On a mission to create a free, globally-accessible repository of human knowledge, Jimmy Wales launched Wikipedia in 2001. Wikipedia has seen incredible growth, ballooning to over 5.3M articles on English Wikipedia alone (1) and 284 active language-specific Wikipedias (2); it has also done this while being primarily written by volunteers and funded by individual donations (3).
The value of Wikipedia lies almost entirely in the breadth and quality of content on the site. The general public relies on Wikipedia as a go-to source of information, which explains the 2.6M pageviews/day English Wikipedia received in December 2016 (4). It is our de facto encyclopedia because we trust it to answer our questions and do so accurately.
Breadth of content
In order to have breadth of content, Wikipedia must attract and enable site contributors. Fundamental to Wikipedia’s growth in content is its strategic choice to allow anyone to develop content and immediately publish it. This choice widens the pool of potential contributors and provides instant gratification that may entice more visitors to contribute. The choice also eliminates bottlenecks inherent in peer-reviewed systems, which allows the content to adapt more quickly to changes in human knowledge (e.g., current events). To get niche material, Wikipedia supports partnerships, such as the GLAM Wiki-initiative (5).
To enable content creators, Wikipedia invests in usability research. Although the original platform required knowledge of markup language, Wikipedia now has a visual editor that is more accessible. For perspective, product development–which does not include technology infrastructure costs–accounted for 29% of program expenses in 2015-2016 (6).
Quality of content
Allowing anyone to create content instantaneously could compromise content quality. To ensure quality, Wikipedia uses 3 mechanisms.
First, it clearly articulates its community standards (particularly neutral point of view) and enforcement mechanisms. This helps guide user behavior towards a minimum quality. In the event that users engage in misconduct, Wikipedia reserves the right to ban them.
Second and most importantly, Wikipedia organizes and provides tools for a community of volunteer editors who are largely responsible for quality. It recognizes a hierarchy of editors with various editing rights, codifies editing best practices, and provides dispute resolution resources / formal mediation (7). It also invests heavily in adapting technology and tools to support editors’ needs.
Finally, Wikipedia uses editing bots that perform a wide variety of tasks, such as formatting and flagging conflicts of interest & vandalism (8). These bots alleviate the burden on human editors, allowing them to handle more complex issues. Leveraging automated algorithms, bots can review page changes more quickly than their human counterparts.
Wikipedia has been quite successful in capturing this value through philanthropic donations. In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, Wikipedia raised $77.2M in donations, 80% of which came from individual readers (3). This success partly stems from the choice to campaign once a year, which increases the sense of urgency. It may also come from investment in A/B testing of appeals messages.
Given that the content on the site is created by volunteers and not guaranteed, capturing value through donations may be the most palatable way to ask users to pay. It is also consistent with the Wikimedia Foundation’s mission for free knowledge. Alternative value capture mechanisms would likely have failed. Monetizing users through ads, for example, could introduce potential conflicts of interest that affect neutrality. A subscription or freemium model, on the other hand, is inconsistent with the mission and would could result in fewer contributors–why create content for free when Wikipedia is going to turn around and sell it?
There may be new challenges on the horizon. The shift in user behavior towards mobile technologies, for instance, threatens the sustained engagement of the editor community. Wikipedia also came under criticism for having an 85% male editing community, which could affect content breadth and introduce bias (9). And as noted in a recent fundraising report, its fundraising methods may not transfer well to global cultures (3).
Wikipedia is actively addressing these challenges. Wikipedia is developing more mobile-friendly editing tools; hosting hackathons for new female editors (10); and investing in research to better understand attitudes towards fundraising in other cultures (3).
There may be uncertainty about how these factors impact Wikipedia going forward, but one thing is clear: Wikipedia has achieved a great feat. Through careful choices and design, Wikipedia has engaged a global audience to create the world’s 6th most popular website (11) and the place we go to get our questions answered.
(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Statistics; (2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Wikipedias; (3) https://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/2015-2016_Fundraising_Report; (4) https://tools.wmflabs.org/siteviews/?platform=all-access&source=pageviews&agent=user&range=last-month&sites=en.wikipedia.org; (5) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:GLAM; (6) https://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Wikimedia_Foundation_Annual_Plan/2016-2017/Final; (7) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Dispute_resolution; (8) http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/bots-edit-wikipedia-humans-made/; (9) https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/21/opinion/can-wikipedia-survive.html?_r=0; (10) http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-09/wikipedia-edit-a-thon-tackles-internet-gender-gap/8106784; (11) http://www.alexa.com/topsites