Why commercial Wikis don't work

Crowdsourcing has been a giant hit for the Web 2.0 set - so why won't it work for bigger, more mainstream enterprises?

Chris Taylor, Business 2.0 Magazine senior editor

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Nowadays, the all-powerful Web user, recently anointed as Time's Person of the Year, is both creator and consumer of every last bit of content at some of the Web's fastest-growing destinations. Witness the success of Flickr (the photo-sharing site), YouTube (the video-sharing site), Deli.cio.us (the bookmark-sharing site) and Wikipedia (the knowledge-sharing site).

This naturally has gotten a lot of large companies interested in the idea of outsourcing their content to the Web crowd, or "crowdsourcing."

At the beginning of February, for instance, Penguin Books - one of the biggest names in the global publishing industry - launched a month-long, publicity-soaked project that attempted to get Web surfers to create a novel. The idea seemed destined to belong in the Web 2.0 hall of fame (or shame), as the most audacious (or most arrogant) use of crowdsourcing ever.

And eighteen months ago, the L.A. Times started a Wiki to open up its editorial page content to user-editing. (Wiki software allows a lot of people to edit the same document simultaneously, as with Wikipedia's encyclopedia entries). In January, Amazon (Charts) launched its "Amapedia" in a bid to create product pages that could one day replace, or at least enhance, Amazon's product descriptions. Penguin opened up its Wiki novel at amillionpenguins.com in February.

But all of these efforts failed, to a greater or lesser extent. The L.A. Times failed spectacularly, as rampant, impassioned, and often obscene vandalism overtook its elegant op-eds. The Amapedia appears stillborn, as Amazon users stick with what they're used to: individual, rather than collaborative, product reviews.

And the Wiki novel? Well, despite round-the-clock assistance from a team of writers at a British university's creative writing program, that got into trouble too. It's a vague mish-mash of plots, the literary equivalent of hundreds of cooks all sticking to their own recipes. One chapter, when I checked it recently, was entirely devoted to the specifications of a particular Toyota car.

That's not quite as bad as what the L.A. Times had to contend with, but the general quality has become so bad that this week Penguin opted to freeze the content for several hours a day - to see if that helped put everyone on the same page, so to speak.

What gives? How come the Web's most popular innovation to date has foundered so badly in these commercial experiments? It isn't that lightning only strikes once. The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, has already managed to build a functioning company based on the same Wiki technology, called Wikia.

Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield, the co-founders of Flickr, have succeeded in getting Yahoo! (Charts), the company that bought Flickr, invested with the same Web 2.0 ethic (and have become in the process almost as powerful inside the company as the Yahoo CEO, Terry Semel - see our story on The Flickrization of Yahoo). So what do these New Web titans know that the old captains of industry don't?

I think it can be boiled down to this: Successful Web 2.0 enterprises are very good at creating accessible walled gardens. Now in the old Web 1.0 days, "walled garden" was a term used to describe a collection of stuff you had to pay for, such as AOL's exclusive subscriber-only content. These days, though, there aren't that many examples of successful closed content business models (newspaper archives and porn sites being the exceptions that prove the rule).

Since the rise of Google's (Charts) advertising empire, which cuts the content provider in on the ad revenue action, most people accept that you're more likely to make money if you attract more eyeballs to your site. That's why AOL has been slowly tearing down the walls around its content for years, most recently (in January) by offering a beta version of a free movie service.

But all that doesn't mean the walled garden idea is dead. Rather, Web 2.0 sites like Wikipedia and Flickr organize people into literally millions of accessible walled gardens. Each one allows you to take part in tending the growth of that tiny space -- that encyclopedia entry, that Flickr "tag."

By tirelessly nurturing their specific communities, not by randomly "crowdsourcing," Wales, Butterfield, Fake and their ilk encourage responsible gardening. Wiki novels, Wiki op-eds, a Wiki Amazon: these are concepts too large, too uncontrolled, too wilderness-like - too unwalled - to be gardens. Either nothing grows at all there, or the good ideas get strangled by weeds.

The future of Web 2.0 belongs to sites that give its users directions and goals as well as total control. People need a common focus, a shared obsession, to be productive as a crowd. (My favorite recent example: the Lostpedia, a Wikipedia-like site created by fans of the ABC series Lost who are all trying to figure out what the heck is going on, and sharing their notes.)

So don't ask all Web surfers to write a novel - ask fishing enthusiasts to write a novel about fishing, for example, or horror fans to write the next Stephen King-style blockbuster (even that might be too broad a genre). An op-ed column written solely by thousands of people who support Barack Obama, say, or Rudy Giuliani, would be more interesting to read than an op-ed opened to the public at large.

In other words, to paraphrase Chairman Mao: Let a thousand walled gardens bloom. Just make sure they're not allowed to run riot on each others' turf. Top of page

To send a letter to the editor about this story, click here.