Why Wikipedia succeeded

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com


One answer, which seems obvious only in retrospect: Wikipedia attracted contributors because it was built around a familiar product – the encyclopedia. Encyclopedias aren’t just artifacts; they’re also epistemic frames. They employ a particular – and, yet, universal – approach to organizing information. Prior to Wikipedia, online encyclopedias tried to do what we tend to think is a good thing when it comes to the web: challenging old metaphors, exploding analog traditions, inventing entirely new forms…Another intriguing finding: Wikipedia focused on substantive content development instead of technology. Wikipedia was the only project in the entire sample, Hill noted, that didn’t build its own technology. (It was, in fact, generally seen as technologically unsophisticated by other encyclopedias’ founders, who saw themselves more as technologists than as content providers.) GNUpedia, for example, had several people dedicated to building its infrastructure, but none devoted to building its articles. It was all very if you build it, they will come…There are two other key contributors to Wikipedia’s success with attracting contributors, Hill’s research suggests: Wikipedia offered low transaction costs to participation, and it de-emphasized the social ownership of content. Editing Wikipedia is easy, and instant, and virtually commitment-free. “You can come along and do a drive-by edit and never make a contribution again,” Hill pointed out. And the fact that it’s difficult to tell who wrote an article, or who edited it – rather than discouraging contribution, as you might assume – actually encouraged contributions, Hill found. “Low textual ownership resulted in more collaboration,” he put it. And that could well be because Wikipedia’s authorless structure lowers the pressure some might feel to contribute something stellar. The pull of reputation can discourage contributions even as it can also encourage them. So Wikipedia “took advantage of marginal contributions,” Hill noted – a sentence here, a graf there – which, added up, turned into articles. Which, added up, turned into an encyclopedia.