WikiMania 2006: Quick Hits and Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed Wikimania, but it felt distinctly different than last year. A big part of it was personal. The conference was held in Cambridge, my home for four years, so the location itself was familiar and uninteresting. I was only there for three days, whereas last year I came early for Hacking Days, where I had a chance to get to know people better at my leisure. I also had much more on my mind, whereas last year, I was fully present the whole time — morning, noon, and night.    (L0E)

Part of it was the conference itself. It wasn’t as international as last year, but it was still quite good — one out of four attendees were from outside of the States. There were also more visitors, folks new to Wikis who came to see what this stuff was all about. Several of these people were fairly high-level, described by Jason Calacanis as “folks who ride on the back of builders.”    (L0F)

The same held true for RecentChangesCamp earlier this year, except the spirit was quite different. There, the visitors were eager to learn and to participate, and the community embraced them. Here, many visitors stayed at arm’s length, choosing to observe from afar rather than immerse themselves in this wonderful community. At Wikimania last year, a different group of us would go out every night, laughing, sharing stories, mixing with other groups. This year, there were more clusters, more silos. I saw people — especially the visitors — sticking with the folks they knew, rather than mixing with others.    (L0G)

That is not our community’s way, and I found it mildly distressful. To some extent, it’s the price of success — especially true in the case of Wikipedia — and the result of the culture that those not acclimated to Wikis bring to the table. To a large extent, process is at fault. I find it fascinating that a community schooled in self-organization and the value of emergence continues to organize top-down gatherings. If it’s not careful, Wikimania may eventually go the way of Linux World, Comdex, and many other conferences that began as a wonderful, generative community gathering and eventually became a meeting place for fast-talking salespeople.    (L0H)

Despite my standing in the Wiki community, I’m an outsider to Wikipedia, and I only have three ways of encouraging a shift in how Wikimania operates. The first and best way is to become active in the community and in the planning of the next conference. In an alternative world, this would have already happened, but the reality is that it’s not likely. The second and worst way is to preach to the folks in the community, which I’ve been doing. I find this distasteful. It’s my personality to effect change, not to talk about it.    (L0I)

The third way is to create a space where people can learn for themselves and to catalyze that learning as much as possible. This, in a nutshell, is the purpose of Blue Oxen Associates. I’ve had some success in this area. The FLOSS Usability Sprints exposed some folks to effective collaborative processes, including one of the original Bar Camp organizers. I was then able to point to Bar Camp as a model for the RecentChangesCamp organizers, who wanted to bring Open Space to the Wiki community. Both the usability sprints and Bar Camp helped spawn DCamp, the Bar Camp for the usability community. Our “Tools for Catalyzing Collaboration” workshops have inspired a number of people to pursue similar event models.    (L0J)

In addition to helping the tech community learn about face-to-face collaborative processes, I’ve also helped other communities — from Planetwork to the World Economic Forum — learn how online collaborative spaces can complement physical ones.    (L0K)

All of this is just the start. I have bigger and better things in the works. More importantly, the meme is starting to spread. I’ve helped initiate some of this, but there are many other sparks, and others are starting to fan the flames. We will learn how to collaborate more effectively. But it will take time.    (L0L)

I’m sounding a bit ominous, and it’s an exaggeration of how I actually feel. As I said before, all in all, Wikimania was wonderful. When you bring great people together and get out of the way, great things happen. Even if there are minor obstacles, great people will find a way around them. This has held true not just for the participants at Wikimania, but for the organizers. I am amazed at the efforts, commitment, and passion of Samuel Klein, Phoebe Ayers, Delphine Menard, and the many, many others who worked ridiculously hard to make this conference happen. The whole community deserves tremendous praise. I hope it continues to do what it does well, while unabashedly exploring ways to improve.    (L0M)

One goal that the Wikimania organizers should have for next year is improving conference Wiki usage among the participants. Effective self-documentation via Wiki is a staple of Blue Oxen‘s processes, and we’ve managed to influence many others about it, including Bar Camp and the Aspiration events. But the best Wiki usage at an event I’ve ever seen was at RecentChangesCamp. The community was already steeped in Wiki culture, and the process encouraged self-documentation. The fact that neither Wikimania nor WikiSym has seen effective conference-wide usage of Wikis is an indicator that something is blocking the community’s natural instincts. It’s also a lost opportunity, as those who attend the conference seeking to learn about Wikis miss out on the chance to experience them first-hand.    (L0N)

Quick Hits    (L0O)

  • I was amazed at the number of speakers who exclaimed how honored they were to be there. Some of them were merely experiencing the euphoria of speaking at a gathering of their peers for the first time. Others were hardened veterans of the speaking circuit, including Yochai Benkler and David Weinberger. Yochai even interrupted his traditional two months beach getaway to speak at the conference.    (L0P)
  • Speaking of David Weinberger, I saw him talk for the first time, and now I know what the fuss is about. He’s a wonderful speaker — self-deprecating, sharp wit, great sense of humor, and very thoughtful. He did a Monty Python-like parody of Lawrence Lessig‘s presentation-style that had the entire audience rolling with laughter, and he managed to slip in references to Hegel and Heidegger without sounding pretentious. But I had two beefs with his talk. (Boy, I’m just Mr. Negativity today.) First, he disputed the notion that knowledge is just in people’s head, citing all the knowledge associated with the artifacts that surround us. I understand the point he was trying to make, but I didn’t like how he made it. Artifacts are not knowledge. I generally find myself taking the exact opposite stance as Weinberger — emphasizing that knowledge is in our heads, because it stresses the human element we so often forget when we think about our relationship to knowledge. Second, he made a hypothesis about Wikipedia editing behavior that practically everybody in the room knew was wrong. He admitted that he was speculating, and gracefully acknowledged his error when informed of it, but he never should have made that mistake in the first place. There were many people he could have simply asked before making such a claim.    (L0Q)
  • The best talk from someone I had never heard of was by Seth Anthony, who spoke about Wikipedia editing patterns. See Ross Mayfield‘s notes for a summary.    (L0R)
  • Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg, the IBM researchers who created History Flow, gave an outstanding talk where they demonstrated some new visualizations of Wiki usage. Some of those visualizations are available in my Flickr collection. I particularly found their visualizations of user behavior interesting, because of past suggestions that such visualizations could be a powerful way to help casual readers determine reputations. The biggest obstacle (besides the computing power required to generate these visualizations)? Privacy. Even though these visualizations were based on public data, that does not automatically make it okay to make those visualizations available. Witness AOL’s recent fiasco (and read Tom Maddox‘s commentary).    (L0S)
  • I caught up with Denny Vrandecic towards the end of the conference, and I’m glad I did. He gave me an in-depth demo of Semantic MediaWiki, which he had first proposed (but had not coded) at last year’s Wikimania. The notion of encoding link types in Wikis is not new, but up until I saw the Semantic Mediawiki, the best implementation I had seen was Evan Prodromou‘s WikiTravel. I think the Semantic Mediawiki is a better approach. It’s less expressive than WikiTravel, but more likely to be widely adopted. I plan on experimenting with it and incorporating some of its capabilities into my own Wikis.    (L0T)

Yochai Benkler and Rishab Aiyer Ghosh at WikiMania 2006

On Saturday morning, I had the pleasure of attending talks given by two very important contributors to my field. About a year and a half ago, shortly after I first met Katrin Verclas, Katrin started telling me, “You’ve got to read Yochai Benkler.” I’m pretty sure that she ended 90 percent of our subsequent conversations with, “You really should read Benkler.” When Benkler came out with his book, Wealth of Networks earlier this year, everybody else in the world seemed to echoed Katrin’s advice.    (KYH)

I knew that Benkler was speaking this weekend, so I finally downloaded his book and started reading it on the plane. Unfortunately, I only got through the first chapter. You can imagine how lame I felt when I found myself having dinner with him on Friday night. Fortunately, Benkler himself gave a thirty minute synopsis of his book on Saturday morning.    (KYI)

(As an aside, Benkler unintentionally scored some major geek points, when his laptop revealed that he runs Linux with KDE. There are a lot of outsiders commentating on Open Source these days, but most of them do not actually run Linux themselves.)    (KYJ)

Benkler’s thesis is that technology has enabled unprecedented forms of large-scale cooperative production, what he calls “commons-based peer production.” Think Wikipedia, think Open Source, think Mash Ups, etc. According to Benkler, these non-market activities are no longer on the periphery, but form the very core of economic life for the most advanced societies.    (KYK)

Technology is largely responsible for our ability to behave this way, but only partially responsible for the authority to behave this way. The latter is a cultural phenomenon that has been catalyzed by the technology, but is not entirely causal.    (KYL)

The question is, is this behavior an outlier, or is it economically sustainable? Benkler didn’t talk a lot about this — this is why I need to read the book — but he did cite numbers such as IBM’s revenues from Linux-related services, which far outpaces its revenues from IP licensing. (This alone is not evidence; smaller Open Source companies like MySQL are making significant revenue from dual licensing, a lesser known fact of life for many Open Source companies.)    (KYM)

Benkler touched a bit on the importance of humanization in commons-based peer production, which he said is the focus of his current research. He also cited the reemergence of a new folk culture in society today, something that Lawrence Lessig also talks about.    (KYN)

There was a minor hullabaloo between Jason Calacanis and Benkler during Q&A. (See Andy Carvin‘s description, plus some background and commentary. It was entertaining, but low on any real controversy. Benkler acknowledged that the interface between market and nonmarket interaction is not well understood right now. There are good examples of how paying people kills the community dynamics, but the patterns are not necessarily discernible yet. However, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, who spoke after Benkler — made it crystal clear that those citing numbers about how a small number of people are responsible for a large percentage of work are missing the point. If you pay for 75 percent of the work, you end up with a three legged chair, which is worthless.    (KYO)

Ghosh has done some of the best quantitative analysis on Open Source communities, and he’s been doing it for a while. The Blue Oxen report on open source communities was heavily based on work that Rishab had done.    (KYP)

Ghosh kicked off his talk by talking about James Watt‘s exploitation of the patent system, and argued that Watt’s significantly slowed innovation with the steam engine and thus was partially responsible for delaying the Industrial Revolution.    (KYQ)

(I didn’t find Ghosh’s argument particularly compelling or relevant, but it was a good story. Patents give folks monopolies, and monopolies are bad for markets. We know that already. But patents are also supposed to incentivize innovation. Ghosh was insinuating through his story that patents were not a strong motivator for innovation in this particular case, but I have trouble believing that. Christoph Friedrich Von Braun wrote an excellent, but dense book, The Innovation War (1997), where he explained how difficult it was to correlate patents to innovation, either for or against. And von Braun barely touched on software, which adds even more complexity to the question.)    (KYR)

Ghosh then went on to talk about FLOSS developer motivation and described his value-flow and cooking pot analogy for how markets can sustain this type of behavior. He also pointed out that the collaboration is not new, but the scale is.    (KYS)

Ghosh continues to do good research, much of which is hosted at FLOSS World.    (KYT)