When Quality is the Wrong Choice

Have you heard of Nupedia? Chances are you haven’t.  If you navigate to nupedia.com, your browser will time out. The site is barren. Yet at one point in time, Nupedia was the bright hope of the future.

Nupedia dreamed of being a free online encyclopedia with high-quality articles rivaling those of Britannica or WorldBook. Backed with money from Bomis.com, Jimmy Wales set out to form a group of academics who could churn out accurate and authoritative content. He hired Larry Sanger, a Ph.D. student in philosophy, and the pair went to work.

An advisory board consisting of Wales, Sanger, and Ph.D.s in a variety of fields set up a rigorous seven-stage content approval process for Nupedia. The process is as follows:

  1. Assignment – An article was proposed and categorized. A qualified author was identified by the category editor.
  2. Finding a lead reviewer – A field expert was asked to read and critique the article anonymously.
  3. Lead review – The lead-reviewer, author, and editor corresponded to see if the article met Nupedia’s rigorous standards.
  4. Open review – The article was put before the general public for review. To pass this point, an article had to be approved by the section editor, lead reviewer, and at least one category peer reviewer.
  5. Lead copy editing – An email was sent to Nupedia’s copy editor’s email list asking participants to sign up to copy edit the article. Two volunteer editors were selected by the author to prepare the article for publication.
  6. Open copy editing – Over a period of at least one week, the general public could make changes. Final edits were approved by the two volunteer lead copy editors.
  7. Final approval and markup – After approval from the category editor and the two lead copy editors, the article was posted on Nupedia.

The focus was clearly on quality and authority. Nupedia’s online review process closely mirrored the rigorous review process of scholarly journals. A policy document stated, “We wish editors to be true experts in their fields and (with few exceptions) possess Ph.D.s”

Results were discouraging. Nupedia launched in March 2000. After 6 months, only two full-length articles had been written. At 18 months, the number was 12. In September 2003, Nupedia closed up shop after publishing a meager 24 full-length articles.

Jimmy Wales himself admitted feeling intimidated by the rigor of the review process.

Nupedia closed due to lack of funding and due to the rampant popularity of something that started as a side project for Nupedia –  Wikipedia. It launched in January 15, 2001, and by the end of 2001, contained approximately 20,000 articles in 18 different languages. It is now the largest encyclopedia in the world.

Why did Wikipedia succeed while Nupedia failed?

The rigorous quality standards at Nupedia were a barrier to entry for nearly everyone outside academia. Even within academia, the time required to post an article was prohibitive.

Wikipedia is the complete opposite. One of the five pillars of Wikipedia encourages users to “Be bold in updating articles and do not worry about making mistakes. Your efforts do not need to be perfect; prior versions are saved, so no damage is irreparable.” Editing is easy, mistakes are encouraged, and anyone can participate.

Nupedia’s focus on quality was their downfall.

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  • Brooke July 8, 2010 at 10:20 am

    I love that the people who started wikipedia went behind the board of trustee’s back and did it after they already said they didn’t want to invest even a small fracture of time or money on it. With in weeks, it already had more articles and good content than Nupedia had in a much longer time span.

    Why are great ideas, often the ones that people think won’t work or will fail?

    Wikipedia proved an idea that many people thought would fail. It proves that people naturally will guard truth and correct mistakes on their own. It also proved that people will volunteer their time and skills online for free to be part of a community that provides a great resource for others or themselves.

  • Ryan Murri July 8, 2010 at 11:31 am

    HBR, The Economist, WSJ, etc. usually publish on successful companies and projects. It’s interesting to hear about a failure every once in a while. Thanks for sharing.

  • Derek July 8, 2010 at 11:49 am

    Ryan, it really is interesting to learn about the failures. One resource I’ve found to be invaluable is the TechCrunch Deadpool. Remember ClearPass at the airport? It’s dead, along with a lot of other companies that slipped quietly into obscurity.

  • Emerald July 8, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    Hey Derek – keep up the good work. I enjoy reading the articles you post. Thanks for the info. I wish I could pass the advice on over-emphasizing quality to my boss! And you’re right – I will add “The Paradox of Choice” to my “must-read” list!