The sheer number of fields that are intensely interested in wiki knowledge communities is staggering. (I’ve learned this partly because I’ve been invited to speak by a surprisingly varied assortment of groups.) I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while. Here goes (in no particular order):
- Philosophy - social epistemologists are fascinated by the change in standards of knowledge implicit in a wiki encyclopedia like Wikipedia; there are semi-serious metaphysical issues in the relativistic notions lampooned by Stephen Colbert as “wikiality.”
- Library and information science - two of the field’s concerns are credibility of information and how people get their information; people now get a lot of information online via wiki…
- Communication - the game-changing conversational and production dynamics of wikis are fascinating
- Journalism - the idea of a really big collaborative news wiki, not yet successful but seemingly possible, is frightening and fascinating to journalists
- English/writing - the notion of asynchronous, distributed collaborative writing, wiki-style, has a lot of English majors hot and bothered
- Publishing business - massive groups of volunteers working together to create something that is actually usable by people outside those groups poses a potential threat to, and opportunity for, the traditional publishing business model
- Internet business - ooh! A new way for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to exploit the sheep and make money!
- Computer science - it’s a major new Internet phenomenon, and CS people study the Internet
- Anthropology and Sociology - wiki communities are possibly more fascinating than the ordinary online community because they involve not just interaction but strong collaboration; the description and quantification of such social behavior is fascinating for people in these fields
- Political science and philosophy - what sort of communities are wiki communities? How are they governed? How should they be governed? (A particular interest of mine.)
- Government - governments are intensely interested in wikis because they allow large numbers of people to organize information together, and one of the biggest headaches in governing is precisely how to let large numbers of people to organize information together
- Futurology - wikis like Wikipedia (and maybe Citizendium) portend great things, because they can bring together millions of people in a common cause; what does that mean for the future?
- Activism - see above, the part about millions of people in a common cause.
- Nonprofits - I was surprised to learn, a few years ago, that Wikipedia is the great success story of the nonprofit world; but this shouldn’t have been surprising, because Wikipedia et al. successfully harness zillions of unpaid volunteers, which is exactly what nonprofits dream of doing.
- The open source/free culture community - because these communities produce free knowledge
- Education - Wikipedia and, potentially, Citizendium and a children’s encyclopedia I would like to see created, have forever changed the way most kids, and college and even grad students, study; and educationists, who love love love group work, are highly interested in how wiki can be used as a teaching tool.
- Science and research generally - the impact of wiki knowledge resources on the perception of their fields, and the possibility of using wikis to organize their knowledge, is highly interesting to researchers of all sorts.
Is anyone else as amazed as I am at the sheer number of disciplines interested in the topic?
Why are wiki knowledge projects of such intense and broad-based interest?
There’s a good reason. It’s because of what wiki knowledge projects are.
They are a new thing under the sun: international communities of volunteers that collaboratively produce free knowledge, information of use to everyone, distributed online; and, in the form of Wikipedia and soon the Citizendium too, they are remarkably huge and well-used. The mere description is enough to get a whole bunch of people excited about these communities, even if they don’t understand them very well.
But there is an even more essential explanation: wiki knowledge projects are an enormous coming-together of people to understand the world. Long ago in the 1990s and in the dark ages before that, learning and imparting knowledge socially was as it were fractured, done through a variety of institutions: schools, universities, newspapers, magazines, journals, books, and of course informally in groups. And these institutions were inherently separated by space and time. Most of these institutions will continue, I am sure; they have their place. But the Internet provides a way that everyone, globally, of all ages, of all professions, of various educational attainment, can participate together in the same (virtual) place and at the same time, in both the creation and consumption of a new sort of knowledge project.
I think most people have vaguely, but not quite, realized that we are coming to grips with a new kind of knowledge institution – one that has the potential to be as powerful as any that has come before it, or more so. (I introduced the idea of wikis as a new institution in this paper.) Everyone may not quite understand what they’re dealing with, but a growing number of people understand that this new institution is very deeply important.