Being the founder of the Internet's largest encyclopedia means Jimmy Wales gets a lot of bizarre e-mail. There are the correspondents who assume he wrote Wikipedia himself and is therefore an expert on everythinglike the guy who found vials of mercury in his late grandfather's attic and wanted Wales, a former options trader, to tell him what to do with them. There are kooks who claim to have found, say, a 9,000-year-old, 15-ft.-tall human skeleton and wonder whether Wales would be interested. But the e-mails that make him laugh out loud come from concerned newcomers who have just discovered they have total freedom to edit just about any Wikipedia entry at the click of a button. Oh my God, they write, you've got a major security flaw!
As the old techie saying goes, it's not a bug, it's a feature. Wikipedia is a free open-source encyclopedia, which basically means that anyone can log on and add to or edit it. And they do. It has a stunning 1.5 million entries in 76 languagesand counting. Academics are upset by what they see as info anarchy. (An Encyclopaedia Britannica editor once compared Wikipedia to a public toilet seat because you don't know who used it last.) Loyal Wikipedians argue that collaboration improves articles over time, just as free open-source software like Linux and Firefox is more robust than for-profit competitors because thousands of amateur programmers get to look at the code and suggest changes. It's the same principle that New Yorker writer James Surowiecki asserted in his best seller The Wisdom of Crowds: large groups of people are inherently smarter than an élite few.
Wikipedia is in the vanguard of a whole wave of wikis built on that idea. A wiki is a deceptively simple piece of software (little more than five lines of computer code) that you can download for free and use to make a website that can be edited by anyone you like. Need to solve a thorny business problem overnight and all members of your team are in different time zones? Start a wiki. In Silicon Valley, at least, wiki culture has already taken root. "A lot of corporations are using wikis without top management even knowing it," says John Seely Brown, the legendary former chief scientist at Xerox PARC. "It's a bottom-up phenomenon. The CIO may not get it, but the people actually doing the work see the need for them."
Inspired by Wikipedia, a Silicon Valley start-up called Socialtext has helped set up wikis at a hundred companies, including Nokia and Kodak. Business wikis are being used for project management, mission statements and cross-company collaborations. Instead of e-mailing a vital Word document to your co-workersand creating confusion about which version is the most up-to-dateyou can now literally all be on the same page: as a wiki Web page, the document automatically reflects all changes by team members. Socialtext CEO Ross Mayfield claims that accelerates project cycles 25%. "A lot of people are afraid because they have to give up control over information," he says. "But in the end, wikis foster trust."