Why Wikipedia Works

Almost Wikipedia: Eight Early Encyclopedia Projects and the Mechanisms of Collective Action. From 2013 thesis Essays on Volunteer Mobilization in Peer Production. Benjamin Mako Hill. pdf

Analysis of the data from initiators and archival data suggests that Wikipedia attracted a large community of contributors, while similar projects struggled, for three reasons.

■ Wikipedia attracted contributors because it was built around a familiar product.

■ Wikipedia attracted contributors because it offered low barriers to contribution.

■ Wikipedia attracted contributors because it offered low attribution and low social ownership of content.

Before January 2001, whenWikipedia was founded, there existed seven other publicly announced attempts to create English-language volunteer-driven, online collaborative encyclopedia projects.

■ Interpedia was created in late 1993 by library school student Rick Gates. The project was passed off within its first few months to a group led by Canadian technologists Douglas Pardoe Wilson and Robert Neville.

■ The Distributed Encyclopedia Project was founded by a German computer consultant in 1997 and was re-launched in 1998 with additional content.

■ h2g2 was a project funded by The Digital Village, a British media and video game company connected closely to the science fiction author Douglas Adams.

■ The Info Network was a project of the 14 years old “wunderkind” and technology entrepreneur Aaron Swartz.

■ Nupedia sought to be a traditional encyclopedia project available at no cost on the web.

■ Everything2 was founded in 1998 as a hypertext encyclopedia project created by Internet entrepreneur Nathan Oostendorp and funded largely by the sale of the very popular technology news site Slashdot.

■ GNE was started as Gnupedia and renamed to the recursive acronym GNE’s Not an Encyclopedia – both references to the technology project GNU.

Wikipedia is the one project in my sample that did not begin by writing its own software. Instead, it used an off-the-shelf, freely available, piece of wiki software called UseModWiki. As nontechnologists initially more focused on Nupedia, Wikipedia’s founders invested very few resources into technology for the project.

If peer production scholars care about mobilization, this paper reflects a step forward in that it stops selecting on the dependent variable and, through that process, brings relative failures into the analysis. More importantly, it offers a theory about why some attempts to build peer production projects lead to large mobilizations, like Wikipedia and Linux, while the vast majority struggle to attract even a second contributor. It offers a step, supported in empirical evidence, toward a broader causal theory of mobilization.


I was made aware of most of these projects by contributors to my original wiki. Coincidentally I too was more focused on content than technology and spent weeks working on software and years working on content.

I discouraged wiki-on-wiki conversation. Eventually I contributed these pages to the Meatball wiki so that my community could return to its focus on patterns and methods of software development.