Hossein Derakhshan
2 August 2005

As the first international Wikimania conference is held this week in Frankfurt, pioneer Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan – who will blog for openDemocracy from the event – tests the “wiki’s” democratic potential in a bold new experiment.

Never has such an anarchic idea produced such a democratic outcome than in the concept of the wiki.

A wiki is a web page everyone can edit. By everyone, I don't mean those approved in the website as members, nor do I mean those who have registered. All you need is a web connection and you can edit whatever is in a wiki. You just click on the button on top of all wikis which reads “edit this page”.

You might ask, as people often do when faced by a new technological concept, so what? There are many answers, but the most famous answer you can get is called Wikipedia.

Imagine if everyone on this planet who had access to the internet started to write an encyclopedia together. After all, many of the 700 million people who check their emails once in a while know a little more about one little something than others. Why not write it in an encyclopedia entry? Isn't an encyclopedia supposed to represent the sum of human knowledge?

The first International WikiMania Conference takes place in Frankfurt, Germany, on 4-8 August 2005

This revolutionary, but simple, idea not only already exists but is also incredibly popular. Wikipedia now has over 1.5 million entries in roughly 200 different languages, all written in the past two years by ordinary internet users, self-styled “wikipedians”, among whom there are many experts in various fields.

There are different arguments for and against the validity of Wikipedia entries, but its growing number of contributors, and the increase in other websites (including openDemocracy) referring to it as a reliable source of information, shows that Wikpedia is gradually gaining acceptance with the average internet user.

Why all this popularity and, more importantly, trust? The reason is simple: Wikipedia entries are made by members of the public, for the use of the public. In other words, they are developed – and constantly improved – within a democratic system in which a large audience who can quickly turn from viewers to players can monitor every word of an entry. If they think something is not quite right, they can immediately fix it. If the fix itself has problems in another user's eyes, he or she can easily return it to what it was.

When you add or change something and nobody challenges it, you can take that to mean that the Wikipedia community agrees with your contribution. If the number of viewers or players in this community is large enough, you should conclude that there is a consensus about what you've contributed to a Wikipedia entry. It's as if for every single change in an entry, a referendum is taking place. If anyone wants to say no, it only takes a few seconds to undo the change.

Despite its fame and success, Wikipedia is not the only example of using the concept of wikis.

Instead of encyclopedia entries, think about news stories – selected, written and edited by the public – and you'll have Wikinews. Think about a travel guide written by travellers and there is Wikitravel. On top of this there are now projects to produce dictionaries, cookbooks, manuals and much, much more.

So can the wiki concept be stretched to legislation and government? This is a question I explore in my Persian blog starting today, 3 August, by posing this challenge: together, let's change Iran's current constitution!

I’m hoping the project will show the great political potential for wikis, especially when the gap between citizens and politicians is growing around the world. It could also encourage similar projects to write regulations for small or big organisations, city councils, or any kind of regulation covering even a small number of people.

As for the democratic path of Iran towards democracy, I believe producing a revised version of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, on which thousands of people from different socio-political backgrounds have consensus, could be a great step towards reforming the system.

If nothing else, it could at least engage tens of thousands of young and educated people in thinking about and discussing their vision for the future of their country.

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