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Why Wikipedia Succeeds
Jeremy Faludi, 25 Mar 05

Another great speaker at the Doors of Perception conference was Jimmy Wales from Wikipedia. All you worldchanging readers are familiar with it, but if anyone doubts its success at making the sum of all human knowledge freely available, consider that Wikipedia has more entries than the Encyclopedia Britannica and Encarta combined (almost double Encyc. Britannica), and that’s just in English. In all languages, they expect to reach a terabyte of information in another year. Obviously that’s still not ALL human knowledge, but better than any one other source. And what about success in terms of popularity? They only get about 20% fewer hits than the New York Times, and expect to exceed it by next year. And yet, it’s an all-volunteer organization. Questions of the encyclopedia’s quality are more subjective, but hey, if you think an entry is bad, you can change it.

So how has Wikipedia become a success where other open-source knowledge bases (and proprietary knowledge-bases within companies) fail?

According to Wales, it’s not primarily a technological innovation, but a social & design innovation. Its elements:

  • 100% free software and content: everyone has the freedom to copy, modify, redistribute, and redistribute modified versions of it and its content.
  • Neutrality as bedrock principle (skirting philosophical issue of Objective Truth, just getting people to agree that what’s written tells a fair story)
  • Software design which reflects needs of users and has good quality-control features
  • Security not through user access permissions, but through vigilant users who clean stuff up after vandalism, and easy ways to see when things have been changed.
  • No set structure of governance--consensus, democracy, aristocracy by reputation, and occasionally a monarchy of Jim are all used to decide issues or settle disputes. They are flexible about the process, because they care more about the results than the process.

  • He reinforced the vaguely-known wisdom that motivated people will collaborate with whatever tools they have. The thing that makes a thriving system is the project--the best tools in the world will not save a project whose people lack motivation, and most of what the system needs to do is get out of people’s way (this is true of physical offices as well, subdividing meeting rooms into different units by function would be a disaster). Talking to him later, he says that there are in fact a lot of subtle details in the design of Wikipedia’s interface that also make it easier for people to do what they want, but these details are probably the sort of thing that vary from project to project, so there may not be a one-wiki-software-fits-all model. It’s more important to be responsive to what the participants (they’re not just users, remember) need.

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    I've created several online communities with the intent of having them self-sustaining. The goal was that eventually, they would produce their own content, peer edit that content, and handle vandalism and "trolls". Most of those communities collapsed.

    WikiPedia has somehow hit on a working model that has scaled to a website of amazing content. That alone is worth admiration.

    Posted by: Adam Brown on 25 Mar 05

    This idea "motivated people will collaborate with whatever tools they have" is an interesting one. Those of us who must constantly write grants seem to be always looking at the "replicability" of an idea--how, once implemented, a program/project can be replicated elsewhere, given the resources.

    But how does this really play out, as a criteria for judging ideas? Perhaps we ignore the factor of human motivation--that it's about finding the right motivated people, and putting them in roles where they can remain motivated in a sustained way. It's sort of self-selective, but it's also not. The system has to be set up the right way.

    It's not so much that an idea is replicable, but that it has mechanisms for attracting in putting in place the right people, that determines whether a program can have broad success?

    Posted by: m. on 25 Mar 05

    Wikipedia succeeds because people are vain. Of course they work to provide excellent information, but they also receive the benefit of being known to be smart about something.

    That's probably why it succeeds to the degree it does, compared to similar projects.

    It's really an amazing resource.

    Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 25 Mar 05

    In my experience not only will "motivated people ... collaborate with whatever tools they have" but that it is the limited tool set itself that helps fire creativity and co-operation.

    And as an aside, I think it churlish to suggest that Wikipedia's success is based in human vanity. I think there is a deep human need to teach and this if done well brings recognition and 'mana'. But that is a long way from vanity.

    Posted by: Brett on 26 Mar 05

    I have successfully started a small Wiki community (546 registered users). It is simple really. You need to seed it with enough interesting content and then get other people interested in that to use it. Oh and DELEGATE DELEGATE DELEGATE.


    It is not just vanity. I have contributed several dozen articles to Wikipedia anonymously, in fact, I do not have an account on it. Just the idea that the knowledge will be safe for the future and can prove useful is interesting in itself.

    Posted by: Jim Bob on 26 Mar 05

    To clarify, I didn't mean that vanity is the only reason that Wiki is successful, just that it has different potential for being acknowledged than some other open source projects. I also don't think vanity is a negative thing - we all wish to have others acknowledge our value.

    Perhaps I should have chosen another word, but I hope my meaning is clear.

    Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 26 Mar 05

    So-called "vanity" seems to be an evolutionarily adaptive trait in humans. We thrive when others take positive notice of us, and we are motivated to do things that elicit such positive notice. This motivation helped early groups of humans survive and thrive, and continues to do so. It is certainly a factor in wikipedia's success, and it was clever of the founder(s) to build it in.

    Posted by: Bill Meacham on 27 Mar 05

    I think Joseph's right to mention "vanity." It's a slippery word, but in this context means the satisfaction one feels for having done something to help, to have created something which might endure, the pride taken in a job well done. I think he meant something different than "egotism."

    If Joseph's right, then one reason Wikipedia succeeds is because it offers a chance for "ordinary," everyday people to contribute something meaningful to the world. I think people are hungry for that.

    Posted by: David Foley on 27 Mar 05

    Much of what is said above is about power (including knowledge and authority). Wikipedia succeeds because people like to be empowered, whether or not they get credit. Encyclopedia Britannica doesn't share its power with us.

    Many of the struggles people have about knowledge -- whether global warming is due to human activities, and on and on -- is in fact about power. Who has it, who doesn't, who is PERCEIVED to have it. The traditional system of the professions, expert knowledge, has not been good about sharing power, in part because most people would like to sweep the power issue under the rug, and pretend that it's about facts and rationality, or that there is an objective reality out there that some people are better equipped to understand than others.

    Posted by: Peter Donovan on 28 Mar 05



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