“Free” reveals that I almost invented Wikipedia

I had an epiphany recently while reading Chris Anderson’s book “Free: The Future of a Radical Price.” Anderson, who also wrote “The Long Tail,” basically argues that digital technology makes it possible to produce and distribute a million copies something as cheaply as a dozen copies, and that businesses should therefore give away a lot of stuff for free in the expectation that it will pay off if they can turn even a few of the free recipients into paying customers.

He uses Wikipedia as an example of how things can be produced for free as well as being given away for free. Anderson quotes George Mason University professor of economics Russell Roberts as saying, “I think if you’d asked an economist in 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990 or even 2000, ‘could Wikipedia work,’ most of them would say no. They’d say, ‘Well, it can’t work, you see, because you get so little glory from this. There’s no profit. Everyone’s gonna free ride. They’d love to read Wikipedia if it existed, but no one’s going to create it.’”

My own experience seemed to prove what those old economists were saying when I first set foot in Japan back in 1989. I was part of the then-new JET Program, which at the time employed 2,000 young university graduates from six English-speaking countries to help teach their native language at middle and high schools scattered all over Japan. My own assignment was in Chiba Prefecture, which I found to be a lovely and fascinating place. (I’ll explain why in future entries.) Despite all that Chiba had to offer, and even though it was just a stone’s throw outside of Tokyo, there was virtually no information on my prefecture in any of the English-language guidebooks that I owned. It seemed obvious to me that someone needed to write a better guidebook to Japan.

I couldn’t cover all of Japan myself, but we JETs had a nationwide support organization called AJET that seemed like the perfect framework within which to produce a quality book. After all, there were 2,000 university-educated members spread all over the islands, including some out-of-the-way places that no guidebook author had ever heard of.

I wrote an announcement for the AJET national newsletter (which was printed on paper in those olden days, and cost a full postage stamp for every copy that went out) soliciting contributions and offering to do all the compiling and editing work myself. No one would get paid, but perhaps AJET would financially benefit down the road (it had a lot of paper and stamps to buy), and we would all enjoy the glory of a book credit on our resumes.

From 2,000 members, I received about 20 replies. Nineteen of those could be summarized as: “Sounds like it’s going to be a great book! Let me know when I can get a copy!” Only one person made a meaningful contribution, and I had to write a regretful letter telling her that the project was off.

Score a point for the pessimistic old economists.

So why does Wikipedia work today when my guidebook project failed 20 years ago? It’s mainly because Wikipedia does not rely on paper and stamps.

Anderson writes that the old economic view “grossly misjudges the effect of the Internet’s scale…most [online] volunteer communities thrive when just 1 percent of the participants contribute. Far from being a problem, the large number of passive consumers [free riders] is the reward for the few that contribute – they’re called the audience.”

It hit me that what this means in regard to the guidebook project is that if I had been drawing on a pool of 2 million people instead of 2,000, then I would have received 20,000 replies instead of 20. And even though 19,000 of those would still have been editorially useless, the remaining 1,000 would have provided material that I actually could have worked with. The book would exist today. (Or maybe it would be a website.) To top it off, those 19,000 who didn’t contribute but were clearly interested would have been the nucleus from which to grow an audience – hopefully a paying one.

But there’s the rub. No one pays to use Wikipedia, which must rely on donations to survive. But then again, survive it does. How commonly this pattern can be replicated remains to be seen, but as Anderson acknowledges once or twice, the “Free” economy is still a work in progress.

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