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Wikipedia comes of age

August 26, 2009

For a while, I stopped using Wikipedia as an example of co-creation. I had long taught it as a simple, well-known case of how content can be cheaply and quickly developed by users, producing a disruptive model for dictionary and encyclopedia publishers. Everybody knew Wikipedia, from the jungles of Brazil to the remote islands of Indonesia. Each workshop was an opportunity to discover that few people write in Wikipedia, but many read it, because they trust that those who write in it know what they’re talking about.

Then things turned ugly. Wherever I’d be teaching, someone would point to the latest manipulation. The most recent is by a young Irish student who manufactured a quote in Wikipedia about Maurice Jarre, the French composer, upon his death in May of this year. I cannot resist giving you the quote, since it is as wonderful as it is fake: “One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head, that only I can hear.” Although it was listed with no source, the quote was picked up by many papers around the world, including the prestigious Guardian of London.

I had another incident in Chicago three years ago. As I mentioned Wikipedia, a bunch of young guys in the front row started giggling. It turns out they’d been watching Stephen Colbert, the American comedian and talk-show host, brilliantly make fun of Wikipedia the night before (why were these guys not working on their assignment anyway?). In particular, Colbert had just coined the term “Wikiality” to describe the creation of “a reality we can all agree on.” It’s not easy to re-establish your professorial authority when you’re up against Colbert.

In particular bad taste were the attempts by some in Wikipedia to describe Senator Ted Kennedy as dead when he was still alive (I just learned at breakfast this morning in Paris that he passed away last night).

The solution for Wikipedia turns out to be a simple one. Remembering that co-creation does not mean abdication on the company’s side, the Wikipedia board just announced that it will anoint editors who’ll check entries made about living people. Wikipedia people are up in arms about the perceived sell-out, but from where I sit, there’s nothing wrong with injecting a little control in your co-creation. After all, the “co” in co-creation stands for both company and community.

With this new policy in place, I may even go back to uttering the W word in public.

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