The Longest Now


On the subject of Wikipedia…
Wednesday April 20th 2005, 4:45 am
Filed under: %a la mod

Larry Sanger recently had a friend post two very long sections of an upcoming memoir to Slashdot, providing a well-linked and verbose look at the history of Wikipedia. He also tooted his own horn a bit more than was absolutely necessary, but so it is with memoirs.

The links interested me a great deal, in part because Anthere and I have been gathering a similar retrospective — focused on the community’s recollections, not on those of any single person, and with less of a narrative arc or agenda. I would like to reproduce what I think is a seminal quote (3/4 of the way down the page) from the colourful history of Nu/Wikipedia :

Our concept of Wikipedia is not as a little fun project that amuses a few people on the Internet. For that, employees certainly would not necessary. Instead, we envision Wikipedia as–eventually–a serious competitor for all proprietary encyclopedias. We think that the concepts behind Wikipedia and Nupedia are so robust that, with proper guidance, within ten or twenty years, we might have the greatest encyclopedia in history. We believe that we will be able to produce cheap, reliable copies of the encyclopedia, sold for the cost of printing (or copying) or supported by donations, that can be used for educational purposes around the world, particularly in places that have few books or other educational materials available. It is, frankly, silly to think that this sort of large-scale project could be properly managed without paid employees. The notion that nonprofit projects should lack paid employees is just irrational and unjustified, and threatens to shoot the very success of this project in the foot.

      –Larry Sanger, responding to a fork of the Spanish Wikipedia, [27 feb, 2002, 16:56 EST]

This was during the month after Sanger stopped being paid to be the project’s editor-in-chief, and before he left the project altogether, while he still clearly felt strong ownership of it and attachment to it. One could go through this quote, sentence by sentence, and expose a dozen assumptions that do not scale efficiently (sense of “we” and ownership, glorification of concepts and individual guidance, sense of competition with other information providers, confused view of “fun” as non-productive). However, I would just like to highlight one sentence:

It is, frankly, silly to think that this sort of large-scale project could be properly managed without paid employees.

To the contrary, Wikipedia is a modern reminder that we have no idea how far one can scale the “management” of a complicated and nuanced project without the notion of paid “employees” as managers. This form of management may well scale better than one involving explicit chains of command and pay grades.

In fact, let me suggest that most of the largest ‘projects’ undertaken by civilization have involved entire societies, and have not been financed by any individual, or through any rigid organization or heirarchy. (One particular exception recently elected a new leader.)

There have recently been suggestions from various quarters, repeating Larry’s sentiments above — not in the context of editing, but in the context of publishing, or publicity, or grant-writing, or translation. I hope that those suggestions will be backed up very carefully, and not presented casually as common sense.


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