Why does wikipedia work?

I had an interesting conversation this morning with a colleague about community approaches to large-scale projects. We were mainly thinking about software, and in particular, the pieces of software that are most susceptible to a modular approach using a set of tools and formats that are intuitive and standard. Things like the Locale Builder and Keyboard Layout Creator, for instance -- but we were really interested in thinking about how that approach might or might not scale with projects of increasingly ambitious scope, software or otherwise. It's an interesting question.

So I started thinking about wikipedia, which I'd call a resounding success for a community-driven and -owned knowledge base. I don't know how you feel about wikipedia coverage for your own areas of expertise. However, I am routinely impressed with the coverage in the areas that I feel qualified to assess, and the quality of the content in the areas that I can evaluate makes me more likely to take the content that is newer to me at face value. I used to work with someone who spent a lot of his free time contributing to wikipedia, and at the time it never occurred to me to ask him why.

Well, now I'm asking why.

It can't be for personal visibility for the author(s), because outside the wiki community the authors aren't really known -- and if they are known, it's for their knowledge in the area among other subject matter experts, and their wikipedia work doesn't add to that. I'm pretty sure that it isn't for the money, and I'd be hard-pressed to say that it's to learn, in that the authors are typically in content-generating or -sharing mode rather than anything else.

As I list and discard possible motivations, I'm left with really only one: joy in sharing one's own knowledge, as an end in itself. I was going to say that anyone who has ever enjoyed teaching or writing a book can probably understand this, but on second thought that isn't necessarily true. A teacher or a conventionally published author gets to experience lots of other things, including every motivation listed in the paragraph above (visibility, money, learning), plus a few more (the fulfillment that comes from connecting with people and seeing them grow, to name one). The anonymous author of wikipedia articles gets none of these things.

Yet the enterprise flourishes. It's something to think about.

Comments (9)
  1. CarlosT says:

    I’ve made some contributions to wikipedia on topics I really care about, and the motive has always been to improve the quality of those entries.  I care about those topics enough that I want to make sure that the best, most accurate information is available.  It’s not so much for the joy in sharing information, but more that if a source of information is available, then I want the things that I care about to be represented and represented correctly.

    I suspect that the motivations are similar for other contributors.  

  2. Ben says:

    Another motivation might the ego boost of being right.  If you post something and it survives open source scrutiny, you’re right.  Truth by democracy.  

  3. RVS says:

    I think it is simply scientific and technical ethics at work: a specialist wishes to have correct information publically available concerning his or her particular discipline.  Generally, many bad papers are published in professional journals. It is so hard to correct misinformation through normal professional channels that the Wiki process works to enable bypassing these problems.

  4. KieranS says:

    I went home last night and my husband told me why my blog post yesterday was all wrong, so I may create another blog post called "Why doesn’t wikipedia work?" some time soon. 🙂

  5. c says:

    Well, what I mean to say is that the answer to "Why does Wikipedia work?" is arguably "That’s a trick question! It doesn’t." Public (geek) opinion of Wikipedia has fallen tremendously in the past year or so as a result of vandalism, incorrect entries, restrictive editorial policies, copyright and legal problems, … among other things.

    However, Wikipedia is an awesome resource if you want to know who played "Space Guard" in Dr. Who episode 49 ("The Space Pirates") or what pipe you need to use to get to the minus world in level 1-2 of Super Mario Bros.

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