Wiki Wasteful?
November 9, 2006 8:12 AM   Subscribe

Are collaborative open-source projects (e.g. Wikipedia) inherently more wasteful of resources than their commercial competitors (e.g. Britannica)? I believe there might be

I'm not a big Wikipedian, but from occasionally perusing the change logs and discuss pages it seems like hours of work goes into modifying many articles. Doesn't the EB method, in which one expert just writes each article, save lots of time?
Similarly on a manhour by manhour basis how much work has gone into Linux as opposed to Windows, or Firefox as opposed to Safari?
posted by roofus to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
A few thoughts, none of which are answers.

# Is an 'expert' hour (on Britannica) of the same value as a college freshman's (on Wikipedia)?

# When counting Windows v. Linux man-hours, do you include Bill Gate's time? He doesn't write code. What about MS HR employees, or physical plant people, or janitors?
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 8:20 AM on November 9, 2006

Seems to me volunteer time versus paid time is not a waste of resources. If a person volunteers to write something he is specifically implying that he considers this the best use of his time (resource).
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:23 AM on November 9, 2006

Hours of work go into any polished text. There are copy editors, content reviewers, etc, at Britannica too.
posted by voidcontext at 8:27 AM on November 9, 2006

Wikipedia is a different sort of beast than Britannica.

While their content overlaps and you could use either to find, say, basic facts on a country, elementary-school-report-style, Wikipedia covers subjects that Britannica would deem unimportant (mostly pop culture and Internet jargon), and it is constantly updated.

And while it may be more man hours, it's also more men (and women, natch) so that most of those don't really cut into other productive uses of time (you're not gonna quit your job just to sit around and edit wiki entries), they're something you do in your free time because you care about the subject.
posted by dagnyscott at 8:38 AM on November 9, 2006

As voidcontext observers, an absurd amount of people and time are required to get anything done on either project. But in any case, a volunteer project like WP consumes only downtime resources, which might have been wasted anyway. Sort of like your PC lending spare clock cycles to the Seti project.
posted by BorgLove at 8:39 AM on November 9, 2006

Another (more economically valid?) way to compare these methods is cost of labor, and from that perspective the volunteer communities are infinitely more efficient.
posted by Doctor Barnett at 8:51 AM on November 9, 2006

This is a very difficult question to actually answer, and there is actually an interesting debate going on, at least in legal academia, about the efficiency of open source projects vs. traditional firm production, and the ramifications for various legal doctrines if indeed a massively distributed approach is more efficient in some situations. Here's a high level overview:

1) The traditional argument for corporate coordination of labor is that, for projects beyond a certain scale and level of complexity, people acting as individuals aren't capable of coordinating their work, even if enough of them are willing to try. So they voluntarily organize into firms with management heirarchies that can coordinate the various aspects of labor and accomplish complex ends. The foundation text for this approach is The Nature of the Firm by Ronald Coase. (I thought there was a copy available for free online, but it appears not).

2) A counterargument is that the Internet has facilitated near-free communication and shipment of intellectual "products" like Linux code and Wiki articles, as well as easy archiving of incremental work. The effect is that amateur volunteers can more easily integrate smaller units of effort into large projects, thus eliminating the economic need for corporate-type management and coordination. An early statement of this argument was made in Linux and the Nature of the Firm by Yochai Benkler, which uses Linux as an example of a valuable product produced by distributed volunteer labor.

So... maybe that's more effort than you want to put into satisfying your curiosity, but the answer is, it's a tough question that is currently the subject of debate.
posted by rkent at 8:53 AM on November 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Brittania doesn't publish their internal change logs, so you're comparing something to nothing and judging the one you can see, which isn't fair.

For instance, an expert updating Wikipedia may update the site as they write an article. Creating tons of changes, but getting the content out ASAP. A Brittania author just saves to their local drive as they write, and the public doesn't see it until it's edited. Is one more wasteful than the other just because it's done in public?
posted by smackfu at 8:54 AM on November 9, 2006

On a totally touchy-feely, gut-level note: To me, if somebody has a mindful of expertise on a given topic and does not share it with the world, that is truly wasteful. Wikipedia is so wonderful because it provides an ideal mechanism for all of that expertise to be distilled in a useful fashion.

Plus, consider this old-news bit that shows that Wikipedia is just about as accurate as Britannica. Now, given that the people who work to build Britannica do so as their full-time endeavor, while the Wiki writers are (ostensibly) employed doing something else and populating the Wiki out of love, you could argue that the Wikipedia approach is less wasteful because its writers are contributing to society in other ways.
posted by jbickers at 10:01 AM on November 9, 2006

Efficiency is impossible to compare unless one has some kind of benchmark comparison of the "end product." Suppose Britannica contains more factual errors than Wikipedia, but takes fewer man-hours to produce, is it more efficient? Suppose Wikipedia has more articles than Britannica but takes more man-hours to produce, which is more efficient? These questions are fundamentally unanswerable without making some pretty strong assumptions.
posted by juv3nal at 10:58 AM on November 9, 2006

Wikipedia is an odd beast. As an information ecosystem it seems to be accumulating its data more efficiently than it does its culling, but there's nothing stopping it from evolving a more effective trophic factor over time.

Each article tends to have its own fitness function, and that fitness function shifts in response to attention, current events, new theories or whether somebody has it in for chickens. You get a shifting amalgamation of fact, best guess, popular opinion, lies, truth and damned lies. That's the beauty of a (twisted, weird, massive collection of) genetic algorithm(s).

Whether that makes it any less valuable as a resource depends on how you deal with 'intellectual authority'. If you have strong opinions one way or another you may want to contribute to the Wikipedia article on appeal to authority.
posted by snarfodox at 4:16 PM on November 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

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