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November 10, 2008

Don't worry about contributed content: Wikipedia has figured it all out!

When I explain to people the fundamental ICD problem of motivating users to contribute content to a user-contributed content information resource, I often use Wikipedia as a familiar example: "Why do so many people voluntarily donate so much time and effort to research, write content, and copy edit and correct the content of others? That's a lot of unpaid work!"

Some people ask what the problem is, and why this needs academic research: "Wikipedia is doing great! They don't need to come up with clever incentives to motivate contribution." My reply: "Yes (maybe), but the point is, how do we create the next Wikipedia" (that is, another fabulously successful and valuable information resource dependent on all that volunteer labor)? What is the special sauce? Is it replicable?

Simson Garfinkel has an article in the current Technology Review that, indirectly, makes the point nicely. Yes, Wikipedia is fabulously successful...in some ways. But certainly not everyone thinks Wikipedia is that final word in online reference, such that we don't need to create any other reference resources. Simson focuses on "Wikipedia and the Meaning of Truth". Wikipedia's primary rule for admissible content is not that it be verifiably true (which would be diffcult to enforce, to say the least!), but that it be verifiably published somewhere "reliable".

That not everything in Wikipedia is correct is well-known, and not surprising. There are enthusiastic debates about whether it is as accurate as traditional encyclopedias, like Britannica. And so forth. The point is: many people want other types of reference resources as an alternative, or at least as a complement to Wikipedia. And thus the question: to build such a resource with user-contributed content, we need to motivate the users.

Some are trying to create more accurate, reliable alternatives, and they are not nearly as successful in getting contribution as Wikipedia has been. One of the interesting examples is Google's Knol, which is trying to establish greater reliability by having each topic "owned" by its original author (who may then permit and seek contributions from other users).

Do you think Wikipedia is the final word, forever, in online reference? If not, perhaps you should be wondering how to motivate users to contribute to other resources, and thinking about whether motivation is trivial now that Wikipedia has "figured it out".

Posted by jmm at November 10, 2008 12:23 AM

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