Joy in the bazaar

Yesterday Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, talked to us students in one of my classes (The Economics of Information: Strategy, Structure, and Pricing).
When asked what he thought was going to be of Google and in general of the web in 5 years, he chuckled and said that if 2 years were a whole generation in internet terms, 5 years were an eternity.
The cathedral and the Bazaar” by Eric Raymond and “What is Web 2.0” by Tim O’Reilly were first published in 1997 and 2005 respectively. 13 and 5 years might truly be an eternity, but I was impressed by how relevant these essays still are today. It feels a bit like watching “2001: Space Odissey”, no matter how old it might be, one still perceive it as futuristic!

O’Reilly’s article defines “Web 2.0” and puts together many of the concepts we have seen in these first 5 weeks of the Media, Politics and Power class.
Web 2.0 is the passage from Britanica online to Wikipedia, from personal websites to blogging and from publishing to participation. Web 2.0 is web as platform. To me, it stands for participating instead of being imposed.

“The cathedral and the bazaar”, while very technical in certain parts, is almost philosophical in others. The essay sets a series of 19 rules to create good open source software.
Basically it is the story of how Raymond, inspired by Linux’s experience, transforms Fetchmail, an email program he had “inherited”, into a successful open collective effort, a program that he wouldn’t have been able to develop by himself.
The teachings from this essay might well be applied to other aspects of society, even politics, where the open source collaboration/sharing model could bear very interesting fruits.
For example, I wonder whether we’ll eventually be able to write laws through something like Wikipedia.

Now, substitute the word “software” with anything you want (laws, encyclopedias, etc…) from the quote below and you’ll get the idea.
“I believed that the most important software […] needed to be built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time”. “Linus Torvalds’s style of development – release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity – came as a surprise. No quiet, reverent cathedral-building here—rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches”.

Many still struggle in understanding what is behind some of the greatest web success stories of the last few years: open source projects such as Linux or outstanding collaborations such as Wikipedia.
Perhaps, Raymond’s main point in the essay is that “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”.
I have always had a certain form of idiosyncrasy towards what is generally defined as “the wisdom of crowds”. The word “crowd” immediately reminded me of sheep in a herd.
But this was a total misunderstanding of the concept. The “wise crowds” exist and are those formed by independent and diverse members, those that for example collaborate through the internet.
In Raymond’s words, “provided the development coordinator has a communications medium at least as good as the internet, and knows how to lead without coercion, many heads are inevitably better than one.”
I have been always romantically fascinated by the concept of “hero”, the single individual who takes charge of changing the world. But I have learnt that true change is inevitably the work of many committed people.

What is true for software is also true, for example, for other forms of online collaborations.
When looking at Wikipedia, people usually wonder how it is possible that by allowing anyone to contribute, one can find such authoritative articles.
I’ll give you a personal example.
Up to few years ago (two to be precise), I was convinced that Lake Como was the deepest lake in Europe and whenever I was asked where I was from, I would say something like “I come from Como, a town mainly famous for its lake, which is the deepest in Europe”.
It turns out it was false! There are something like 4 lakes in Norway that are deeper than Lake Como.
When I found this out it, I was devastated (OK, not really!). I had been spreading a false information for such a long time!
As a joke to my friends, who were now making fun of my apparently “overrated” lake, I decided to modify the entry on lake Como on Wikipedia so that lake Como could be the deepest in Europe, at least “on paper”, for the time necessary to show it to my friends. But some Wikipedian changed my entry within minutes.
This is one of the factors that make Wikipedia and the open source so good: there is a huge number of people committed to its quality. Also, at least in Wikipedia’s case, It takes much more time to make a stupid modification than to correct it: for a disturber, the game simply isn’t worth it.
Also, to quote Andrew Lih’s The Wikipedia Revolution, “It’s the community’s way of saying, ‘Yes, your test works, and you can’t imagine how fast we work around here. Aren’t you impressed?’ “. I was. And I am now very glad our class gets to participate in the Wikipedia Public Policy Project.

But the most important lesson I want to take out of this essay is that “Enjoyment predicts efficiency” and that “joy is an asset”.
These open source initiatives can be successful only if they come from the passionate commitment of people who enjoy what they are doing.
I guess we need to focus a little bit more on what we actually like to do.

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