Four years ago, if you had said that a free Web-based
encyclopedia written by thousands of amateur scholars could rival
the breadth and accuracy of the Encyclopedia Britannica,
you would have been laughed back to your video games. Jimmy Wales,
founder of the wildly popular Wikipedia, received his share of that
sort of ridicule.
Today, Wales has won over his skeptics and become a leading
evangelist for the burgeoning ‘free culture’ movement, which
borrows the principles of collaboration and sharing from the
open-source software community and applies them to other areas of
knowledge. Wikipedia is the most prominent example. One of the
largest collections of human knowledge ever assembled, the
multilingual site contains more than 2 million articles on topics
ranging from art history to zoology. Peer review technology weeds
out errors, resulting in remarkably accurate entries.
Since last summer, Wales has been advocating for his list of ’10
things that will be free,’ reports Ethan Zuckerman on
WorldChanging.com. In a call to arms to Web
developers and Internet users, Wales suggests that technology
should strengthen what he considers the digital commons. In true
collaborative form, Wales has been revising and expanding his list
based on feedback from readers and lecture audiences.
Some of his items correspond to projects already under way at
Wales’ nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation
including Wiktionary, a collaborative dictionary that ‘aims to
describe all words of all languages’ (the English edition already
boasts nearly 100,000 entries), and Wikibooks, an effort to end
academic publishers’ lock on textbooks in which volunteers have
created more than 11,000 open-content entries for textbooks and
manuals. Another is Wikicities
for-profit venture that hosts ad-supported open-content community
portals using wiki software.
Music and art also belong in the free culture movement, Wales
says. The Creative Commons licensing system gives artists the
freedom to publish new works with nuanced copyrights that specify
allowable uses such as sharing, sampling, remixing, and reselling.
Already, huge archives of such works can be found through
and www.archive.org. Wales
imagines community orchestras recording and assembling a free
collection of the world’s great symphonic works, most of which are
in the public domain.
Longer-term items range from the practical (search engines, GIS
mapping systems, and TV listings) to the arcane (peer-reviewed
academic journals; open file formats; and a universal system of
product identifiers, like ISBN numbers, for every product on
Wales’ agenda for spreading free culture mojo is ambitious, to
be sure. But if his history of surprising success is any guide, the
future of the digital commons is in good hands.