Ever heard of Wikipedia?
Unless you’re living under a rock, of course you have.
It has 20 million articles (more than 3.8 million in English), which are written collaboratively by volunteers from around the world, including 90,000 regularly active contributors. It’s also written in 282 languages and is the largest and most popular general reference site on the Internet, with 365 million readers.
Let me revise: even if you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard of Wikipedia. There’s probably even an entry for under-rock dwellers.
Now, let me ask you another question: Ever heard of Nupedia?
No? Well, let me tell you about it, because its story is fascinating. Nupedia was an English-language encyclopedia founded by the same smart guys who started Wikipedia.
Sounds a lot like Wikipedia? Yes. The content was free. The experts were supposed to write articles for free. But the big difference is that instead of being open to all authors and editors, it required expert authorship and an extensive peer-review process.
It required gatekeepers.
Neupedia lasted from March 2000 until September 2003, and in that time only produced 24 articles for publication, with 74 more in the works. That’s pretty sad.
What the colossal failure of Nupedia—and colossal success of Wikipedia—suggests to me is this: gatekeepers are suspect.
For example, we’re seeing an explosion in independent publishing as authors go straight to their readers via e-readers, tablets, on-demand publishing and Internet marketing. Gatekeepers, in the form of agents, traditional publishing houses, distributors and stores, are bypassed entirely.
The result is that a lot of really, really crappy stuff gets published. But a lot of great stuff that might otherwise have been overlooked gets out there, too. Then the market decides. And for the crappy books, well, their sales totals number in the hundreds, if the authors are lucky.
So, as a consumer, I can take comfort in buying a traditionally published book because it’s likely the book has been vetted, edited and proofread. The gatekeepers are at work. (Still, crap gets by them. Of course it does.)
Flip side—there’s an enormous group of gatekeepers out there (readers!) crowdsourcing new content. When I read an awesome, independently published book, I review and recommend it. I help the cream rise to the top, even if it didn’t go through traditional publishing channels.
In work, consider who your gatekeepers are. Are your great ideas lost on a gatekeeping boss who would like you to simply do as directed, thankyouverymuch? Do you even censor yourself, as in “Well, this idea isn’t very good, so I’m not even going to volunteer it.”
Nupedia’s spectacular failure teaches me this: be wary of gatekeepers. When they add value, like fantastic editing, embrace them. But don’t imagine that they’re always going to be right, always going to be fair, or always going to produce the best results.
Ultimately, the market decides. So take a risk. Put it out there. Idea, book, project, whatever—let the market decide. GO.