"I've seen things like this happen once or twice before," observed Mitch Kapor, software pioneer and head of the Open Source Foundation. "We're at the Big Bang of the next information revolution."
Ground Zero, at least last week, was Frankfurt, Germany, site of Wikimania, the first global gathering of the self-styled 'wikipedians' who collectively are well on their way to the goal of providing free online encyclopedias in every language on earth.
Created at virtually no cost by citizen-volunteers working collectively and using an innovative new tool called a wiki, which enables anyone to write and edit on a web page, the wikipedia site has experienced explosive growth in the past two years and now ranks among the top 50 most-visited websites in the world, according to alexa.com.
If it were a commercial venture, that means the valuation of the site would now be in excess of half a billion dollars, according to some estimates. But commerce doesn't enter into the wikipedia equation--in fact it's almost universally considered anathema among this crowd, whose most commonly articulated statement of ethos is "Free as in speech--not as in beer!"
Kapor was joined by hundreds of other enthusiasts from fifty-two countries at Wikimania, including such legends and luminaries as the Free Software Foundation's Richard Stallman (of GNU fame) and Ward Cunningham, the brilliant developer who created the first "writeable web page" program a decade ago and named it after Hawaii's Wiki-Wiki quick transports. "I was going to call it Quickweb," Cunningham explained in an interview. "And then I remembered these buses I took during a trip to Hawaii and I thought, 'That's cooler!'"
For years, Cunningham ran his own, semi-private closed wiki as a communications tool for a small community of software developers. Then he received a query from an Internet entrepreneur he didn't know named Jimbo Wales, asking if his tool could be used to create a free online encyclopedia.
"Yes," Cunningham responded. "But then it wouldn't be an encyclopedia. It would be a wiki."
It turned out to be both. Somewhat unwittingly, Cunningham had created one of the greatest social networking tools ever invented. But it took the vision of Wales -- and what rapidly turned into an online, global volunteer army -- to take the wiki phenomenon to the next level.
Offered the chance to create their own "content," and handed a tool that made doing so easy and fun, a community began to coalesce around the wikipedia site. In rapid order, thousands ... then tens of thousands ... then literally hundreds of thousands of articles, photographs, illustrations, maps and other means of knowledge transfer were contributed, corrected, improved and posted online. The English and the German wikipedias were the first to take off, followed by French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Arab, Esperanto ... even Klingon (to the dismay of many!)
If wikis could be used to create a high-quality reference work like an encyclopedia, might the next step be to make an online dictionary and thesaurus? Enter the Wiktionary. How about a better Bartlett's? Enter Wikiquote. Want a repository of source text in any language? Wikisource ... All are now available via the parent organization, the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, whose stated goals are to promote the creation of free educational content -- and to make it available to the public free of charge.
Soon, other uses of the wiki began to suggest themselves. Perhaps wikis could help solve the crisis in journalism by enabling citizens to report their own news? Bingo -- wikinews. Need a way to engage readers and reverse the alarming decline in newspaper circulation? Let your readers write wikitorials. Need a better constitution for Europe than the one the Euro-crats produced? How about a Wikitution next time?
Although the wikipedians continued to ignore commerce and filthy lucre, commercial entities couldn't help but notice that something was going on. After all, the wikipedia site was drawing more traffic than that of the New York Times and USA Today combined ... and Google searches were sending more and more people to the wiki site every day, creating a virtuous circle of newbies, all in search of answers, some of whom inevitably became enamored, and seeing how easy it was to create rather than simply consume, began writing and editing on the wiki themselves.
Since anyone is free not only to create and modify content on the wiki pages, but also to redistribute the content in any way, hundreds of other web sites -- many of them commercial enterprises -- began using wikipedia in a variety of ways. Answers.com, for example, offers a direct link to wiki content among its potpourri of information services. Robert Rosenschein, who runs the company, also attended Wikimania, and pronounced himself a huge supporter of the entire enterprise -- something he demonstrated by having his company help sponsor the conference (along with Sun Microsystems and others) as a means of "giving back to the community."
Representatives from Apple were also on the premises, and one of them demonstrated the new "wiki widget" to be found on forthcoming Macs. And Ross Mayfield, co-founder and CEO of Socialtext, gave one of the keynote speeches, detailing case studies of several of his clients who are now employing wikis in a variety of "enterprise" or business uses, from banks to law firms.
Despite its glaringly commercial applications, the wikipedia movement remains steadfast in its refusal to "monetize" any aspect of its operations -- thus far. It has only one paid employee at the moment -- lead developer Brian Vibber. With little overhead, its expenses remain low -- about $200,000 per quarter for hardware, such as servers to maintain its consistently high performance even when faced with ever-growing traffic. Its main source of revenue remains small private donations -- a recent fundraising drive aimed at obtaining $75,000 in three months, but it ended after two months because $95,000 had already poured in.
The site remains advertising free -- even from the otherwise ubiquitous Google AdSense adverts, which judging from the site traffic might yield as much as $1 million a month. Grants come in on occasion -- the Open Society Institute covered the cost of bringing about a dozen wikipedians from the developing world to Frankfurt, and Netscape founder Marc Andreesen's foundation recently sent, unasked, $50,000 dollars -- but there is no wiki grants administrator yet, and there may never be.
This purity of concept is what has made wikipedia an overwhelming success in an incredibly short period of time. Because no money has been involved, the level of trust and community that has been established is off the charts. That trust--along with the core value of NPOV, or "neutral point of view" that wikipedians insist on in their edit model--has thus far been an absolute defense against any corrosion or corruption of their values. After all, money changes everything.
Or does it necessarily? Although the advent of advertising anywhere near wikipedia seems remote at best -- both founder Jimbo Wales and the vast majority of attendees at Wikimania are adamantly opposed -- could the goals of the movement be realized better and more quickly by accepting a few million dollars in grants from, say, the European Community or the Ford Foundation? After all, Yahoo's offer of free servers was recently accepted and put to good use. Or would any injection of money lead inevitably to a fear of undue influence of the content, thus threatening the NPOV (neutral point of view) and trust relationship at the core of the wiki experience?
In other words, as Mitch Kapor asked at the closing session when the topic was raised to the Wikimedia Foundation board, "Can the aims and goals of the community be furthered in some way by making and then spending money?"
As board chairman of the Mozilla Foundation, which recently established a for-profit subsidiary in order to monetize the success of its own phenomenon (the free Foxfire browser, which has already seen 75 million downloads), Kapor has grappled with this crucial question recently. "These are the good old days for Wikipedia," Kapor concluded. "I agree that getting involved with money doesn't make spiritual sense for the wiki community -- at this point at least."
In the meantime, the wiki way continues to spread around the globe, the hottest thing in information technology since the advent of the blogosphere (Ward Cunningham predicts the coming merger of blogs and wikis, by the way). This Big Bang was so loud it even got my attention. I went to Frankfurt intent on making a documentary about the phenomenon, but came home convinced it should be the world's first "wikimentary" instead.
It's a wiki, wiki, wiki, wiki world ...