I think Wikipedia’s market-cap would be larger than Facebook’s if it was a for-profit corporation

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….

The Best Yahoo Answer Ever

I quit smoking with only minimal side-effects (other than wanting to smoke cigarettes). It’s only after about three or four weeks that I have started to suffer real withdrawal effects, like a pretty durable sore throat or the insomnia that has me posting this at 4:30 AM.

The major effect that quitting smoking had on me is that I’ve become far less utopian about the internet. Any google search, no matter how specific, will bring up almost no honest and sincere information about quitting smoking. Almost every hit is some kind of search-engine-optimization article that parrots every other SEO article in an attempt to drive hits to some kind of nicotine patch or quit-smoking pill. I think that some of these sites were also funded by Phillip Morris as part of their tobacco lawsuit settlement.

There is basically only one large highly-ranked quit-smoking site on the internet that does not want your money, and that is whyquit.com. This is a not unhelpful site…but it is a little idiosyncratic (and also quite ugly and hard to navigate).

The downside of this is that any real information about what to expect when you quit smoking – real concrete stuff like, uhh, what is going to happen and what will it feel like? – is drowned in a sea of copied articles and alarmism that is designed to get you to buy nicotine patches. I’m not saying that good information is not out there, but generally the PageRank of the useful stuff is sufficiently low that it’s not that easy to find. And even the “useful” stuff tends to have kind of a low information density (its blog posts and forum threads stuff like that).

Except for one golden, shining place…Yahoo Answers.

Yahoo Answers, for some reason, has an incredibly high page rank. For some other reason, it has not yet been invaded by people trying to sell you shit. And for some third reason (or maybe these are all for the same reason), it doesn’t have the social component to it that afflicts most blogs and forums, which generally makes comments more about performing some monkey ritual of interpersonal contact than about actually exchanging information.

There’s also an inductive quality to Yahoo Answers that contrasts strongly with the more deductive sort of answers that most internet sites attempt to give you. Most sites basically take conventional medical wisdom and attempt to render it in layman’s terms. It’s a one-size-fits-all strategy that is in many cases exactly as frustrating as the platitudes that doctors tend to hand out.

But Yahoo Answers is about people using the knowledge they’ve acquired in their own lives – when handling problems remarkably similar to yours – to try to understand what is happening to you. A perfect illustration of the difference is this Yahoo Answer I just found, which bears absolutely no relevance to me, but happens to be the greatest answer in the history of answering questions from strangers.

Question: Smoking = sore throat?

OK so I quit smoking 4 years ago and just recently I started again, but not really, more like 2 or 3 a day. I don’t need lectures, I know all about it, I quit before and I’m planning on stopping very soon. I just had a little relapse, that’s all. Anyway, since I started smoking again my throat has been incredibly sore. I am not sure if it is just coincidence or if the smoking has caused it. When I smoked before, (for 10 years) I never had a sore throat due to smoking, ever.

Has this happened to any of you? Can smoking cause a perma-sore throat? Or maybe is this coincidence (it is allergy season, after all).

 

Best Answer – The first time you smoked a cigarette, you didn’t inhale deeply, you might have coughed like crazy, but you took it easy and gradually began drawing in harder. This time, you had the habit already ingrained, so you didn’t work up to a deep draw, you just started off immediately doing the same thing…no surprise that it made your throat sore.

Source(s): RN [Registered Nurse]

I don’t know if this seems as great to someone who’s never smoked cigarettes, but this answer rings very true to me. But can you imagine what a doctor would say if you asked them this question? Or what you’d find if you did an internet search on it? Or if you posted on a forum about it?

Doctor: Umm cigarettes are poison, they are slowly killing the cilia in your throat?

Person: But why didn’t that happen the first time?

 

Internet Search: Use chantix! It’ll help you quit smoking no problem.

Person: Okay…that wasn’t even remotely relevant

 

Forum / Comment Thread: Oh man that sucks, I quit smoking myself a year ago. You just got to stick with it!

Person: Yes I know, I’m gonna try again soon…but it still would be nice to know the answer to this question….the one I actually asked.

In my imagination, the entire internet used to be like Yahoo Answers. But I don’t think that was actually the case. I can’t wait until something like Yahoo Answers arises that is about a thousand times better than Yahoo Answers. Because as good as Yahoo Answers is, it’s basically only the barest sketch of what it should be, it’s the Myspace of question-answering sites, and when someone develops the Facebook of question-answering….I am going to buy some stock in it.