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Last Updated: Monday, 15 August 2005, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
Rewriting the rule books
The Magazine's review of weblogs
By Alan Connor

Forget the price of books, knowledge could be free and shared
Paris, 1743: the world was about to be changed by an encyclopaedia. Might the same be true of Frankfurt, 2005?

There was a time when blogs were ahead of the mainstream media on lots of issues: some of them pressing, some of them of more, well, "specialist interest".

Newspapers and TV haven't been slow about catching up, in some cases taking a lead from blogs, to the point where Recess Monkey and Order Order have joined forces to start talking about the p-word ("plagiarism").

But one event this week has received scant mainstream coverage, even though it has enormous implications for tech-heads and global village idiots alike. All of us, in other words. So a little explanation may be in order.

The event was Wikimania, the "First International Wikimedia Conference", in Frankfurt. You might have encountered "wiki" pages in your search engine results, specifically Wikipedia: an online encyclopaedia, written by its users. Anyone can add to an entry, and it's free. So why is this big news?

The first thing that strikes most people about Wikipedia, if they think about it at all, is a fear: if an idiot like me can get into this thing, might it not be full of mistakes, or at least mediocre drivel?


Bloggers have covered this topic well: professor and "blogologist" Alex Halavais relates what happened when he wilfully introduced 13 errors to the encyclopaedia (summary: "I went, I changed, they conquered") and Mumbai's Mandar Talvekar recalls how a prank where Pope Benedict's picture was replaced with Star Wars' Evil Emperor was "rectified within a minute". A more thoughtful take on the limits of the Wikipedia comes from Ethan Zuckerman's comparison of entries like GSM and entries like Ghana.

Blogs also give a sense of why people commit time to the encyclopaedia, recent examples including Pete Ashton's Goodbye Myspace, Hello Wikipedia! and John Breslin's My First Wikipedia Article: the latter's an entry on some prog rock synth maestros who helped Stevie Wonder with his funkiness: a sample entry from an encyclopaedia that doesn't have to worry about how many pages it has.

But it's the other main characteristic of such wikis that's been grabbing attention this week: the fact that they're free.

Maps are in fact a copyright minefield
Of course, lots of online text and images are already free, but once you combine that with a collaborative desire to be authoritative, things get even more interesting.

An enormous reference work that you neither have to buy, nor have to lug home the 680,000 articles is one thing, but the Wikimedia Foundation is moving into areas such as news and a dictionary, and similar principles were behind the development of some of the most important software on the planet.

Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales blogged before the event, putting together a list of 10 areas of human knowledge that he's convinced will become free or return to being free (think of the public domain and free speech here), and which the wiki philosophy could make happen.

The list is coming along at Lawrence Lessig's blog; meanwhile, entrepreneur Ross Mayfield gives a sneak preview from Frankfurt. And currently, it looks like attention will be focused on the following:

    "Free the Encyclopedia!
    Free the Dictionary!
    Free the Curriculum!
    Free the Search Engines!
    Free the Music!
    Free the Art!
    Free the File Formats!
    Free the Maps!
    Free the Product Identifiers!
    Free the TV Listings!"
Some of these might surprise you: taking maps as an example, you might assume that since taxes paid for our most definitive maps, they're free for the public to use. Or, as Stefan Magdalinski asked: "What could be more public domain than basic information about location on the planet?"

But maps are in fact a copyright minefield, and as geo-data become more important in everything from blogs through mobile phones to finding lost people, free maps could make more and more of a difference.

And a look around the blogs reveals other areas where the prospect of wiki-generated free material is generating a lot of hope.

We're at the Big Bang of the next information revolution
Mitch Kapor
Designer of Lotus 1-2-3
The second prediction - that curricula will be free - touches on the relationship between what we learn (human knowledge that has been freely shared) and how we learn it (often from textbooks that come at a price). This issue has been live for a while; Wales's vision of a collaborative set of curricula "from kindergarten through university" has cheered The Fringer, who claims the Thai educational system is "mired in corruption" and writes:

    "Helping to jumpstart the local version of this wonderful idea would be a much more worthy cause for the Ministry of Education than granting licenses to new international schools left and right".

And so it goes with the other areas. Any reasonable mind is left boggled by the scope of the plan. Among the bloggers we've looked at before in Weblog Watch is Hossein Derakhshan, who spoke in Frankfurt about the possibility of using wikis to write a new Iranian constitution.

Mitch Kapor, who designed Lotus 1-2-3 among other things, shares the excitement. "I've seen things like this happen once or twice before," he's quoted: "We're at the Big Bang of the next information revolution."

If you're reading this article in 2055, it might be tickling you, comparing the predictions with what came to pass. And if you're reading in 2005, and you're convinced, and you want in on the Bang, Jean-Baptiste Soufron has made a short documentary while at Wikimania (it's free, of course); or, better still, you could get in and edit the encyclopaedia. Just remember to check your facts!


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