Why Wikipedia won

This post originally appeared on the Fall 2011 Collaboration in Networked Environments blog.

Tim Neff wrote:

Just thought I’d post a link to this article from Nieman Journalism Lab: “Why Did Wikipedia Succeed While Other Encyclopedias Failed?”

I didn’t realize there were so many earlier attempts to create a collaborative online encyclopedia. This article, based on a lecture by Benjamin Mako Hill, a Harvard Berkman Center fellow, points out several reasons why Wikipedia worked:

1. Wikipedia clung closely to the familiar concept of an encyclopedia, while other online efforts tried to re-define what an encyclopedia could be. “It felt familiar.”
2. Wikipedia focused on content, rather than technology. Again, it didn’t try to implement some radical new tool.
3. Wikipedia has “low transaction costs” … it’s easy to contribute.
4. Wikipedia makes it difficult to tell who contributed. This again lowers the barrier to collaborate by making people feel comfortable jumping in and contributing, even in minor ways.

So, might a good rule of thumb for designing online collaboration environments be “Keep it simple and familiar”?

I think this is interesting in light of the Oosterhuis reading from earlier that emphasized the need to learn how to swim in the data stream, which seems like a daunting task. It’s comforting to know that you don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes simple, familiar designs can enhance that ability to intuitively interface with data.


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