Wiki as a Commons

Wikis are like Minecraft for thought — very simple, very open-ended.

A wiki has two essential concepts:

  1. Everyone can write on every page.

  2. You can link other pages, whether or not they exist.

That’s it. The simplest thing that could possibly work. Yet this simple alphabet can generate complex living systems, from personal notes, to collaborative fansites, to Wikipedia.

Everybody is in charge of everything

Bill Venners: The collective code ownership aspect of Extreme Programming (XP) reminds me of wikis, where everybody is in charge of everything.

Ward Cunningham: That's absolutely intentional. In the months before I made wiki, we had been having an argument. I think Kent Beck and I were on one side. People who had a lot of faith in the prevailing dogma of software engineering were on the other side. We said, “Collective code ownership is good.” They said, “That's ridiculous. You'll never get responsibility. You'll never get quality if you don't have responsibility. And the only way you'll get responsibility is ownership. You have to pin the bugs back on somebody if you want them to ever rise above producing bugs.” And I said, “Well that's wrong.” The decisions I made designing wiki were very much inspired by my desire to create a model for the collaborative process I thought should happen in large code bases. I wanted wiki to mimic that.”

Interview with Ward Cunningham, 2003-12-01

Like Minecraft, and the wider world around us, a wiki is a shared, mutable world that we craft together.

Wikis are open-ended. Anyone can create a page for any purpose. Yet all page names belong to one global namespace. This creates a scarcity—who will define the meaning of each name? The result is a generative tussle that forces the emergence of negotiation, communal norms, communal goals, communal meanings.

Open-ended meaning-making, shared world, scarce real-estate. These three properties are crucial. Every game with more than one player becomes a game about the interaction between those players. Without shared scarcity, there is no incentive to join our realities, and meaning-making becomes fork-only.

Soft security

Today’s internet is an Internet of Beefs. Flat, global networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are overrun by memetic epidemics — harassment mobs, disinformation, conspiracy theories, alternative facts, troll farms, state actors, ransomware, extremists.

How is it that Wikipedia, with its cooperative ownership, has not been overrun by these same forces? Sites like YouTube have even resorted to outsourcing fact-checking to Wikipedia. What’s going on? Something different.

Rather than defaulting to restricting access, Soft Security defaults to making everything open, everything shared, everything reversible. It relies on evolving a community to govern this shared space.

Wikis and Ostrom’s Commons

Wikis are a commons:

  • Shared resource: the wiki.

  • Scarcity: page titles.

…so why aren’t they also a tragedy?

Ostrom’s Theory of the Commons outlines eight conditions under which a commons can be managed without tragedy.

Let’s look at how wikis stack up against Ostrom’s rules for managing a commons:

  1. Clear boundaries: the wiki domain, and those who can edit it.

  2. Managed by locals: wiki users.

  3. Community makes its own rules: wikis have no formal rules beyond actions the community carries out.

  4. Community can monitor behavior: edit history.

  5. Graduated sanctions for those who violate community rules: reprimands on talk pages, page rollbacks, banning.

  6. Cheap, accessible conflict resolution: rollbacks.

  7. Self-determination of the community: it’s a volunteer project.

  8. In large commons, multiple levels of management: on Wikipedia, administrators.

The wiki way of building

The wiki way of building: create simple technologies with extremely wide ranges of motion, then evolve communities to govern them.

  • Build the simplest thing that could possibly work.

  • Construct it out of an open-ended alphabet.

  • Don’t constrain its range of motion.

  • Don’t impose meaning. Let meaning emerge from interactions between people.

  • Create a shared commons with Ostrom’s 8 Rules.

  • Garden a community, a culture, an ecology of trust.

These are conditions under which we can build shared understandings. They can create space for sensemaking together, even within our networked fork-only information environment. There are probably other conditions under which we can build shared understandings on the internet, but at least we know of one.


I'm building a new tool for thought. I have a general sense of the direction I’m traveling, but I will be as surprised as you are at what I discover along the way. I'm posting these emails as trail markers every week or so. I share updates, ideas, design patterns, and snippets of books and papers.