Blogs, Wikis, and Economics

Alex Singleton at the Adam Smith Institute has an interesting comparison of blogs and wikis by viewing them as economic systems. Their analysis is not without problems, but it’s a good thought exercise.

Blogs are decentralized and competitive. They are not a zero sum game, in the sense that for one blog to win readers, all others have to lose (though at some point, if you had a static population, the theoretical maximum of reader attention would be achieved–however absent that and with technological growth, such a condition won’t come about in a century at least). Blogs “succeed” by market acceptance–if you write interesting things and write well about topics people care about, they will discover and link to you. (Of course it’s a market failure that the entire world doesn’t wait with bated breath to find out what I put on this blog, but I digress.)

Wikis are centralized, in the sense a wiki about a given topic lives on one server. Anyone can theoretically contribute, and all contributions are considered equal, except in the sense that the last contribution determines what people see. This leads to unfortunate things like malicious deleting of content, rampant spam, and general graffiti. In short, many of the classic problems of a commons.

However, the analysis is not completely accurate. Blogs tend to have comments, and frequently those lead to the hateful, inaccurate, and unwanted commercial speech that Mr. Singleton accuses wikis of. There is not just one wiki, there are several, so wikis can compete against each other to be linked-to sources of information.

Furthermore, wikis have owners, and those owners do have a vested interest in keeping the commons neat and clean and relatively on-topic. Wikis also tend not to have an infinite audience, so “cultures” tend to form around them. Since a later post (or the administrator) can come by and undo what harm was done before, they more or less stay on track instead of instantly devolving into anarchy. The commons, once ruined, is not ruined forever.

That being said, it is pretty easy to see that the blogosphere is already treated as a more-or-less single entity, kind of like the global market. Blogs definitely have more blog-to-blog interaction than wikis have to each other. The blogosphere is more dynamic than the wikisphere, if such a thing can be said to exist…blogs rise and fall more quickly. And from personal experience, I can say that the tendency of spammers to come through and put Danish porn spam on your site about a content management framework is fairly annoying.

The beautiful thing is that both of these “economic systems” live within a broader economic system, the World Wide Web. So they will compete and evolve within a broader dynamic marketplace that rewards useful information sources. So in five years, we’ll see if either blogs or wikis are around, and more importantly, what form they’ll evolve into.

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