Crowdsourcing/Free content and open processes/Making soup with stone

In a common European folk tale, a cook is tricked into boiling a "magic" stone in water to make "stone soup". The taste is unappetising, so the cook adds some potatoes to "bring out" the flavour. Other cooks, still unsatisfied, add different herbs and vegetables in the hope of tasting stone soup at its finest. Eventually they all enjoy a delicious, nutritious soup. The stone was not magic, but it was essential to the successful outcome: it was there to create a soup that people would find inadequate and hence would want to improve.

Good articles on Wikipedia usually come from a similar process. They may have begun as a simple definition such as "Cancer is a disease of unrestricted cell growth". Some of the readers, finding that inadequate, might supply details about symptoms of cancer. Others will have found it incomplete or inaccurate in other ways, and added text and references about treatments, diagnosis, biology and so on. Thus, over thousands of edits, a short definition evolves into a detailed and comprehensive article.

This process is only possible because of Wikipedia's unconventional publication process:

  • It was technically possible for users to edit the live version of the site
  • Users needed no permission to edit
  • No lawyers or managers had to sign off on changes
  • The owners of the site were prepared to bear the risk of articles being inadequate or even unreliable, for a long time
  • Each change was recorded, viewable to the public, and reversible. So the merit of each change could be discussed at any point after it was made

This illustrates the centrality of openness (in its various forms) to the success of the Wikimedia sites. In a technical sense, the wiki was built in an open way to enable public contributions. In a legal sense, Wikipedia is an open resource whose users are free to alter it. The process of development is open in that it is public and auditable.

The concept of “ready for publication” does not apply in Wikipedia or the other projects. Just as the cooks started tasting soup when it only included the stone, it is essential that articles and their flaws are on public display so that people can improve them. The distinction between “published article” and “unpublished drafts” is replaced by tags or badges to show that content has problems or alternatively that it has passed a review. This puts some burden on the reader to take notice of tags and be appropriately critical, rather than assuming that something is true because it is published.

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