Wikipedia: The World's First DAO
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The Crisis Point
It was 8:46 AM in Manhattan when the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Within 90 minutes, three more planes had crashed in the Northeastern United States.
In the face of all the emotions that confronted the US and the world after that day – anger, grief, resolve – I think we often overlook a particularly important one: confusion.
Today, our collective memory of 9/11 immediately transports us from the NY Skyline to the caves of Afghanistan. We parse the tragedy concurrently with the confident and certain action that followed it.
But on that day, there was no certainty to be had. It’s hard to overstate the moment’s collective confusion. There were no immediate claims of responsibility. No sense that the attacks were over. No information on who had survived, who had died. No certainty at all.
Humans, you see, are surprisingly resilient in the face of certainty. But confusion, uncertainty, paranoia - those are the things of trauma. And collective trauma is disorienting.
Most societies are not effectively equipped to process trauma. The journey from confusion to sense-making to processing to resolution is long and fraught. There was (probably for the better) no Twitter that day to aid in instantaneous internet sleuthing.
But there was another tool that emerged as the gathering place for collective sense-making.
On September 11, 2001, Wikipedia was just nine months old. It was primarily a hobby-horse for teenagers and young men with too much time on their hands. But the crisis changed that. A nation and a world were reeling from a massive traumatic event.
A link on Yahoo! To the Wikipedia 9/11 page set off a virtuous cycle. As concerned Americans, with free time, a newly found altruistic impulse, and a desire for sense-making, poured into the site to read and edit the record of that day.
In the words of one volunteer editor that lived in New York:
“I live in New York City, and this is the small way I can do something in honor of the thousands of people who died, including the 350 firefighters who died because they rushed in to save people, and in respect for the thousands of people working until they drop, exhausted, after literally days without sleep, digging through the rubbish, cutting through the twisted steel, and getting this city back on its feet. . . . And it’s important that we do get back to normal—but also that we don’t forget what happened. And the only way to prevent that is through the preservation and dissemination of knowledge, the reason for something like Wikipedia.”
In the aftermath of one of the most tragic days in American history, Wikipedia connected to something deep in the collective psyche of America’s 140M internet users. It attached itself to the human need to make-sense, to tell stories, to shape our understanding of the chaos around us.
In doing so, it found its early missionaries. It has never looked back.
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Wiki to Web3
Why do we Web3?
Why do we put up with the assholes who shill tokens on Twitter? Why do we not turn away in the face of the judgment of friends and family who ask why we bother with monkey JPEGs?
We do it because we believe that the thing that has made the greatest difference to humans is finding new ways to work together, to trust each other, to build great things. We do it because we believe that human coordination is the most important design space that has ever or will ever exist. We do it because projects like Wikipedia remind us that humans, when brought together by common purpose and the right technologies, can create so much more than any single individual.
But Web3 mistakes itself when it thinks that it somehow invented internet coordination. The most impressive, most enduring, most important internet community that creates untold value out of the ether is not Bitcoin or Ethereum.
Wikipedia is the single-most up-to-date, exhaustively curated collection of human knowledge ever created. It has 6.6Million English articles and continues to add 17,000 new articles every month. If published in the same style as the Encyclopedia Britannica, it’s estimated that Wikipedia would require 3220 volumes.
And all of that that content is added exclusively by volunteers. Not a single person is paid for editing or contributing to Wikipedia. But for some reason, 130,000 people edit it every month.
By any rational model of human productivity, Wikipedia shouldn’t exist.
Sure, I can construct a model as to why people would contribute to one of the most trafficked websites in the world today. But how does it get started?
Wikipedia is the perfect trap for a cold-start problem. No one should have wanted to be one of the first 100 people contributing to this thing. Why would I invest time in writing one of the first articles on a website that gets very few visitors? Why would I bet that I am contributing to something that could be of earth-shattering importance? Who stays up at night thinking it would be fun to write an encyclopedia?
No economist would have a good answer for that. It’s totally irrational. And the orthodox thought of the Web3 community agrees.
In one of the most influential essays for Web3, Chris Dixon of A16z argues that the superpower of Web3 is that we can use financial incentives (in the forms of tokenized ownership) to encourage our initial users to bootstrap a network. More concretely: Chris suggests we could pay the first 100 users to kickstart Wikipedia. Over time, the value of our Wiki can become self-sustaining so the token incentives can taper off:
This theory is derived from the success of Bitcoin. Early users of Bitcoin received massive amounts of token and were incentivized to use them and spread the gospel of Bitcoin to make the value of their treasuries grow.
So, dutifully, hundreds of new crypto projects each year airdrop tokens to early adopters hoping to start spinning that flywheel. Consider, for example, an interesting project that A16z invested in called Helium.
Helium used the promise of financial rewards to get over 1 Million internet/data hotspots installed around the world.And yet… only $6,500 worth of Helium credits were purchased to use that same network as of July 2022.
The natives of the Helium network have grown restless as their token subsidies dropped and the promised users never materialized. This is because Helium is fundamentally a community of mercenaries. And mercenaries may help to augment the ranks of true believers, but they are not a substitute.
If you want to change the world, you have to persuade people that you are imagining a world worth building. And that’s the real lesson that Wikipedia has for Web3.
A Brief History of the Wiki: From Nu to New
In 1995, Ward Cunningham was helping to maintain a community of 500 web developers on the Portland Pattern Repository. He wanted to offer the developers a way to easily add their own content to the site. So he created a way to directly edit text on the website. Cunningham remembered that Wiki meant quick in Hawaiian and he liked that Wiki Wiki Web matched the “WWW” of the Worldwide Web. The Wiki was born.
Four years later, Jimmy Wales had been experimenting with Web Rings in his startup. Web Rings were user-curated lists of links. Kind of like an open source Yahoo! Directory. But Jimmy had a different idea. What if, rather than just curating links, people actually built out pages about the topics that they knew about? What would an open source encyclopedia look like?
Naturally, Jimmy thought, quality would be a massive concern. So when he launched Nupedia, he hired a PhD candidate to oversee a seven-step editing process. It would be like peer review for the internet. Anyone could edit, but the process would ensure only the highest quality content got through to end-users.
It was a flop.
In its first year, it had 21 articles. So the company tried a different experiment to drum up more content as a “feeder” for Nupedia. They adopted the “wiki” tech to let anyone directly edit pages.
They called this side-project Wikipedia. It was considered by the Nupedia team an unserious, if interesting experiment. But it took off. In its first month, January 2001, it had already 10x the articles of Nupedia.
In its first year, it had 18,000 articles.
After 9/11, Wikipedia never looked back. Communities formed to write and edit articles covering every conceivable topic. Just as impressive, Wikipedia has largely avoided the disinformation controversies that plague other Web2 giants like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
It does so because its engaged community of editors scrupulously debate to ensure something approximating neutrality. The contributors of Wikipedia are on a mission to collect and curate human knowledge. They are not interested in making a Wiki-token number go up.
Whereas the profit incentives of Web2 networks reward virality and outrage, Wikipedia’s strong mission-focus and the adoption of that mission by its community of editors keeps the website pointed at its true north.
Missionaries > Mercenaries.
It’s reasonable to ask, of course, if the altruistic motivations of 9/11 editors would wither and die in the decades since that day. There has been a longstanding debate over the motivations for why people, for example, contribute to open-source projects. Many economists point to the reputation building or network building effects of contributing to prominent projects.
But research on Wikipedia suggests something different.
In a 2007 survey, Wikipedia contributors were asked to select among six possible motivations for their work on Wikipedia. The typical contributor (overwhelmingly young and male) was spending an average of 8.27 hours per week contributing.
While ideology and values were important to initially getting involved, the most important determinants of who contributed their time and energy to Wikipedia was how fun they found it, how much it helped them achieve understanding, and how much it made them feel needed.
Fun. Mastery. Feeling Needed.
By appealing to these human needs, Wikipedia has built an army of missionaries. No token required.
Lessons for DAOs
All well-and-good, you might say, but wouldn’t Wikipedia also grow faster if it paid its most valued editors? Couldn’t they just do an airdrop or set up some quests to offer edit-to-earn rewards?
Well, not so fast. Volunteers, it turns out, don’t respond well to being treated like mercenaries.
In their 1999 paper, Does Pay Motivate Volunteers?, University of Zurich Professors Bruno S. Frey and Lorenz Goette analyze Swiss data that looks at charitable work done by volunteers versus paid contributors. What they find is that pay can encourage higher contribution than altruistic volunteering – but only when it crosses a very high threshold. When workers are rewarded with small amounts of money, it crowds out the self-esteem boost they get from doing volunteer work.
Put another way, the “mission” has a high value to people. When you pay them, you undermine the value they get from contributing to that mission. You reduce missionaries to mercenaries, and they don’t love that.
So what does this tell us?
It tells us that Dixon’s model needs an update. To bootstrap a network, you need to either provide early adopters a massive financial stake – (sup Web3 VCs) – or you need to offer them non-monetary value. You need to convert them into missionaries.
In truth, this is the real lesson of the most successful Web3 communities.
Bitcoin, for example, did not start as a way to make bags of cash on Robinhood. It started as a libertarian, privacy-aware, computer science experiment. It gained traction in this community of true-believers first. Then it spread to users in adjacent markets who felt these needs. Then it attracted the speculators who helped scale the network by shilling their own holdings.
Look, those speculators played an important role in scaling the network. Bitcoin would not operate nearly as smoothly without the capital investments of profit-motivated miners. But a set of mercenary miners without a missionary core would have been DOA.
There’s just no substitute for the alchemy of true intrinsic motivation. Man does not live on tokens alone. Instead, the most successful online communities understand that their project is to create initiatives that excite our souls, that make us feel needed and like we’re part of something great.
The money, it turns out, is just a sweetener.
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