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Oct. 12, 2011, noon

The contribution conundrum: Why did Wikipedia succeed while other encyclopedias failed?

“Failed Wikipedias” suggest successful ways to encourage contribution and collaboration.

The guys behind Wikipedia weren’t the first to experiment with creating a crowd-sourced online encyclopedia. They were just the first ones to do it successfully, on a worldwide scale.

There were seven collaborative encyclopedias that aspired to Wikipedia-like dimensions before Wikipedia itself came along in early 2001: Interpedia, which ran from late 1993 to mid-1994; The Distributed Encyclopedia (1997-1998); Everything 2 (1998-present); h2g2 (1999-present); The Info Network (2000-2003); Nupedia (2000-2003); and GNUpedia (founded in 2001, and later merging with Nupedia).

So why did Wikipedia become a worldwide phenomenon, while those others did not?

Wikipedia succeeded in part because, revolutionary as it was, it also felt familiar.

In a talk yesterday afternoon at Harvard’s Berkman Center, Berkman fellow (and MIT Media Lab/Sloan School of Management researcher) Benjamin Mako Hill presented his research into that question, focusing on what seems to be the key distinguishing success factor: the fact that Wikipedia was able to attract legions of contributors while the others stayed decidedly niche. The encyclopedias were all collaborative efforts built on what Yochai Benkler has called commons-based peer production; so why, ultimately, was Wikipedia able to attract so many more peers to do so much more production?

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.

“I don’t think I conceived of it as like, ‘Let’s just put an encyclopedia online,'” one encyclopedia’s founder told Hill. The attitude, instead, was “this is going to be an exploration, and we’re going to figure out what a reference work online looks like.”

But that approach, web-native and admirable as it was in theory, ended up hindering early encyclopedias’ ability to attract contributors, Hill speculates. Newness isn’t always inviting; Wikipedia succeeded in part because, revolutionary as it was, it also felt familiar. (“If you understand how encyclopedias are written, you basically understand Neutral Point of View,” Hill pointed out.) So a crucial aspect of mobilization is also the most basic: simply getting people on the same page. And common, familiar frames can help with that, Hill said.

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.

“I had this notion that my job was to provide the platform,” one founder told Hill. The assumption, said another, was that “content was the community’s job. But there was no community.”

Using the simple technology of the wiki allowed Wikipedia’s founders to focus on the encyclopedia’s content — on getting article contributions rather than building technology. Instead of acting as technologists, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger could instead act as evangelists, Hill pointed out, seeding Wikipedia with content they solicited from contributors — which, in turn, led to more content, and more contributors. There are lots of convincing arguments suggesting that peer production projects succeed because of technology; in encyclopedias’ case, though, it seems that technology actually became a distraction. Leaders needed to be able to take their infrastructure for granted so they could focus on the content that would populate it.

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.

Editing Wikipedia is easy, instant, and virtually commitment-free.

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.

There’s some good food for thought for news organizations in those findings. If you want user contributions, build platforms that are familiar and easy. Lower the barriers to participation; focus on helping users to understand what you want from them rather than on dazzling them. Though gamification — with incentives that encourage certain user behaviors, complete with individual rewards (badges! titles! mayors!) — certainly has a role to play in the new news ecosystem, Hill’s findings suggest that the inverse of game dynamics can be a powerful force, as well. His research highlights the value of platforms that invite rather than challenge — and the validity of contributions made for the collective good rather than the individual.

Image by Jiheffe used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 12, 2011, noon
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