When Jimmy Wales, a refugee from options trading, set out to create an encyclopedia online, he thought first of the Britanica model, except with volunteers. He assigned articles to professional experts, and established panels for peer reviews. Then he started to write one himself – on options trading – and realized it was a drag.
It was like “handing in an essay at grad school,” he said later. So Wales shifted gears. He kept the volunteer model; but made it an open and social experience rather than a hierarchical one. Anyone could write an entry, on anything. The peer reviewers would be the readers themselves, who could correct factual errors and omissions, and challenge biases.
To a conventional manager it might sound like a recipe for chaos. Yet within two weeks, the project had generated more articles than it did in two years of the top-down model. The result is Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that now has over 10 million articles in 253 languages and over 2.6 million in English alone. Users have made well over 150 million edits since July 2002.
To an economist it doesn’t make sense. People don’t work for free. Readers are “consumers,” not producers; and consumers do not produce what they consume. Yet they are doing so; and this kind of social co-production is flourishing not only on the Web, but in the society at large.