Thinking about Yahoo Answers last night, and the various other Yahoo-Answers-esque startup dotcoms that people pointed me to, I thought, “You know what? Wikipedia is really weird.”
It is really weird that Wikipedia exists.
It is a site that gets hundreds of millions of hits, hosts mostly text (ergo low bandwidth costs), and has no content-creation costs. If Wikipedia became a for-profit corporation, its valuation would be as high as Facebook’s. All of its founders would be billionaires.
Now, I am not saying that this is totally possible. Probably if it became for-profit, then people would stop creating content for it (although, people still create content for twitter and Facebook…)
But even if we disregard the practical aspects, it is very strange that there is a nonprofit web-creation out there that provides as much benefit to consumers as Wikipedia does. I think Wikipedia is probably the only nonprofit website that reaches into the first tier of websites. All the others that I can think of (Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, Open Library, etc) are an order of magnitude smaller.
And Wikipedia is also the only nonprofit website I’ve ever seen that actually looks and feels like a lot of thought has been given to user experience. It is uncluttered and easy to ease in a way that most websites are not. Like, take Youtube. It can often be fairly difficult to find what you want by searching for it. Really it only works if you get directly linked to videos or if you know the title of what you’re looking for. Youtube is also egregiously ugly.
But Wikipedia is none of those things. It is clean and it is beautiful and it is useful. It is so useful. If we distributed free laptops that only had access to email and Wikipedia, the people who received them would grumble at us heavily without realizing that what they are getting is literally about 25% of all the usefulness the internet has to offer, and only about 1% of the hassles.
The existence of Wikipedia sets up all these strange expectations and longings within us. It’s like the fulfillment of every utopian prophecy that man has ever uttered.
I think the hidden subtext to most idealistic visions is that in order for the magic to work, you need to believe in it.
The subtext is that stuff that is created by idealists just isn’t going to be as good as the stuff created by people who want your money.
See, for instance, Linux. Now, Linux might be the bee’s knees. But it is not userfriendly. Nothing about it is userfriendly. Even getting to the place where you’re trying to learn more about it? Not user-friendly.
(Oh wait though, there is the Mozilla Foundation. Still, Mozilla Firefox, while awesome (I am posting using it right now), does not excite me as much as Wikipedia. That is probably because it does not feel like a different and wholly better sort of thing.)
But anyway, Wikipedia does not have a learning curve. You don’t need to know anything about it in order to use it. It’s just there. It might have been created by an awesome, idealistic design philosophy, but you don’t need to pass through the gate of that philosophy in order to access its benefits. Instead, it serves as an awesome vector with which to deliver that philosophy to you.
Seen in one way, Wikipedia seems like a vision of a Doctorowvian future where the fabric of our life is created by hard-working, philanthropic individuals: where we drive cars designed for free and printed out at cost; where our Facebook is not a corporation, but just a set of opensource tools to connect individually created content….etc…
But I am not sure that is not a cipher. Because all that Doctorowvian stuff has always struck me as kind of complicated. And as long as there are people out there who are willing to simplify it for me, then I am willing to pay them money.
It seems like all the utopians are mostly interested in creating cool stuff for each other, and not interested enough in helping me do the things I want to do and know the things I want to know.
Of course that’s not wrong of them. But it does mean that they can never compete with the corporations: who are very interested in helping me make decisions.
But then, on the other hand, there’s Wikipedia….