Nicholas Carr has an odd piece up, reacting to the ongoing question of Wikipedia governance as if it is the death of Wikipedia. In Carr’s view

Where once we had a commitment to open democracy, we now have a commitment to “making sure things are not excessively semi-protected.” Where once we had a commune, we now have a gated community, “policed” by “good editors.” So let’s pause and shed a tear for the old Wikipedia, the true Wikipedia. Rest in peace, dear child. You are now beyond the reach of vandals.

Now this is odd because Carr has in the past cast entirely appropriate aspersions on pure openess as a goal, noting, among other things, that “The open source model is not a democratic model. It is the combination of community and hierarchy that makes it work. Community without hierarchy means mediocrity.”

Carr was right earlier, and he is wrong now. Carr would like Wikipedia to have committed itself to openess at all costs, so that changes in the model are failure conditions. That isn’t the case however; Wikipedia is committed to effectiveness, and one of the things it has found to be effective is openess, but where openess fails to provide the necessary defenses on it’s own, they’ll make changes to remain effective. The changes in Wikipedia do not represent the death of Wikipedia but adaptation, and more importantly, adaptation in exactly the direction Carr suggests will work.

We’ve said it here before: Openness allows for innovation. Innovation creates value. Value creates incentive. If that were all there was, it would be a virtuous circle, because the incentive would be to create more value. But incentive is value-neutral, so it also creates distortions — free riders, attempts to protect value by stifling competition, and so on. And distortions threaten openess.

As a result, successful open systems create the very conditions that require a threaten openess. Systems that handle this pressure effectively continue (Slashdot comments.) Systems that can’t or don’t find ways to balance openess and closedness — to become semi-protected — fail (Usenet.)

A huge number of our current systems are hanging in the balance, because the more valuable a system, the greater the incentive for free-riding. Our largest and most spontaneous sources of conversation and collaboration are busily being retrofit with filters and logins and distributed ID systems, in an attempt to save some of what is good about openess while defending against Wiki spam, email spam, comment spam, splogs, and other attempts at free-riding. Wikipedia falls into that category.

And this is the possibility that Carr doesn’t entertain, but is implicit in his earlier work — this isn’t happening because the Wikipedia model is a failure, it is happening because it is a success. Carr attempts to deflect this line of thought by using a lot of scare quotes around words like vandal, as if there were no distinction between contribution and vandalism, but this line of reasoning runs aground on the evidence of Wikipedia’s increasing utility. If no one cared about Wikipedia, semi-protection would be pointless, but with Wikipedia being used as reference material in the Economist and the NY Times, the incentive for distortion is huge, and behavior that can be sensibly described as vandalism, outside scare quotes, is obvious to anyone watching Wikipedia. The rise of governance models is a reaction to the success that creates incentives to vandalism and other forms of attack or distortion.

We’ve also noted before that governance is a certified Hard Problem. At the extremes, co-creation, openess, and scale are incompatible. Wikipedia’s principle advantage over other methods of putting together a body of knowledge is openess, and from the outside, it looks like Wikipedia’s guiding principle is “Be as open as you can be; close down only where there is evidence that openess causes more harm than good; when this happens, reduce openess in the smallest increment possible, and see if that fixes the problem.”

People who build or manage large-scale social software form the experimental wing of political philosophy — in the same way that the US Constitution is harder to change than local parking regulations, Wikipedia is moving towards a system where evidence of abuse generates anti-bodies, and those anti-bodies vary in form and rigidity depending on the nature and site of the threat. By responding to the threats caused by its growth, Wikipedia is moving the hierachy+community model that Carr favored earlier. His current stance — that this change is killing the model of pure openess he loved — is simply crocodile tears.

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