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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.

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  • Arie Goldshlager

    See a recent New York Times story for a similar perspective on: Does innovation have to be grounded in what has come before?
    “Designers in all fields are regularly confronted with versions of this
    choice: whether to incorporate cues to keep people grounded in what has come before, or scrap convention completely.”

  • Arie Goldshlager

    See a recent New York Times story for a similar perspective on: Does innovation have to be grounded in what has come before?
    “Designers in all fields are regularly confronted with versions of this
    choice: whether to incorporate cues to keep people grounded in what has come before, or scrap convention completely.”

  • Anonymous

    How do you measure the “success” on which this article is focused?  Wikipedia has never become a reliable source of information, many of its articles on basic topics are in an enduring state of disrepair, and it has been losing volunteer administrators at an alarming rate.  I’d say Wikipedia is a failure, although its high profile in search results will mean its failure will only become apparent in the relatively long-term. 

  • Megan Garber

    Fascinating. Thank you!

  • Megan Garber

    Hill’s research wasn’t about the quality of the various encyclopedias’ articles; it was about the various encyclopedias’ ability to attract contributors in the first place. Hill was studying, in this case, social mobilization — and not the quality of the contributions that resulted from it. 

  • natenatenate

    Interesting stuff. 
    “Wikipedia focused on substantive content development instead of technology.”
    Focusing on an existing mental model to encourage content contribution rather than on building nifty new technology platforms explains the success of Craigslist and the resistance to redesign of that site as well.

  • Sethf

    Sigh. The critical part of the answer is “Google provided an enormous_de facto_ promotional subsidy to Wikipedia via prominent search ranking” (and the reasons thereof). Larry Sanger has discussed this (not using my phrasing). The SEO world talks about this all the time. The law/policy people, however, don’t want to know it :-(.

    - Seth Finkelstein

  • Anonymous

    This seems wrong. Google’s PageRank algorithm doesn’t prefer any particular domains; only recent has Google modified overall search results by inserting what it thinks may be “relevant” items near the top – Maps/Local entries for addresses or local queries; snippets from, Merriam-Webster and Wikipedia for “define:” queries; Froogle entries for shopping; etc.

    Wikipedia earned its “promotional subsidy” by amassing a tremendous amount of inbound links due to rapidly growing content, which had the virtuous effect of raising its PageRank. Being a prime nerd destination helped, so that Wikipedia received 13,000-word entries on Star Wars topics which were the sorts of things that people with blogs and websites would link to 10 years ago.

    To claim that Google deliberately favored Wikipedia over the also-rans is to mistake effect for cause.

  • Sethf

    Double sigh. Google’s algorithm is far more complex than mindlessly crediting inbound links  – if it just did that, “link farms” would shoot to the top. The point is not that Google said if domain == then boost. Rather, Google has continually tweaked the overall scoring system in ways which favor Wikipedia. This is not something that is disputable broadly, since it disfavored competitors such as e.g. Maholo. You’re doing what I call a “virtue narrative”, where a winner is deemed to have won via moral character, rather than patronage (trivially, saying the patron gave supported it because the winner was worthy, rather than any deeper analysis)

  • Anonymous

    Quintuple sigh. You’re simplifying my point needlessly, and missing it as a consequence. I don’t suggest that inbound links are “mindlessly” credited; the quality – the PageRank, among other metrics – of the referrers matter. (Link farms therefore end up in a circle jerk of mediocrity that reminds me of those “web rings” that used to exist 10 to 15 years ago.)

    You may call my argument a virtue narrative, but I call yours a cynicism cataclysm. Please present any evidence you have that Wikipedia only thrives through patronage. Given how long ago Wikipedia became a valuable clearinghouse for secondary information, I think it is sustained by its place in the popular consciousness/zeitgeist at this point, and has for years now.

    Besides, if Google’s patronage was the deciding factor, why aren’t we all talking about Google’s own Knol?

  • Llywrch

    Oluseyi, give it up. Seth Finkelstein doesn’t like Wikipedia, & will use every opportunity to tell everyone about how bad it is. He has this idea of how it works, rants about the defects he thinks it has — all the while overlooking the real defects that exist there.

    Wikipedia succeeded in becoming “the” online encyclopedia for reasons Hill sets forth: an understandable model, using off-the-shelf technology, & low barrier to participation. (Okay, a lower barrier than other existing alternatives.) It had succeeded long before Google decided to favor it in their search results.

    But to repeat myself, there are really defects in how Wikipedia. One plays into the “gamification” idea mentioned in this article: Wikipedians compete against each other over bragging rights to achievements which include number of edits, Did You Know/Good Articles/Featured Article credits, & website user rights (i.e., the Admin bit). Does this gamification result in the creation of good, useful encyclopedia articles? We might have a better & more tangible answer were we able to get past this obsession with comparing Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica.


  • Stijn Debrouwere

    Hey chaps! Wrote a piece about Wikipedia a couple of days back that goes into a little bit more detail: Hill’s findings are probably spot on (people over technology) but there’s also a dark side to the Wikimedia foundation’s lack of focus on technology, leading Wikipedia to struggle now as they need manpower — drudgery really — to do things that you’d expect a computer to be able to solve. Wikipedia is a success story, but not that much of a success story that it can’t use a bit of nuance every once in a while.

  • Senzo

    Wikipedia is now losing editors.  It is hypocritical and has abandoned its openness and now takes itself too seriously.  It has become a haven for meddlers.  The editors populating the site these days like shoving their noses in articles written by others and inflicting their retrograde input.  True contributors are being tag-teamed into disgust.  Take at the Wikipedians given power, the admins.  They are given the power to move against other editors based on the number of inconsequential edits they make rather than the number of articles they write.  Some of the most prolific article builders are on the other hand are denied admin powers.  Why do they stay?  Blind devotion to the ideals Wikipedia supposedly espouses?  Or are they masochists?  Who knows. But it makes me think of organized religious cults where high priests abuse the altruism of the flock.