Accident, luck, contingency, and meaning

In the conclusion to Mako Hill’s article “Almost Wikipedia,” he takes issue with my characterization of Wikipedia’s success as luck . (To be clear, I say Wikipedia “can be seen as a happy accident.”) In looking at Wikipedia relative to seven other online collaborative encyclopedia projects – including ones I haven’t included in my own histories – Hill offers three propositions. Wikipedia succeeded because potential contributors were familiar with the encyclopedic genre, there were low barriers to contribution, and participants were collaborative rather than proprietary about their contributions.

My characterization of Wikipedia as a “happy accident” is not to say that reasons for its success cannot be discerned – especially after the fact. Indeed, Good Faith Collaboration is my own attempt to explain its success. Hill’s propositions are also compelling. However, in saying Wikipedia is an accident I am arguing that the reasons for Wikipedia’s success were not fully appreciated at its start. In the introduction to my piece I explain that “I sometimes offer this (admittedly) exaggerated claim in response to those who confuse Wikipedia’s current success with its uncertain origins.”

At the start, it was but the most recent contender in an age-old pursuit of a universal encyclopedia: a dream that the latest technology would provide universal access to world knowledge. Jimmy Wales’s and Larry Sanger’s first attempt at what would eventually become Wikipedia, the wiki-based encyclopedia that “anyone can edit,” was neither of these things. So, by saying that Wikipedia was an accident, I don’t mean it was unwelcome–far from it–but that it was a fortuitous turn of events unforeseen by even its founders. Moreover, it was evidence of contingency’s role in technological innovation.

As I continue to think about the history and meaning of technology, my appreciation for contingency has only strengthened. In Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal, I was fascinated by the competing visions of its cofounders. (Also see “All Is Fair in Love and Twitter”.) Bilton wrote that Williams’ and Stones’ experiences with blogging lead them to see Twitter as a platform for real-time news events. Glass is characterized as someone looking for a way to connect with others. Dorsey’s vision is said to be influenced by the the dispatch systems he wrote for bike messengers. There was a period when people argued Wikipedia was not an encyclopedia (and that it would flop), but that time has past: it is the only encyclopedia most of my students have ever known. Twitter too has succeeded – in terms of adoption, sustainable profits are yet to be seen. But this doesn’t mean its originators knew at the outset in what ways, and why, it would succeed. Indeed, we are still arguing about what Twitter is and this then mirrors its uncertain origins.

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