2,529 crowdsourcing and crowdfunding sites
Any substantive discussion of collaborative knowledge in the 21st century should begin with Wikipedia. A holy grail of information on everything from Plato to Play-Doh, the site is undoubtedly the largest repository of knowledge in the world. Featuring over 20 million articles written solely by volunteers, with nearly four million in English, Wikipedia is the sixth largest site on the Internet, behind only Google, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo and the Chinese language search engine Baidu. (Alexa, Wikipedia) Incredibly, it is a non-profit, operating with just 95 staff members and 679 servers; the crowd both authors and supports the world’s most comprehensive encyclopedia. (Wikimedia Foundation)
A decade ago, Wikipedia was in its infancy. In 2000, Larry Sanger, a former philosophy professor, approached Jimmy Wales, a wealthy entrepreneur looking to invest in promising Internet ventures, with an idea for a cultural news digest. Captivated by Richard Stallman’s Free Software Movement, Wales convinced Sanger to shift direction, and together the two envisioned Nupedia.com. The site would be a free, online encyclopedia available to everyone, with articles written primarily by PhD-bearing experts on a volunteer basis. With Sanger as editor-in-chief, Nupedia officially launched on March 9, 2000. Laden with contributor restrictions and an arduous seven-step editorial review process, the site unsurprisingly had trouble attracting contributions; after roughly a year of operation, Nupedia had about a dozen articles to its name. To avoid complete redundancy — Encyclopedia Britannica had recently made its entire 100,000-entry catalog freely available online — Wales and Sanger had to initiate a drastic change. (Howe, 56-59)
The project needed to solicit more contributions, and the key proved to be an open source technology that would quickly engrain itself in the site’s DNA: the wiki. Ben Kovitz, a longtime friend on Sanger, introduced him to the concept over dinner on January 2, 2001. “A ‘wiki’ — named from the Hawaiian word for ‘quick’ — allows an unlimited number of users to create and edit text on a single webpage,” explains journalist Jeff Howe in Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business. “Even better, a wiki keeps track of every edit, which means everyone accessing the page can see what changes have been made and who made them.” (58-59) Sanger immediately saw how such a technology could benefit the struggling Nupedia, and within a day had written a formal proposal to implement wikis into the site. Nine days after Sanger’s dinner with Kovitz, Nupedia posted its first wiki, and later that week the Nupedia team launched the English-language Wikipedia.com. Initially envisioned as an offshoot of Nupedia, Wikipedia outgrew its origins and inevitably killed off the withering Nupedia, which ceased operations entirely on September 26, 2003. (Wikipedia)
Wikipedia is not by any means a flawless repository of knowledge; its open structure makes it an easy target for those with a particular agenda to push. A Wikipedia page linking to a website can spike its Google rank, encouraging site owners and advertisers to post extraneous outbound links or change a page’s references. Politicians, companies, and other activists meddle with the neutrality of certain entries — for example, in 2007, Microsoft landed in hot water after it offered to pay a blogger to correct “inaccuracies” on a Wikipedia page about an open-source document standard, which a spokeswoman insinuated was heavily authored by IBM employees. (Bergstein) And naturally, as with almost all community-centric sites, there are some “trolls and vandals who malevolently add incorrect information to articles, get other people tied up in endless discussions, and generally do everything to draw attention to themselves.” (Kleinz, 85) But overall, Wikipedia’s massive community of writers, editors, and tweakers functions admirably well at adding new, up-to-date information and correcting inaccuracies through a peer review process.
There are a number of checks and balances in place: pages prone to vandalism and controversy — like, say, Jesus or Sex — are “semi-protected,” preventing edits from unconfirmed accounts (unregistered IP addresses). Rarely, in incidents of extreme and sustained vandalism, pages are temporarily placed under “full protection,” barring edits from anyone but administrators. And since the wiki software keeps track of every edit, it’s extremely easy to revert an article to a previous version. “Many of Wikipedia's critics have focused on the fact that the software lets anyone edit anything; what they miss is that the social constraints of the committed editors keep that capability in check,” notes Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations and a member of the Wikimedia Foundation’s advisory board. “As easy as the software makes it to do damage, it makes it even easier to undo damage.” (Shirky) Sure, Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit — but as Shirky says, the defenders have better tools than the attackers. One such tool is the “talk page” associated with each Wikipedia article, where users can come together to discuss potential changes to an entry. These pages serve a hugely useful function: they allow the various micro-communities that spring up around certain topics discuss improvements to Wikipedia articles, and to debate and vote on certain contentious issues before the participants make any final decisions.
But what else could these discussion pages achieve if Wikipedia’s board of administrators expanded their functionality? What if instead of focusing solely on improving the article, each Wikipedia talk page was its own proper discussion forum about that topic? Would such a feature improve Wikipedia or prove to be a catastrophic failure?
“That’s not even what Wikipedia is about!” devout Wiki-fans might cry. Wikipedia’s vision statement implies otherwise: “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge,” it reads. “That's our commitment.” However fragmented, tangential and downright immature online forum chatter may appear at times, such discussion and debate can be an elucidatory source of knowledge — yes, even on the Internet. (Even if you don’t learn a single fact about the topic at hand, you can count on this: you’ll always learn something about human nature and behavior from an Internet forum.)
Whatever the outcome, the implementation of 20 million discussion forums spanning 282 languages would be an enormously educational (not to mention entertaining) experiment. Already the sixth largest site on the Internet, Wikipedia would immediately become the go-to place to discuss, well, everything. Mirroring the site’s article structure, pages like Culture would likely host wide-ranging discussions about an assortment of topics, but for every “general” community, there would be thousands of narrower, more focused communities discussing the intricacies of Die Fantastischen Vier, an early German hip hop group, or 2K Marin, an Australian video game developer. There would be millions of ghost towns, too; it’s doubtful many people would flock to the Epicrates gracilis forum, for example — but who knows, maybe some herpetologists would spring at the chance to discuss their research on the Haitian tree boa with fellow snake lovers. There are probably online forums for many of these topics already, but Wikipedia would be in the unique position of having a forum spanning almost every imaginable topic, with a massive user base to match.
Some Wikipedia forums would inevitably become so popular that navigating them effectively would be near impossible without the right arsenal of options. Most of the proposed customization options below are web forum standards, but would require even greater flexibility on the highly trafficked Wikipedia. Features would include the ability to customize the number of threads / posts per page; sort threads chronologically, reverse chronologically, or by popularity (level of activity that hour, day, week, month, or year); and search for threads / posts by keyword. Naturally, user profiles would be modified to display not only that user’s edits on Wikipedia, but also their posts across the various Wiki forums. Threads and posts would also need a report button to mark inappropriate content for review by forum moderators, as there certainly would be a mass of inappropriate content.
Indeed, such a radical restructuring of Wikipedia’s talk pages would bring with it a host of problems, the most obvious being an excess amount of spam, inflammatory remarks and personal attacks. Though it runs counter to Wikipedia’s open nature — the site allows anyone to edit most articles, user login or otherwise — there’s really no way around it: posting in a discussion forum would have to require a login. Without that simple barrier to posting, the trolls would run rampant; in fact, they still would, just to a less extreme degree. That’s not meant to imply that the amount of trolling wouldn’t be tremendous, though; it almost certainly would be. To thwart the trolls, Wikipedia would have to implement a community-based moderation system, like the mix of automated and human moderation on its article pages. Prominent, dedicated members of particular forum communities would eventually acquire moderation abilities — the model of most sizable Internet forums. These senior members, moderators, and administrators would have the ability to delete posts, close threads, issue infractions, and temporary or permanent bans, with specific abilities and responsibilities depending on rank. The initial forum moderators could be the writers and editors heavily involved in editing the related article page. There are additional details beyond the scope of this article that would need to be worked out, like precisely who would make the cut, how they would be informed, and what rules they would abide by in moderating their respective forums.
A general respect for free speech would have to be balanced against lewd, bigoted and otherwise hateful posts. All Wikipedia articles are supposed to represent a neutral viewpoint, but on forum pages like Nazism or Abortion, discussion is guaranteed to be anything but civil. An easy solution would be to block discussion forums for all “protected” pages, but that’s not a particularly good strategy; those would undoubtedly be some of the most popular forums on all of Wikipedia. After all, who wouldn’t want to discuss 4chan, Alcohol and the noble Emperor Penguin? Realistically, moderators would just have to keep a careful watch on those forums, perhaps developing unique rule sets for problematic or controversial communities. There are a few Wikipedia articles that simply couldn’t function effectively as forums, though; for example, it’s difficult to imagine a constructive conversation about Child pornography. Though Wikipedia articles about sexual or violent topics do not feature age gates, it would be wise if their corresponding forums did.
Wikipedia could also run into privacy concerns for forums linked to biographical pages, as well as forums about particular schools or towns. “Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not a tabloid,” states the site’s Biographies of living persons page, continuing, “it is not Wikipedia's job to be sensationalist, or to be the primary vehicle for the spread of titillating claims about people's lives, and the possibility of harm to living subjects must always be considered when exercising editorial judgment.” As a result of their open nature, forums about living individuals couldn’t be subject to the same guidelines; as a result, people not used to public scrutiny might object to forums focused exclusively on them. The solution here is fairly straightforward: if Wikipedia received a complaint from those individuals (or their representatives) about material posted on the site, it should review the situation, deleting the contentious material in question and penalizing the user who posted it. In extreme cases of sustained attacks and slanderous information — or severe demands from the individuals — Wikipedia should remove the forum from the site entirely. In the case of towns and schools, Wikipedia could face many of the same criticisms as Topix or other web companies who host forums oriented around small communities. Though such forums are productive venues to discuss local politics and news, they can also function as breeding grounds for injurious gossip and slander. Again, this would require strict moderation and adequate use of the ‘report’ feature for inappropriate content.
A host of other problems could surface: technical troubles with advanced forum software, upset users questioning moderation policies and so on. Much of this just isn’t foreseeable from this speculative standpoint; like the main Wikipedia site, the forums would evolve and change over time to address user concerns and improve overall functionality.
Realistically, there’s little to no chance Wikipedia will actually implement these proposed discussion forums. After all, why screw with a model that works? The headaches it would cause at Wikipedia headquarters hardly seem worth the effort. From this humble user’s perspective, however, all the problems attached to such fundamental feature addition would be worth the paradigm shift it would spark on the web. For every troll looking to cause trouble, there would be dozens of users reaping the benefits of the largest forum on the web: discussing and debating, joking and sharing, getting to know one another and broadening their horizons. And who knows, they might actually learn something while they’re at it.
Bergstein, Brian. “Microsoft offers cash for Wikipedia edit.” Associated Press. Posted January 23, 2007.
Howe, Jeff. Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2008.
Kleinz, Torsten. “World of Knowledge” (PDF). Linux Magazine, February 2005.
Shirky, Clay. “Wikipedia – an unplanned miracle.” The Guardian. Posted January 14, 2011.