The Group Work That’s Wikipedia

This week I read chapter 5 in Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirkey and Michael Bauwens’ article “The Social Web and its Social Contracts”.  The chapter in Shirkey’s book is about Wikipedia and how users are motivated to help make Wikipedia a success. Michael Bauwen’s article is about how the social web is based on an underlying but stable social contract. User participation is vital in both articles.

Chapter 5 in Here Comes Everybody is titled “Personal Motivation Meets Collaborative Production” and in it Shirkey talks about Wikipedia. Wikipedia was founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger “as an experimental offshoot of their original idea, a free online encyclopedia of high quality called Nupedia” (Shirkey 109). Nupedia was to be written, managed, and reviewed by experts in their spare time. Nupedia ultimately failed. One reason it failed was because a submission had to go through a lengthy process of review and revision through an advisory board.

The first wiki was created by Ward Cunningham in 1995. Wikis are user-editable websites. Proofreaders weren’t necessary because Cunningham assumed that “groups of people who want to collaborate also tend to trust one another” (Shirkey 111). Every wiki page is a total sum of all accumulated changes.

Sanger and Wales put up a test wiki on Nupedia as a way to create rough drafts. This made it a lot easier to create initial versions of articles, but also angered the advisory board because they felt their jobs to oversee the process of creating articles was being insulted. A few days after this Sanger and Wales moved the wiki off of Nupedia and gave it its own URL .  After just a few weeks Wikipedia past Nupedia in total number of articles and by the end of the year Wikipedia had 15,000 articles and was continuing to grow. This showed that Wikipedia was viable and Nupedia wasn’t. Wikipedia wasn’t around to make revenue so to cement this the URL was changed to

Wikipedia works with a spontaneous division of labor. Here it means that Wikipedia is able to “aggregate individual and often tiny contributions, hundreds of millions of them annually, made by millions of contributors, all performing different functions” (Shirkey 118). A person will decide to make an article about something and then slowly other people will add different things to the article whether it’s new information or correcting typos. Each edit can be as big or as small as the user wants. Each Wikipedia article is a process and because of this they are never finished.

Wikipedia thrives because the users care. Wikis reward people who invest in improving them. If no one cared about Wikipedia it would die. Since a group of people care they work together and keep their collective work alive and prospering. Wikis “provide ways for groups to work together and to defend the output of that work, but these capabilities are available only when most of the participants are committed to those outcomes” (Shirkey 137). Seeing how popular Wikipedia is I think it’s safe to say that people are committed on the work done on Wikipedia articles. What makes Wikipedia a success can be seen in this post. People who edit articles don’t have to be experts in what they’re editing. This was one of the downfalls of Nupedia.

Michael Bauwens in his article “The Social Web and its Social Contracts” discusses how the social web is based on an underlying, but stable social contract. This social has the users saying “we appreciate the facilitation of the sharing processes, and we understand that operating such platforms comes with a cost, and with an expectation of profitability. We therefore allow our attention to be monetized through advertising, as long as it does not interfere with our sharing. If the interference crosses a certain line of acceptability, we will either revolt, or go elsewhere” (Bauwens). I think Wikipedia would fit in the 2nd part of the article where Bauwens talks about how attention economy benefits the platform owners. The fact that Wikipedia is a success had to have benefit the owners somehow. They don’t make a profit or have ads on the site and the people contributing to the articles don’t make any money either, but I’m sure the attention the site gets has benefitted the platform owners in other ways.


4 responses to “The Group Work That’s Wikipedia

  1. I think this can be directly applied to our last week’s readings about open source systems. The same concepts of “freely available and more importantly freely improvable” systems is basically what Wikipedia stands for. As said in the last post about OSS, people are able to make contributions of any size, no matter how insignificant or significant. This is possible because failure is free and there are no repercussions following failure. The best part is that we can undo failure. Contributors continually fix and update posts in the “fitness landscape” until satisfaction with the content is reached.

  2. Pingback: Collective Culture « Introduction to Digital Media

  3. After reading Shirky’s position on Wikipedia and others that seem to hold Wikipedia as the holy grail of social interactions, along with class discussions I’m left with a question; will Wikipedia ever be able to be used as an authentic/scholarly source? I completely agree with Shirky as he points out how the self-healing process works; that vandalism and mistakes are quickly caught since changes are open to everyone and it has a community that cares about the content. But as the comment on Lady Gaga’s hometown pointed to its content still needs to be taken with caution. Will it ever reach the status where we can treat it like a physical, expert written encyclopedia? If, so how?

  4. First of all I wanted to say this was a great post- very helpful for the final.

    I think this notion that sites like Wikipedia are a process, is rather intriguing. I think that one obvious result of this new digital environment is the hyper-speed with which things are produced or published on the web. I’m sure we are all familiar with the critiques of this, usually attacking the quality of content produced because it can be so readily available.

    However, I feel like the idea that these sites or software can be an ongoing, unfinished process in many ways circumvents this issue. They will always be open for improvement and as a result, may not truly ever be open for judgement because they are still “a work in progress”. I feel like eliminating critiques in that way opens the door for a new sensibility or perspective, with regard to critiques of online content. We can appreciate and understand each site/software etc, simply for the ideas produced as fragmented, individual pieces that augment a more cohesive idea. But, because that idea has not and possibly may never be “fully” realized (because the possibility for improvement will always stand) we are relieving ourselves of a good deal of pressure.

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