Wikipedia’s success and even existence is a mystery. Social scientists (not just economists) do not understand how it could be that a completely open access encyclopedia could have worked. The traditional theory was that contributors who invested to make Wikipedia good would be subject to free riding and that any rewards they received would be polluted by the possibly naive editing from any old person. That is, at the very least, it would have to be a club with restricted access in order to work.
A new paper by Harvard PhD student Andreea Gorbatai gives us some clues as to why Wikipedia works. Instead of novices polluting contributions by committed Wikipedians (as they are now called), Gorbatai finds that novices spur intensive Wikipedians to action. Because it is Wikipedia this is no small sample exercise. She looks at 185 million contributions and teases out a relationship between novices minor edits and the intensity of Wikipedian contributions two weeks hence. As I have noted before, those Wikipedians can be intense.
Why this is the case is unclear. Gorbatai believes that the novices signal to Wikipedians the demand or usefulness of particular entries and this focusses their attention. And there is some evidence here as using novice contributions appears to swamp direct measures of demand (say, page hits). But I conjecture it could be something else, such as annoyance, with Wikipedians defending their turf and the activity of novices spurring them to action. Either way, this paper points to the notion that it was open access and then entry by novices that makes Wikipedia tick. The puzzle is slowly starting to be solved.