Why is Wikipedia the most successful encyclopedia? A comparison with the constructed language Esperanto might be useful also to enlighten our view on history in general.
Esperanto, published first in 1887, is far away from being the “second language for everybody”. But among the more than 1000 projects it is the utmost successful. If you ask an Esperanto speaker why this is so, he will answer that Esperanto is based on the best principles to construct a new language. And this is so because the founder of Esperanto, L. L. Zamenhof, knew a lot of languages, and, of course, because he was a ‘genius’. The creators of other projects, on the contrary, introduced bad principles (a different word building system, a different orthography etc.).
If you ask followers of these other projects, you will get a different picture. As André Martinet once said, a French linguist and advocate of Interlingua: Interlingua did not have a chance to show its potential, with Esperanto being already so big and attracting all possible adherents of a constructed language.
It is a common experience: successful people explain their success with their own superiority, with the good principles they follow in life. Less successful people explain their fate with bad luck and other exterior factors. They ‘externalize’ their (real or perceived) failure.
Regarding the case of Esperanto more closely, it is obvious that Esperanto is successful because ‘it works’. But there were other factors: (1) Zamenhof could afford to make Esperanto propaganda for two whole years, and spent quite a lot of money for it. (2) He presented Esperanto not as a mere tool, e.g. for more efficient commercial correspondence, but as a way to real internationalism and the fraternisation of all mankind. (3) Esperanto was born at a lucky moment in history, after the decline of once glorious Volapük.
How about Wikipedia? A Wikipedian will likely tell you that Wikipedia has grown so enormously because of its good principles. On the other hand, a project like Citizendium (of ex Wikipedian Larry Sanger) failed due to its poor principles, such as mandatory registration.
This may be true, but the similarities to Esperanto are striking. (1) Jimmy Wales invested a lot of money and time in Wikipedia; (2) he combined it with the strong idealism of ‘giving free access to the sum of all human knowledge’; (3) and Wikipedia came into the world at the right time. As Wales himself once said: If the traditional encyclopedias like Britannica had been online and collaborative more early, it would have been difficult for Wikipedia to challenge them.
Another similarity between Esperanto and Wikipedia history is the person of a ‘traitor’. Besides Zamenhof, the most important person in Esperanto history was a certain Louis de Beaufront. He was the ‘organiser’; the writer of the first decent text-book, the publisher of the magazine L’espérantiste. Without him, as an Esperanto historian said, ‘we all wouldn’t be esperantists.’
But in 1907/1908, de Beaufront left Esperanto and presented a new project of a constructed language, Ido. He threw wild accusations against Zamenhof and the Esperanto community. Ido never became a real competitor, and in 1935, de Beaufront died almost forgotten by esperantists and idists. He could have been the highly appraised number two in the champion project, but he wanted to be the number one in his own.
In 1998 the annual world convention of Esperanto took place in France, one hundred years after de Beaufront had founded the first national Esperanto association. The French esperantists still refused honouring de Beaufront, the ‘traitor’.
I hope that Larry Sanger will make it possible to avoid such an outcome of Wikipedia history.
(See also: Ziko van Dijk: The geek shall inherit the earth. Esperanto-movado kaj vikipedia komunumo en la epoko de la Interreto. In: Detlev Blanke, Ulrich Lins (eds.): La arto labori kune. Festlibro por Humphrey Tonkin. Universala Esperanto-Asocio, Rotterdam 2010, pp. 574-584.)