“One True Version” – some accounts and thoughts

March 26, 2007

Steve over at the Gilbane Publishing Practice Blog has a long post on the experiences of the the We Are Smarter Than Me project. We>Me, which I wrote about last year, is (was?) a project by MIT, Pearson and others to build a community to write a book about how building communities could help businesses. The results, as Gilbane tells it, are interesting.

Firstly, it became clear to the steering committee that they had to relinquish all control of the project to the community in order for the community to flourish. There can be no half-measures in crowd-sourcing: you either let people do exactly what they want, or they won’t do it. This was demanded by the users, and the original editorial board had no choice to go along with it. In the end, they realised that this did energise the project.

However, freeing up the community also meant that the final book was not acceptable on delivery: “To yield an acceptable business book, it would be necessary to hire an accomplished professional author who would also handle the fact checking process.” This is not that unexpected, but it is a problem – particularly if that editor has to negotiate edits with X hundred authors…

There are some other insights as well – not least that the originally intended participants, tenured professors at Wharton and MIT, refused to participate, and that this didn’t make any difference in the long run – that make the Gilbane report worth reading in full. But it’s interesting to compare too with the Million Penguins project, as the final reports on that make pretty much the same observation: the journey was more interesting than the destination. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a business book or a novel; for the participants, the act of creation is more important than the end result.

Is this, then, the central quality of the wikibook? Crowdwriting – or many-to-many publishing, as Gilbane puts it – is inherently selfish. It’s not in the individual author’s best interest to make their shard integrate well with others – in fact, the opposite may be true. Altruism exists, but it’s balanced with self-promotion, of one kind or another. But perhaps we should pick apart that phrase, ‘many-to-many publishing’ – something there resists the urge to put an end to the endeavour. Like Wikipedia, is a wikibook – by its very nature – permanently unfinished? One of the core perceived attributes of book 1.0 is that it represents the “one true version” – yet many of our most culturally important books – think of the Bible, or the works of Shakespeare – exist in multiple versions.

Perhaps, if we are to understand the wikibook, we need to place it in the context of mythical texts, like the Bible and other religious and historical works. They share the same core attributes: multiple authors, disputed authorship, multiple versions, endless potential versions, authors and versions distributed across time and space and filterable by the reader/editor’s prejudices. The only thing we can do is add metadata to aid historians, tracking changes and creating concordances.

With the need for a “one true version” removed, we promote the reader to editor, and the relationship graph becomes truly many-to-many, instead of passing through the editorial bottleneck. Combine this with innovative licensing which allows for-profit publication of remixed text (CC3.0 now available), and you have the seeds of a new literary culture…

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