In 2000, Encyclopaedia Britannica recorded its largest annual sales. A mere 12 years later, the brand had decided to stop printing copies of its eponymous product. Its audience had not only moved online, but moved to other sources altogether. It was an astonishingly rapid decline for a brand that held pride of place in intellectual traditions of the English-speaking world for nearly 250 years. Behind this change in consumer preference were the usual suspects: affordable PCs and broadband Internet access in homes. There was also an additional, if much less celebrated, technology that did Britannica in — the humble Wiki, which is the technology that powers Wikipedia, the open encyclopedia that anyone with an Internet connection can edit and improve.
A Wiki is a webpage (or application, if you are a purist) that makes editing and managing the page’s content easy. By having just a few simple rules to format text and link pages, Wikis are highly effective at allowing even novice users to quickly build on any topic with neatly organised collections of information. The very first Wiki was launched in 1994 by Howard G. Cunningham in the U.S. for storing his company’s technical knowledge base. When released to the outside world, Wikis were an instant hit among technologists as they were an easy way of creating and maintaining documentation. Through the 90s, their use remained limited to geeks. Then, in 2001, Wikipedia happened.Astonishingly counter-intuitive
If it weren’t such a raging success, Wikipedia could have easily been dismissed as an impractical idea conceived by idealistic geeks on overdrive. After all, the whole value proposition of a classic encyclopedia such as Britannica is that the content is carefully curated by a panel of hand-picked experts who are paid for their troubles. To even think of an open encyclopedia put together by an army of volunteer contributors of unknown pedigree is mind-bogglingly counter-intuitive. But boy, has it taken off. According to Alexa, a leading web traffic analysis company, Wikipedia is the 6th most popular website in the world today. Britannica’s own website ranks a lowly 3,600. Why exactly is Wikipedia successful, and why is it patronised by so many people? At a superficial level, it could be said that Wikipedia is successful because there is a lot of content on the site, and it is easy to find and use. But to truly understand the success of Wikipedia would be to explore the sociology of the online world.
There are over 24 million registered contributors on Wikipedia who volunteer their time to add and edit content on the site. That is a staggering number; it is more than the combined population of Delhi and Mumbai. Incidentally, Indians are the largest set of contributors outside of the U.S. and Europe, at 3 per cent. When a sample from the set of all contributors were asked why they work on Wikipedia, a large number (69 per cent) said they are motivated by the notion that information should be freely available. An even larger portion (71 per cent) said they liked the idea of volunteering to share knowledge. These appear to be idealistic statements of inexperienced people. But a demographic survey found that more than 50 per cent of contributors are 30 years of age or more. Clearly, these are not all naive and impressionable college students with time to kill. There is something more going on here and some of the companies that have caught on to it have benefited handsomely.
The Internet has spawned many successful companies that consider content generated by their users as a core asset. For example, user reviews are the main reason people visit sites like Amazon.com or TripAdvisor. There is a virtuous cycle in users finding a tip or review, benefiting from it, and then sharing their own experience as a way of giving back to the community. Companies have realised that rewarding contributors with ‘badges’ that stand testament to their specific contributions or areas of expertise is a powerful way of engaging and motivating the community. The buzzword for this is Gamification, but the idea is not new. It is for the same reason that the British Empire bestowed bizarre sounding titles on the rulers of our princely states. Badges and titles allow recipients to publicly display their achievements which, in turn, promote healthy rivalry among peers. By allowing contributors to build a virtual identity, and rewarding desirable behaviour with ego-boosting badges, websites build an asset that cannot be copied in short order and, as a result, a source of immense competitive advantage. Wikipedia has a particularly strong ego boost potential for a type of user who values intellectual conversation.
To state a personal example — I have not earned any badges on Wikipedia, but it is still a matter of pride that I created the primary Wikipedia article on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Furthermore, in the 10 years since my original contribution, much of my content has survived intact, which I believe is a testament to the quality of the text. That is a good feeling, even though I am acutely aware that I have nothing tangible to show for the many hours I put into writing the article and checking it periodically.Need for vigilance
By devolving editorial responsibility to the community, Wikipedia has hit upon an inclusive and scalable operating model. But Wikipedia is no intellectual utopia. With openness, freedom and success comes the need for ever more vigilance. Vandals are everywhere, and Wikipedia is not immune from them. To provide a layer of oversight, Wikipedia has over the years evolved an elaborate hierarchy of roles with varying administrative privilege. Trust is earned by actions over time, and is rewarded with more responsibility and power. But, as we learnt recently in the astonishing case of a user named ‘Wifione’ with alleged links to the much discussed Indian Institute of Planning and Management, highly motivated users with vested interests can still compromise the integrity of the site. This is one of the complaints Wikipedia’s critics have against it. Does that mean Wikipedia is doomed? I think not.
Information wants to be free. And users choose convenience over everything else, all the time. Wikipedia, warts and all, represents the dizzying cocktail that comes from combining these two factors. As long as the core team ensures fairness and stays true to its democratic principles, Wikipedia will continue to thrive. As for Britannica, I only hope that it doesn’t follow in the footsteps of that other venerable British Enterprise — The East India Company — a brand that remains alive but now sells limited edition Sachin Tendulkar coins.
(Karra Sriram isa technologist and blogger based in Bengaluru. E-mail: email@example.com )