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Linux vs. Wikipedia

Posted by: Jessi Hempel on June 01, 2007

Crowds are not wise. Nor are they ignorant. The intelligence, or lack thereof, resides in those of us who are trying to capture their momentum. Thought-provoking article arrived in my email box this morning from Booz Allen’s Strategy + Business. Penned by Nicholas Carr, it takes on the question of the day: just what is peer production good for anyway? His answer: look to crowds for optimization, not invention.

One fascinating point: once the crowds have been rallied to do their work, often a central authority possessing considerable talent is necessary to meld their efforts into a tangible product. Consider the Linux operating system and Wikipedia. Both rely on peer production. With Linux, coders invent and debug. With Wikipedia, experts of all stripes upload their expertise on all subjects. Linux runs for ages without crashing. Wikipedia, on the other hand, has some flaws. For one, Carr points out, the entry on the Flintstones is twice as long as the entry on Homer. (To say nothing of the entry on Smurfs….)

Look at the way each operation is run:

The Linux model relies on hordes of programmers to optimize. Linux has a lean managerial structure in which a central authority synthesizes the work of the crowd, curating the contributions to choose and hone the best. Wikipedia, on the other hand, attempts a more democratic leadership structure. A management team has slowly been forming, but those who filter the contributions to the site are chosen more for the quantityt of their contributions than the quality of their editorial skills.

Carr’s point is that crowds are good at some things – and really bad at some things. As crowdsourcing evolves, people are learning what they can and can’t do. It seems the genius of the individual is still critical at the beginning and the end of the innovation process: Invention is an individual pursuit – ideas are born to one person. Once an idea comes into being, though, it can be optimized through smart use of diverse groups of people. However, so far it seems that talent is critical to review the optimizations and meld them into coherent products, whether they be operating systems or encyclopedia entries.

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Reader Comments

Pete Mortensen

June 1, 2007 02:12 PM

Hi Jessi,

I absolutely agree that Carr is on the money about what crowds are good and bad at, but I wouldn't go so far as to credit the genius of the individual for innovation. Linux isn't better than Wikipedia because Linus Torvalds personally signs off on every idea. Linux is great because a collaborative, high-performance team of people who really understand what excellence looks like are there to manage and refine input over time.

There's a big difference between crowds and teams. Both can generate ideas or help shape ideas. But only the latter can identify what great looks like -- the absolutely critical gut feel for a brilliant concept well-realized instead of a bad idea optimized up to mediocrity (see the Palm Foleo).

No person is an island. We need other people close to us with great sense to help us form ideas. I had a great demonstration of this at work on Wednesday. I've been sort of fumbling through my mind for something compelling to say about the digital shadow we leave behind on the Internet, but it took a co-worker to help me figure out what it was. The idea that came out is nothing like what I originally proposed. I can't say the idea should be credited to either of us as individuals.

Talent is critical. Talent forged in a high-performance team is unstoppable.

John A

June 1, 2007 11:56 PM

Yet another fanboy piece of fiction about Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is not a place where "experts of all stripes upload their expertise on all subjects". Wikipedia is hostile to expertise of all kinds (see Kyle Gann's "Sandcastles of Knowledge" for an example)

Unlike Wikipedia, Linux does not depend on the "wisdom of crowds" and is in many ways antithetical to the methods of Wikipedia. Source code for Linux may be open, but changes made to the issued code are tightly controlled by a small number of developers. They do not allow anyone to change the code in real time in any way that people feel like doing.

The reality of Wikipedia is very different from the public perception given that anyone, at any time, can "add to the sum total of human knowledge". Articles are mainly controlled by cabals of people working together to prevent anybody changing articles in ways that the cabal does not like. Thus there are Muslim cabals to prevent non-Muslim views about Islam, Catholic cabals, vegan cabals, progressive cabals, conservative cabals, Star Wars cabals, Pokemon cabals - you name it. Most cabals are sustained by one or more sympathetic admins who are called upon to harass, smear or ban anyone who writes against the line of the controlling cabal.

Frequently there are purges of accounts on the pretext that they are "sockpuppets" of troublemakers or banned users. Banning is usually summarily done and the user has virtually no chance to defend his or herself because the evidence is never given.

I have no idea which color of pill was ingested by the author, but let me tell you - you're living in a Dream World with Wikipedia.


June 2, 2007 03:41 PM

I believe the author said "wikipedia, on the other hand, has some flaws"...where do you get the fanboyism from that statement? I think you need to read the article again. The author was more in support of linux than wikipedia, and was almost juxtaposing the two.

Furthermore developers in linux do allow users to change the code in anyway they choose, they just decide what code gets distributed and what code does not for a particular project. Changes to the source code are not tightly controlled. A developer may say we're not releasing your code for this project, but no one is stopping that person from releasing it under a different project name. Tons of crap could get released in linux, it just wouldn't make it very far because unlike wikipedia its much harder to deceive people into believing its good code.

Lets say I build a distribution based on debian, and it sucks. No one can cotrol its release. There is no central governing body saying I can't release this, but if it really does suck, no one would use it anyway. The masses really are deciding what succeedes and what doesn't, not a small group of developers.

Roger Anderson

June 2, 2007 06:19 PM

There is a reason ships have captains and rudders. Rafts typically do not. If you want to just go where the currents take you then use a raft. If you need to get to a place you have intended or you need to deal with obstacles then find a capable captain and ship with a working rudder. Linux is more of a ship. Wikipedia is more of a raft.

Bill Porter

June 2, 2007 10:13 PM

Business Week June 11,2007 My subscription issue has page 43 and 44 missing - the article that relates to your cover story on Six Sigma and 3M. How about sending me a complete magazine. I would appreciated it if you would correct this error and work on quality control - I like the magazine and it was a big letdown not finding the article.


June 4, 2007 11:09 AM

Bill, sorry about your bad experience - email me with your address at and I'll see that you get a fresh copy. Jessi

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