Want to know something? Check Wikipedia. You’ll find 300,000 English articles — that’s five times the volume of Encyclopedia Britannica, according to The Boston Globe. And Wikipedia also offers a half-million articles in other languages.

You might expect at least a penny for Wikipedia’s thoughts, but this massive online encyclopedia is free. Readers don’t pay to read and writers don’t receive or pay a cent for their contributions.

Of course, it’s easy to understand why readers would embrace a free encyclopedia. People have been turning to the web and Internet in droves for the past several years. But why would contributors give away their knowledge?

People do it for love. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, quoted in The Boston Globe says, “We provide an outlet for people to write about what they love.”

But, passions aside, why would people contribute to a non-profit encyclopedia with little opportunity for status gain? No money, no power. What’s the deal?

Elsewhere in the open source galaxy, Slashdot contributor Mandalyx suggests that Wikipedia provides an outlet for memetic powerplays. As in The Selfish Gene, people contribute to Wikipedia because it gives them an opportunity to spread their point of view. By contributing to social capital, Wikipedia writers diffuse their thoughts. At the very least,
they create a published record for their pet interests, validating even the obscure.

In that context, a Wikipedia article is much like a magazine article, letter to the editor, lecture, blog, or radio show caller’s comments. The beauty of the wiki world, though, is that anyone can edit, re-write, or debunk those comments. For egos run amok, Wikipedia offers a cure: real-time peer editing. But, for brief seconds or weeks, Wikipedia contributors can enjoy the power of of their memes. For the successful ones, the memes will survive.

(c) 2004 by Andrea Coutu. Vancouver Marketing Consultant. All rights reserved.