Wikipedia, The Summer of Love and Experts: Why Web 2.0 Works Best for Business

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The recent spate of negative headlines about Wikipedia -- really, what did Sinbad ever do to deserve this? -- reminds me of Peter Fonda's monologue from the film The Limey about living through the "social revolution" of the 1960s:

"Did you ever dream about a place you never really recall being to before? A place that maybe only exists in your imagination? Some place far away, half remembered when you wake up. When you were there, though, you knew the language. You knew your way around. That was the '60s. [pause] No. It wasn't that either. It was just '66 and early '67. That's all there was."

Oddly enough, I pulled that quote from IMDb.com, one of the greatest Web sites ever launched, and one that relies on quite a bit of user input to create its matrix of movie facts and opinion.


But it seems clear, at least to an old-line informational elitist such as myself, that the Summer of Intellectual Love is winding down for sites like Wikipedia that propose, at their core, that common knowledge is not just as valuable, but is pretty much the same thing, as expert knowledge. (That's a distinction I'll get back to later.)


Forget about a dropout pretending to be an "expert" (however you want to define that) on theology. Forget aboutsilly grudge edits, like the slam on fading golfer (and seriously insensitive guy) Fuzzy Zoeller. Now we've moved into the era of plain old capricious vandalism of wiki entries.


It's 1968, the free drugs are gone from Haight Street, and the Manson family just popped into Dennis Wilson's living room -- at least from an informational perspective.


Understand, I'm not suggesting that community content is dead. We at IT Business Edge have long been basically convinced of the value of wikis for information management and, more broadly, I've seen plenty of evidence of the community open source software model. (You're reading a blog published with WordPress, after all.)


But it does seem that the community content phenomenon is entering a new, perhaps more mature, phase. And that doesn't necessarily mean that everybody who contributes to the collective has to have a PhD, even though Jimmy Wales is on the right track in making his experts at Wikipedia prove that they have the degrees they claim.


I read with great interest today about the FreeBase project, an ambitious -- to say the least -- effort to tag pretty much all the information in the world, via a community, to fuel an artificial intelligence machine.


Tech cynic Nicholas Carr notes that precise meta-tagging is not a chore for a "rag-tag" collective, and believe me, nobody knows that better than folks who run a DB-driven Web site for a living. Yet open-ended social tagging networks such as digg.com have certainly created a credible enough layer of metadata to shore up the quality of search results. I'd imagine that's also what Wales has in mind, generally, with his own plans for a new search engine offering


Basic tagging, along with some function by which users rate the value of the content they are tagging, is a use case where aggregated common knowledge not only is as good as expert knowledge -- it's better. The fact that a large percentage of 1,000 people who are genuinely interested in a topic found a certain piece of information useful is highly valuable data, within itself.


In fact, the community's best role may well be to critically vet information -- not to be the sole providers of it. By "critically," I mean in some structured way -- not necessarily "moderated," but in some context where the user has some skin in the game.


Obviously, it's easy -- and for most of us, fun -- to post "Duke Sucks" on a sports forum. But opposing coaches and players would probably take a little more time to evaluate foibles and strengths, and an aggregated view of that info would be enormously valuable to any team facing Duke.


Open source, it seems to me, is a prime example of this dynamic.


Our own Rob Enderle recently commented that Wikipedia's woes reflect on the ultimate veracity of the community development dynamic. I think that argument breaks down, however, when you consider that at the end of that community spectrum is me, a pesky LOB manager who wants his blogging software to work, and who will test the crap out of the community's efforts -- not out of enthusiasm or altruism, but because I want my blogs to work. Self-interest, the one pure motivation.


That's why Web 2.0 seems like such a natural fit inside the enterprise. The users of business wikis need the information to be accurate and useful, and will be invested in making that the reality.


In fact, they're engaged enough in business processes and other events that they could be viewed as experts, or at least expert witnesses, if you will. Smart businesses will still rely on "expert" knowledge to define the basics of how the business runs, but the engaged community can hone, polish and augment this information.


Vandals of such a useful resource won't just be demoted; they'll be hunted down. And contributions will be put to far more strenuous tests than posts about the health of a former Star Search contestant.