated by you and me. It's not an encyclopedia like the Britannica that is vetted and reviewed by industry experts and PhDs. With a couple of keystrokes, anyone can change an entry to the way that they think it should be. That's where the issues of trust comes into play.

How can we possibly trust this information if just anyone can alter, edit and manipulate it at will?

That's part of the amazing power of Wikipedia and the people who take part in contributing and adding to it. These contributors (known in the Wikipedia world as "editors") are defending one of the most profound things we cherish as human beings: Knowledge.

These extraordinary warriors use their keyboards to eradicate and correct all the ne'er-do-wells trying to change entries such as, "George Walker Bush (born July 6, 1946) is the forty-third and current President of the United States," to "George Walker Bush (born July 6, 1946) is a big stupid head."

The Wisdom of Crowds - Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations is a best-selling business book by James Surowiecki (there was a rumour floating around that all new employees at Google were told to read it). Published in 2004, the premise of the book is that "all of us are smarter than any one of us." The collective knowledge, power and wisdom of a group is what wins. Not just in an environment like Wikipedia, but in business as well. Wikipedia doesn't just distill information that is constantly being updated and changed. Wikipedia also teaches business the power of mass collaboration.

What would your business look like if instead of sending one another e-mails and Word documents, all of that information was suddenly available on a secure Intranet where everyone could collaborate and share that knowledge? One of the biggest HR costs comes from replacing and training employees. What if all of that tribal knowledge (the stuff we learn and then file away in the back of our brains) could be passed on, shared and saved, instead of dying in someone's e-mail or voice mail?

Wikipedia is a non-profit organization that is run through the Wikimedia Foundation. Because Wikipedia is advertising-free and has no revenue model, it is supported, almost entirely, by donations (think of it as PBS for the Web). This year, the foundation set a goal to raise $6 million, and just the other day, it managed to surpass that goal. According to Wikipedia found Jimmy Wales: "More than 125,000 [people] have donated $4 million. In addition, we've received major gifts and foundation support totaling $2 million. This combined revenue will cover our operating expenses for the current fiscal year, ending June 30, 2009." It's nice to see that even when money is tight, individuals - people like you and me - still believe in the moral value and power of information. In fact, the campaign was not doing all that well until Wales made a plea to the community at large, stating: "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."

I know, it makes you feel a little bit guilty for thinking that the Internet was only about porn, gambling and downloading illegal music, doesn't it?

One of the best articles written about Wikipedia (and Internet culture in general), "The Charms of Wikipedia" from the March 20, 2008, edition of The New York Review of Books by Nicholson Baker, has one paragraph that truly defines this new culture of sharing and information in a digital age:

"Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever made. Instead, it's a fast-paced game of paintball... Not only does Wikipedia need its vandals - up to a point - the vandals need an orderly Wikipedia, too. Without order, their culture-jamming lacks a context. If Wikipedia were rendered entirely chaotic and obscene, there would be no joy in [it]."

So back to my nephew's teacher and the entire culture of people who do not spend enough time really analyzing what is going on here, let's ask this question: If there is a mistake in the Encyclopedia Britannica, how long will that take to be corrected? How would you even know? On Wikipedia, it would probably be corrected in less time than it took you to read this article. And if it wasn't corrected, you could fix it yourself for everyone's benefit.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

- Vancouver Sun - Why business needs to stop worrying and love Wikipedia.
Montreal Gazette - Wikipedia reflects power of information, marketing boss says.

By Mitch Joel