Changing your mind – I changed mine about open source and wikipedia

JP Rangaswami today has a post entitled What have you changed your mind about? – that is one I was always going to read.  Changing our minds is something we don’t do nearly often enough.  As Taleb points out in Black Swan, too often we treat ideas like treasured possessions, to be guarded and preserved.  That way lies narrow mindedness, incorrect opinions and bad decision making.  Much better to keep our minds open, have the courage to change our them and, where necessary, admit when we were wrong.

Approaching it from the other side, i.e. always treating opinions as early drafts that can be improved on, Danah Boyd puts it like this:

Make mistakes. Publicly. With lots of witnesses. Apologize. And learn. It’s easy to hide from mistakes and it’s natural to try to keep them under wraps. I think that there’s a lot of value to making mistakes publicly. First, that means that you’re willing to try new things out. Second, it means that you’re going to be forced to learn from those mistakes fast. My blog is filled with hypotheses that are wrong, ideas that are half-baked. I say stupid things. People call me on it and I learn from that.

I only found this quote recently, but it captures how I have approached this blog since I started writing it in summer 2006.  Reading back through my posts it is (sometimes embarrassingly) clear how my thoughts have evolved and my opinions changed – probably most notably with regard to the overall potential for social media.  As a result I am hopefully smarter, better informed and more capable of making good investment decisions.

Back to JP’s post.

The changed opinion he talks about is one where I have changed mine as well – on the potential for wikipedia, open source and other mass collaboration platforms.  About a year ago I had been hearing lots of stories about in-fighting at wikipedia and structural obstacles to decision making at the Linux and Apache open source projects, and I made a note to myself to write a post on the limits to how far these organsiations can grow and the difficulties of management in the absence of the profit motive.  Well I’m glad I found other things to write about!!

JP points to an article by Wired author Kevin Kelly which describes how he changed his mind on this topic:

Much of what I believed about human nature, and the nature of knowledge, has been upended by the Wikipedia. I knew that the human propensity for mischief among the young and bored — of which there were many online — would make an encyclopedia editable by anyone an impossibility. I also knew that even among the responsible contributors, the temptation to exaggerate and misremember what we think we know was inescapable, adding to the impossibility of a reliable text. I knew from my own 20-year experience online that you could not rely on what you read in a random posting, and believed that an aggregation of random contributions would be a total mess. Even unedited web pages created by experts failed to impress me, so an entire encyclopedia written by unedited amateurs, not to mention ignoramuses, seemed destined to be junk.


How wrong I was. The success of the Wikipedia keeps surpassing my expectations. Despite the flaws of human nature, it keeps getting better. Both the weakness and virtues of individuals are transformed into common wealth, with a minimum of rules and elites. It turns out that with the right tools it is easier to restore damage text (the revert function on Wikipedia) than to create damage text (vandalism) in the first place, and so the good enough article prospers and continues. With the right tools, it turns out the collaborative community can outpace the same number of ambitious individuals competing.

Kevin and JP go on to point out that we haven’t even seen the beginning of the power of mass collaboration yet, and to really see what it can do we will probably have to wait until whole generations have grown up taking these concepts for granted rather and replaced people like me who have had to be convinced.

That may well be the case – but I think there will be ample opportunity to ride this trend successfully in our working lifetimes.

One final thing I wanted to mention is the condition of success for Wikipedia that Kevin mentions.  To repeat:

with the right tools it is easier to restore damage text (the revert function on Wikipedia) than to create damage text (vandalism) in the first place, and so the good enough article prospers and continues.

Reading this reminded me of Emergence by Johnson.  He explains how for a community to grow in a controlled healthy fashion the positive feedback pressures need to be only slightly stronger than the negative feedback pressures.  Kevin describes how that has played out at Wikipedia.