Open Source; a better model for all of us

Dave Snowden relates an experience with Wikipedia where the inner circle decides that the actions of a user are not appropriate and he is subsequently banned.

I don’t know all of the details here, but my interest is in the underlying model of Wikipedia. There is a major difference between open source and a free Web service. Most open source projects can be forked, or moved in another direction by a sub-group of the community. An example is the Mozilla Browser fork that became the wildly successful Firefox project. They were able to take the source code and then get rid of all the redundant stuff in Mozilla and create a light and effective web browser.

It appears that Wikipedia can be forked [please correct me if my interpretation is wrong]. It would take a large amount of effort, but if enough people were outraged by the actions of the inner circle, a new project could be started.

The beauty of the open source model, of which there are several variants, is that it is more difficult for a project to be controlled by special interests. This is definitely something to consider as we use more and more web applications for education. For instance, should we use the free Ning platform, open source Drupal or proprietary SharePoint for our educational community of practice?

6 Responses to “Open Source; a better model for all of us”

  1. Romi Rancken

    When it comes to platforms, check out ( I have just started trying it out my self in a model where I as a teacher in HE use Drupal as a space where I’m “the boss”. I would like it to work like a versatile blog/CMS where students can meet me and get information, and not only during a course. Call it my virtual office, if you like. again would work as a more collaborative and democratic environment connected to a certain course. There would of course be a lot of hyperlinks between the two. is open source, free and ad-free. It was the ads (alternatively a relatively high monthly fee) that made me stop using Ning for this purpose. is still a little rough around the edges but very flexible and it seems to develop nicely.



  2. Tom Hoffman

    There is less space between Wikipedia’s model and open source development than you seem to think. Forking Wikipedia is comparable to forking a large software project. Actually probably simpler. One significant difference is that because the version control systems for software are more sophisticated it is easier to merge changes between forked versions. With Wikipedia it is easy to fork but hard to keep parts of your new version in sync with changes to the original (should you want to).

    Notwithstanding the above technical issue, it seems to me that the big difference is that a big part of Wikipedia is that it is THE Wikipedia. It is the destination.

    Actually, Wikipedia is way, way more open than an open source project, come to think of it. No serious open source software project allows anyone to anonymously edit their source code. Usually you have to submit some patches for review before you’re allowed to check in code.

    Also, Firefox isn’t really a fork of Mozilla. “Forking” doesn’t so much refer to a different application springing from a common codebase, as two divergent versions of essentially the same software (like GNU Emacs and XEmacs).

  3. Harold Jarche

    Thanks for the clarification, Tom.

    It seems that it would be possible to take Wikipedia in a different direction, but there is no doubt that “Wikipedia” has established a formidable brand. I also understand that there is a meritocracy when it comes to submitting new code and that you have to prove yourself before you are allowed to change any major code in an OS project.

    Your comments are greatly appreciated.

  4. Dave Ferguson

    Anyone who’s read the discussion pages for a few Wikipedia articles knows the intense debates that can arise even without vandalism.

    Look at the discussion page for tennis player Andy Murray, who recently lost to Roger Federer in the final of the U.S. Open. Murray was born in Scotland. The current discussion page has over seven thousand words of back-and-forth about whether he should be described as a British or a Scottish tennis player. (I copied the talk page into Word, deleted anything not directly about Scottish/British, then had Word do the count.)

    Those 7,000 words go all the way back to Wednesday of last week. In addition, there are four archives of the talk page The actual article about Murray has some 4,200 words (ignoring the tables of statistics and the text inside footnotes).

    For the sake of argument, let’s assume none of the contributors were Scottish-independence zealots or those who oppose them — just folks with strongly held but differing ideas. An awful lot of energy, some of it bound to discourage others from joining the discussion.

    So that’s part of the why of any ban, I think. I know nothing about the details of the individual who got banned — but it’s always easier to mess with things than to clean up afterward. The notion that the community will self-police has some merit, but a determined, energetic person (to say nothing of one who’s also self-righteous) can find endless ways around that.


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