Was Wikipedia innovation entirely social?

Jimmy Wales, a founder of Wikipedia in his recent talks suggests that Wikipedia is not a technological innovation, but a purely social one:

When Wikipedia was started in 2001, all of its technology and software elements had been around since 1995. Its innovation was entirely social - free licensing of content, neutral point of view, and total openness to participants, especially new ones. The core engine of Wikipedia, as a result, is “a community of thoughtful users, a few hundred volunteers who know each other and work to guarantee the quality and integrity of the work.”

In his view, Wikipedia is not an emergent phenomena of the wisdom of crowds, where thousands of independent individuals contribute each a bit of their knowledge, but instead is a relatively well connected small community, pretty much like any traditional organization, e.g. one that created Encyclopedia Britannica. Even taking into account that he is a founder of Wikipedia, I still am quite skeptical about this explanation. In my opinion, it is insufficient to explain the phenomenon of Wikipedia. It also disagrees with my own experience as a Wikipedia contributor. I started to contribute in 2003, registered in 2004, and yet I don’t know other wikipedians personally and rarely thought about Wikipedia as a social network, even though it definitely can support one. Reading a post of Aaron Swartz Who writes Wikipedia made me even more skeptical.

I know that it is quite natural for entrepreneurs to focus more on organizational aspects because that is what they deal with most of the time, as well as it is common for technologists to focus mainly on technology. I am not arguing that Jimmy Wales point of view is wrong, but I am suggesting that it might be incomplete. I believe, we don’t need to choose between emergent phenomena and core community point of view. They are not mutually exclusive, so Wikipedia can be (and, in my opinion, is) an example of both.

Jimmy suggests that the Wikipedia technology and software had been around since 1995. I didn’t find any support for this. If the technology was there in 1995, why it took so long for large wiki-based collaborative projects to appear? I did some quick research into the history of wiki technology. It suggests that Wikipedia had no chances to succeed using the technology that existed in 1995. The elements that enabled large participatory organizations like Wikipedia were added to wiki software six year later, at approximately the same time when Wikipedia project was launched.

Early wikis were lacking two important features: revision history and support for concurrent editing. These two features are crucial for success of any mass collaboration project using wiki.

I first discovered wiki quite late, in the summer of 2002. I quickly grasped the potential of this simple and brilliant collaboration tool by Ward Cunningham: a site with web pages that anyone can edit with very low effort. I saw it as a web extension of CVS, a revision control system that allows programmers to collaborate on the same codebase concurrently. However, as I started to explore the potential advantages of wiki, I found that the implementation I was using has a serious limitation. Indeed, everyone could edit a page, unless it is currently edited by someone else. If I wanted to edit a page someone else is editing right now, a warning message appeared that the page is locked. The lock was advisory, meaning I still could go ahead and edit, disregarding the message. However, in this case, either my or other people’s work will be lost. Waiting for the lock to be released quickly becames annoying as more people start collaborating. My conclusion then was that twiki software wasn’t ready to support collaboration of large groups of people. I searched for an implementation that would not have this limitation but didn’t find it at that time. I even wrote a note into my TODO list to write a wiki software that uses CVS instead of RCS so that it could support concurrent editing (RCS and CVS are two revision control systems, but CVS is newer and allows lock-less concurrent editing). However, later I found a software that provided means of concurrent editing. This was MediaWiki software and it was the first wiki I saw that really could support mass collaboration.

Another feature that was crucial to the success of Wikipedia is a revision history providing a mechanism for reverting unhelpful changes. It was not present in the original wikis. In fact, according to Landmark changes to the Wiki it was added in 2002. Prior to this, another mechanism (Edit Copy) was used, providing a single backup copy of every page that can be edited. Edit Copy was clearly insufficient to save content from vandalism as it is too easy for vandals to edit both the working and the backup copy of a page. However, Wikipedia according to the Internet Archive already had revision history on August 8, 2001 (see View other revisions). At that time Wikipedia used UseModWiki software written by Clifford Adams. Again, according to the archive, UseModWiki got its revision history somewhere between December 9, 2000 and February 1, 2001, that nearly coincide with the launch of the Wikipedia project (January 15, 2001).

Jimmy Wales might be right suggesting that Wikipedia was a social rather then technological innovation, but the technology he refers to was not there in 1995. The features that made Wikipedia possible were added to UseModWiki approximately at the same time the Wikipedia was launched and began to use UseModWiki. It might be a lucky coincidence for Wikipedia or those might be new features of UseModWiki requested by founders of Wikipedia. Maybe some of them can comment on this post.

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