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Unlocking Collective Wisdom

Last week Wired published an article well worth exploring: Wikipedia Is the Last Best Place on the Internet.

I am sitting and pondering its meaning.

You see, Wikipedia wasn't supposed to work. It was a crazy idea: open the doors to authoring a definitive container of human knowledge to rank amateurs, all volunteers – and see what might happen.

What has happened is a profound surprise.

Defining knowledge has always been the responsibility of the elites. Originally the priests, then the scholars. It was not so long ago that knowledge in the western world was written a language that few understood - Latin.

What a profound transformation happened when the Bible was first written in a common language by Martin Luther. And then when the printing press made that book, and so many others, available to a broad audience – launching the Age of Enlightenment.

But control of the printing press limited access to recognized authorities – those seen by society as scholars – who defined wisdom, shaped knowledge, for the rest of society.

It was Ward, the co-author of our book, who came up with an idea in the dawning days of the web: what might happen if anyone could co-author a web page? Might this tapping of the collective wisdom of everyone in a community allow new possibilities to emerge? So he set about to build this new capability, something that came to be known as a wiki.

He built the first wiki, called WikiWikiWeb in 1995 for his software community to share wisdom about new practices of software development. Those practices – called patterns – were to become a critical foundation for agile software development.

Can openness be abused? Yes, absolutely, and it was. But hopefully, a community begins to form that can self-regulate the experience.

He didn't expect that his platform would go on to help launch the largest repository of human knowledge ever created, Wikipedia. The English version of Wikipedia is now 85 times larger than the Encyclopedia Brittanica. When Nature did the first major study in 2005 comparing the accuracy of these two sources, they found similar credibility.

Is Wikipedia flawed? Yes. At times it is messy, other times incomplete and abused. But, in a dynamic emergence, it holds amazing richness for those whose curiosity leads them down obscure paths of discovery.

For we all collectively hold our human wisdom. As we begin to share it with others, new connections, new meanings, can be found.

This was what Ward realized, so he set about to build a way for us to share that wisdom. A journey that is far from over.

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