Kevin Kelly on “The Bottom is Not Enough”
February 12th, 2008

I can’t say that I’ve had many real mentors — probably because I’m such an ornery loner when it comes to my work, if not to hanging out online — but Kevin Kelly has opened doors and offered opportunities for me. He talked me into writing Virtual Communities in 1987, talked me into taking over as editor of The Whole Earth Review in 1991, talked me into going to Amish country to find out how they used cell phones. He probably regretted inviting me to be the first executive editor when Wired launched their first “webzine,” because I ended up fighting continually with Kevin’s boss. The biggest argument, which I always lost, and which led me to quit soon after Hotwired launched, was about whether the readers/users/consumers/fans could also be contributors. I was looking for a link on Kevin’s site to his recent very interesting article, “The Bottom Is Not Enough:”

In the early 1990s, adhocracy folks such my friend Howard Rheingold (whom we hired to oversee Hotwire, the online content site for Wired), argued for the editor-less crowd. I was on the side of editors.

Howard was at the forefront in the then totally radical belief that content could be assembled entirely from the collective action of amateurs and the audience. I had no doubt that a lot of good stuff could be assembled this way. But I thought of that crowd-sourced content as just the start. I believed then, and still believe now, that the role of editors — what we might call middle people, the PSL (publishers, studios, and labels) — were NOT going to go away. I thought that by adding a mild, smart editorial choice on top of the bottom’s work, you’d have something much better. Howard believed that we’d get further faster just relying on people with strong voices, lots of passion, and the willingness to write. We’d call those bloggers now.

My argument was that the publisher roles would change drastically, but the need for some top-down selection and guidance would only increase in value. As the amount of content expanded, the demand for some intelligent guidance and selection would be worth a lot to some people. The work of most unedited amateurs was simply not interesting or reliable enough for me.

Ten years later no one was as shocked as I was to see the Wikipedia disprove this notion, and show how well the bottom could work without any editors at all. Howard was right. For better or worse, the Wikipedia now represents power from the bottom up, the decentralized apex of editor-less knowledge, out-of-control goodness, and infamous the hive mind. Wikipedia is not the only hive mind out there. There’s the grand web itself, and other collective entities, such as fandoms, voting audiences, link aggregators, consensus filters, opens source communities, and so on, all basking in a rising tide of loosely connected communal action.

But it doesn’t take very long to discover — if we look hard and honestly — that none of these innovations is pure hive mind, and that the supposed paragon of adhocracy — the Wikipedia itself — is itself far from strictly bottom-up. In fact a close inspection of Wikipedia’s process reveals that it has an elite at its center, (and that it does have an elite center is news to most). Turns out there is far more deliberate top-down design management going on than first appears. This is why Wikipedia has worked in such a short time.


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