September 20, 2005 4:54 pm

Lawrence Lessig: The march of the web-enabled amateurs

In 1857, Richard Chenevix Trench launched perhaps the first grand “open source” project.

In a speech on Guy Fawkes Day at the London Library, he outlined a plan to compile the first empirical English dictionary – one drawn from actual usage rather than from the views of authors such as Nathan Bailey or Dr Johnson.

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The project would require thousands of volunteers, and its very description created a stir of excitement within London society. Two months later, the Philological Society issued circulars calling for volunteer readers to submit word lists and sample usages to the project editors.

Seventy years later, the Oxford English Dictionary was published, with more than 12 volumes defining more than 400,000 words and 1.8m illustrative quotations collected by these volunteers.

In 2001, a former Chicago futures trader, Jimmy Wales, started a similar “open source” project. In a request posted on the world wide web, Mr Wales asked for volunteers to help write a web-based encyclopedia.

Using “wiki” software, in which anyone can add to, or change, what anyone else had written, people from across the world started “writing” what would be called “Wikipedia.”

Thousands soon joined the project. Four years later, there are more than 2.3m articles within Wikipedia, about one-third of which are in English and the rest in more than 100 other languages.

Trench’s experiment was unusual, costly, and not repeated. Wales’ is increasingly a norm of the net. There are tens of thousands of projects built through the collaboration of millions around the world – blogs, free software, newsgroups helping people do everything from knitting to using Microsoft products – and the phenomenon is just starting. Open collaboration was once just a dream. The net has made it a reality.

Call it the age of the amateur: one who works for the love of what he does, and not for money.

The “work” in this online collaboration is experienced by the “workers” as a kind of play. And this play is producing important value to society, and increasingly, to corporations as well.

The most prominent form of this new amateur culture is the world of “blogs” or weblogs – sites that comment upon, or report on, or simply rant about matters personal as well as political.

There are more than 16m blogs registered in the key blog search engine, Technorati, and together they are creating a new kind of journalism. Freed from the pressures of commercial publishing, and in collaboration with many other bloggers, these writers can focus or dig deep.

Their rhythm is different. Sometimes they can respond extraordinarily quickly, as 60 Minutes discovered when the blogosphere embarrassed the venerable US news programme by demonstrating that a key bit of evidence used in a piece critical of the President was a fake.

Sometimes they painstakingly uncover facts others would prefer be forgotten, as US Senate majority leader Trent Lott discovered when his gaffe praising racism was proven by bloggers to be part of a pattern.

But collaboration reaches far beyond blogs. GNU/Linux, the fastest growing challenger to Microsoft’s operating system monopoly, was created through the collaboration of thousands, launched by Free Software Founder Richard Stallman, and then sparked into completion by a Finnish undergraduate, Linus Torvalds.

The same is true of the most popular web server on the net, Apache, as well as more than 100,000 projects listed in the largest index of free and open source software, SourceForge.net, all produced mainly through the “play” of volunteers.

This collaboration reaches beyond geeks. Nasa has recruited “clickworkers” to map craters on Mars, and soon, asteroids, after finding the work of volunteers was better – and much cheaper – than the work of paid professionals. Railway enthusiasts have built elaborate virtual worlds online with the richest replication of antique train technology anywhere.

As Eric von Hippel shows in an extraordinary new book, Democratizing Innovation, this user-inspired innovation has become a powerful source of wealth for companies from 3M to GE, and hence economies generally.

In all these cases, it is technology that allows the collaboration and communities to flourish. But the technology merely enables a familiar part of human life.

If work is what we have to do, then the net is beginning to demonstrate the potential that play might produce. It is no doubt an art to inspire such productive play.

The challenge now, as Yochai Benkler, a Yale law professor, puts it in a forthcoming book, is to understand “under what conditions these many and diverse social actions can turn into an important modality of economic production” – both for the wealth that they might create, and also just for the fun of it.

Lawrence Lessig is a professor of law at Stanford Law School and founder of the school’s Center for Internet and Society

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