Clay Shirky provides a fascinating insight into how a collaborative approach utilises more skills, and empowers more people than the old institutional model. Rather than coming from an Open Source background, he uses the example of Flickr to convey his point (and then takes a stab at Ballmer). It's an interesting presentation, and shows how you can make the most of the information/data available in a field.
However, there's an angle to his talk which isn't covered in this short presentation; which I imagine is due to time constraints. That's the opportunity for cross-discipline collaboration, and what that means for us.
One of the more interesting points made by Clay, is that he poses the current '$1 million question' - Are Bloggers Journalists? - and then turns it on its head.
Journalists, and journalism came about to fulfil a societal need. How to communicate with the majority of the population. Gutenburgs's printing press was a percursor to European journalism, and for the last 400 years or so, journalism has been an integral part of mass communication.
However, we now have a little something called the internet - which, as Gutenburg's printing press did all those years ago, revolutionise access to information. The infrastructure required to become a 'messenger to the people' is in place for people to with it as they wish - create facebook pages, youtube videos, or wordpress blogs. Once the infrastructure becomes freely accessible, the applications of it become massively varied.
In Clay's talk, he mentions a ratio. 80% of people do 20% of the work, and vice versa, using a lovely graph of the long tail:
Though a graph illustrating a different set of data, the concept can be re-applied to Open Source Project contribution. The Green area applies to the 'core' developers, who may even be employed by the project. The Orange applied to the people directly involved with the project, and perhaps some power users, and the Red section applied to everyone else.
The wonderful thing about the Red section, is that you get lots and lots of people contributing very little. However, it's these people who can really add value to a project. With so many projects now existing across different distributions, each system becomes pretty unique. Where bugfixes and irrationailities can be spotted and reported on by end-users running their unique system - the value added is huge.
There's also a question of expertise. The guys in the Red Section are the programming experts, who are commiting code. Those in the Orange Section are the users/implementers of the code - so will typically have a clear understanding of the direction of the project and the needs that the project needs to fulfil. Whereas in the Red Section are people who use the package, but often alongside other packages of greater interest/relevance to their line of work. It's this cross-discipline collaboration that is unprecedencted.
Getting average non-geeky end users to use Open Projects is a massive challenge, but one that is going to bring massive benefits to Open Source Software. Some people talk of the digital tipping point from a technical standpoint - "Woo, when we get this critical mass we'll overtake Microsoft within the next 5 years." To be honest that doesn't bother me. Judge MS as you wish, but that's not why I'm here. I'm here because the potential contribution that end users can make to Global Knowledge, through Open Projects.
It's going to be possible for a biological scientist and and engineer to be reviewing the same problem for different purposes. It's unlikely that these two disciplines would ever communicate were it not be for this open project, and it's also possible that only with the combined knowledge and expertise of these two disciplines, the problem can be solved.
This is what excites me most about free software, and to think we're only just at the beginning.