Wikipedia as model for collaborative design

I just finished reading Dan O’Sullivan’s Wikipedia: A New Community of Practice? and have a couple of observations I wanted to share.

First, O’Sullivan sites three sources for the exponential growth of Wikipedia (p. 91):

  • the comparative lack of hierarchy of the organization
  • the anonymity of the authors of articles on Wikipedia
  • the absence of commercialization

I have to wonder if these are qualities that we can or even should emulate in the design of hardware (space related or not).  Hardware (be it a table, a smart phone, or a rocket) lives and dies in the real world.  Where Wikipedia has the neutrality of articles and completeness as the ultimate measures of quality (qualities that can be fuzzy at times, and can lead to much debate), anyone building something has the universe as the final arbiter of its quality – a thing either works or it doesn’t (though sometimes something can work better than its predecessor) and a thing either breaks when used or it doesn’t.  If there is great cost or human life involved, one would likely want to have some safeties in place to ensure the harware in question works without breaking, and the natural tendency could be toward hierarchy, and away from anonymity.

On the other hand, fundamentally volunteer groups like Mach 30, CSTART, and the rest of the open space groups (see Similar Organizations on the right) need to be set up in a way that promotes participation by a wide group of volunteers.  And a flat structure with a culture that values your contributions over credentials can go along way toward making that happen.  As with many things, I imagine there is some middle ground, a balanced approach that is open to all comers, but respects the danger and the skill or craft needed to build complex hardware.

Another topic that comes up throughout the book is transaction cost.  In the context of Wikipedia, this would include learning how to write neutrally, learning the jargon of Wikipedia (justtry reading some discussion pages to see a sample of Wiki-speak), the time it takes to edit a page, and the need for an internet connection to access Wikipedia.  Having lower transaction costs promotes volunteer labor, as volunteers way cost versus reward (in this case the satisfaction of participating).  Generally speaking Wikipedia has fairly low transaction costs, and the factors above contribute to this.  There is one other key element in Wikipedia that promotes low transaction costs that stood out in my mind: the discreet nature of the available work for volunteers to do.  Almost everything you can do at Wikipedia is in very bite sized units of work.  Fix some typos, leave a comment, write a stub article, write a couple of paragrahs for an article, on and on.  And no matter what you do – no matter how large or small – you leave the article in better shape than when you found it and in an acceptable state to be read.  In my work as a volunteer in community theatre, there was very little work like this.  Everything was literally a production.  So, I had to plan my availability to participate, and limit it to one or two shows per year.  But at Wikipedia, someone could do meaningful work over their coffee break.  I believe this is an important point about distributed, collaborative work, and I challenge us to reflect on how we can apply it to open design and the open design project hosting site (

Finally, O’Sullivan closes with a list of ten ways to gt involved in Wikipedia (and I think we should really work on our own version of this list):

  1. Look for stub articles to expand (even 100 words is a huge improvement)
  2. Tidy up pages that need attention
  3. Incorporate current events into articles
  4. Translate an article from one language edition to another
  5. Write up an article (or stub) on a book you have just read (or its author)
  6. Help answer questions at the “reference desk”
  7. Find images for articles
  8. Contribute to the source code for mediawiki (the open source software that Wikipedia runs on)
  9. Ask questions of the community on how to get started
  10. Donate to the Wikimedia Foundation

One final note, notice how donate cash is the last of the list.  We must remember, as important as it doantions are, people are more connected to a cause when the help do the work themselves.

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