Open Source And Wikipedia (Or About F/OSS)

Ethan Zuckerman has a report on the discussion about What can Wikipedia learn from F/OSS. For some reason, the discussions seems to be more about comparisons between the two. In my opinion, the better way would have been to look at merits of one and try to incorporate in the other – if the aim was to learn from.

Ethan ends up by saying that it is unfair to compare F/OSS and Wikipedia since they have different ages. I agree, but for a different reason. I wonder if we are trying to compare the two on different planes. F/OSS is about software and hence ideas, Wikipedia is about organizing information and facts. The common factor is the openness for contribution, but nowhere do I see any level for comparison between software and facts. The inherent nature of software is to be able to prove one’s idea, one’s philosophy, one’s opinion. This cannot be true for facts, whether majority of the people agree or not, gold is a metal and homosapiens are animals. The power of open source software is the ability to do something on my own and then open it to others so that they can use it, build on it, modify it or better it. The ability to keep an open mind to suggestions from others is productive, and F/OSS makes it quickly possible. Open source in software development is about a strong belief in an idea, listening to others, gathering opinions, requirements or feedbacks. Open source in facts can is about contributing the right fact or correcting a wrong one. Isn’t the comparison between F/OSS and Wikipedia inherently handicapped because of what they are about – ideas and facts? What about the wiki software used to build Wikipedia itself?

Nicholas Carr takes the discussion in a different direction. I agree with him in the sense that open source does not Open source as a metaphor will fail, if appropriate context is not used. Open source is the nature of building, however, the details will be dependent on what we are building. So, using open source as a metaphor without any context will sound meaningless.

However, what can be common between F/OSS and Wikipedia is the basic advantage of open source. Opening up a pool of talent, much wider and much deeper. This source is not available in the proprietary or closed source environment. The primary reason is that closed source does not express well enough to invite participation, and open source uses the best tool – the code. Not only this it encourages the amateurs, experts, newbies and veterans all alike to share their code and express and connect across a farm of developers. I like what Assaf says in response to Nick’s post:

The thing is, open source is not a community. Or a movement. Or disruptive. Open source is code that’s available to the public. Nothing more nothing less.

Some of it has communities. Some of it has business models. It’s the side effect of it all that makes a difference.

If you want to understand open source, you need to stop reading InfoWorld and take a look at SourceForge. Pick a hundred projects at random and see what they’re about. Most are developed by one person writing the code, maybe a few people using it, often not even a thank you note.

What Wikipedia can learn from F/OSS is probably the way it has been able to harness the interested individuals to come up with a unified goal. I think Wikipedia is already on its way!

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Copyright Abhijit Nadgouda.

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