Does Wikipedia work or doesn’t it? That is the question.There is a lot of discussion on what the quality of Wikipedia is and how we should use it. An interesting point of view is the comparison with Open Source software. I think there are two quite important distinctions how Wikipedia and the Open Source movement handle the way they organize their processes.
Wikipedia is for the most part anarchy. Anybody can simply put some information in and correct whatever is there. Even when Einstein would have written the part about relativity than john doe can easily “improve” upon it. On pages where this leads to numerous changes (who the hell does this Einstein guy thinks he is by changing what I, John Doe, have shown to the world…) the adopt a feudalist approach where some people (the Aristocracy) have received special administrator powers by Jimmy Wales (the King, Wikipedia: c’est moi).
Open Source has adopted a much more open approach to this. Also here you find the few who are at the inner circle with special powers but they are promoted there by the group based on their merit. In software it is pretty easy to see if something works or not (most of the time). Either it crashes or it works. Either the function works or it does not. That makes it much easier to spot the talent and quality of developers compared to the quality of the contributors to Wikipedia. And of course: Linus Torvalds is no emperor. No, Linus is God and above us all. Considering the ubiquitousness of Linux at least he knows what we all are doing.
My conclusion is: you definitely need some sort of structure to make these things work. And the risk of structures, organisation and hierarchy’s is that they are easily abused.
But does this not like a lot like real (physical) life. The Romans already understood this: “who will guard the guards” (as you clever readers already understood from the title. I had to look it up on the Internet …).
We already have a history in mechanisms for this kind of situation for more than 3000 years since the forum in Athens and it is called democracy (OK, there where times when it did not work…).
In a democracy we elect people to rule our country. We elect people to make the laws and to enforce the laws. We appoint people that judge others within the context of that law. Reality is a big social network. And you know, when we are not satisfied with the ones that rule we send them away during election time.
The mechanisms in social software should not be that different from our democratic rules: we elect people in whom we trust that they will govern rightly. Some rules will be hard to change (the constitution or the way we vote for administrator) and others will be easy to change (parking fines or the mechanism how a recommendation is calculated), depending on how important they are for the foundation of the community. And regularly we will have the opportunity vote or run for administrator ourselves.
In order to make this work we should not just look at Machiavelli but also to Montesquieu who wrote about how to design the checks and balances to prevent the Machiavellian Kings.