Crowdsourcing Knowledge

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia launched in Jan 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. It is hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to develop and distribute free educational content. Wikipedia is the 5th most visited website in the world as of Mar, 2017 [1], with 67 million register users and 35 million articles in more than 290 languages [2]. Wikipedia crowdsources its content. In theory, anyone can create and edit content, but in practice, a community of active users, the “Wikipedians”, are the ones voluntarily creating and editing content for free.

Managing the crowd

  • Assign different roles within the community
    • Readers: Readers who consume the content without engaging in creation or editing are the majority of the visitors on Wikipedia.
    • Writers: They add a new section to an existing article or create a new article.
    • Editors: If they see an error on a page they are reading, they correct it.
    • Administrators: Visitors who have been contributing to Wikipedia for a period of time are granted administrator privileges.
  • Culture of consensus seeking and neutral point of view
    • Consensus seeking: Any user can directly create or edit content, and the community would react to the change by either accepting, altering, or rejecting it. The content will continue to change until it reaches a consensus.
    • Neutral point of view: Sometimes “edit war” happens when two or more people edit or revert pages repeatedly to express their point of view. Both parties must reach consensus on the page that achieve objectivity that satisfies both parties. Controversial topics would be moved to separate pages so they can be dealt with separately.
  • Tools to avoid vandalism and ensure quality
    • Revision history: Each page in Wikipedia has a “revision history” that record all the entries and the IPs, where all previous revisions are saved and stored. It is easy for anyone who sees vandalism to revert pages back to a pre-vandalism state.
    • Watchlist: Anyone who feels invested and attached to particular articles can create a watchlist to get notification when pages change.
    • There are 1,300 administrators who check each other’s decisions that makes the platform. They have the authority to block destructive IPs, lock controversial articles from changes, delete inappropriate pages, and revert changes.
    • WikiProject: A WikiProject is a group of contributors who want to work together as a team to improve Wikipedia. These groups often focus on a specific topic area (ex: roman history), a specific location or a specific kind of task (ex: checking newly created pages).

As a result, the platform is self-correcting and fast to respond. An early study in the journal Nature said that in 2005, Wikipedia’s scientific articles came close to the level of accuracy in Encyclopedia Britannica. In 2011, a pilot study conducted by Epic, an e-learning consultancy suggest that Wikipedia articles scored higher in quality comparing to selected encyclopedias. [6]

Incentivizing participation

  • Low barrier of participation: Editing Wikipedia is extremely easy, instant, and commitment-free. Users don’t have to log in to edit the content, or even be responsible for what they write. This effectively encourages participation from the community.
  • Intrinsic reward: As all the Wikipedians are volunteer who provide and edit content for free, the incentives are purely intrinsic. It’s the inherent reward of participation, the pride of being in a community that is collaborative, the passion to compile the sum of human knowledge, and the engagement with the experts in the community that keep them engaged. Jimmy Wales said “Real communities aren’t your cheap labor force. They are real people with passions, hopes, and dreams. Your job is to help them do what they want to do, not to extract labor from them.” [7]

Value creation & capture

  • Value Creation: Wikipedia create value by brining immense knowledge to the public for free. As it’s an open content with no limit of exploration, the range of content is comprehensive and deep, while the community collaboratively provide a neutral point of view. As a non-profit organization, Wikipedia doesn’t sell advertisement, preserving the un-biased view of the content. Aside from the value created for the public reader, it also creates value for the active users by providing them a platform to contribute to the society and express their passion.
  • Value capture: As a non-profit organization, Wikipedia release the value back to the public, and deliberated decided not to monetize. It is funded by Wikimedia Foundation, which in turn is funded mostly through small donations from the public. [8]


  • Accuracy: On Wikipedia no fact is ever final, no page ever complete, and the data is forever mutable. Wikipedia continues to launch WikiProject to fix inaccuracies, add reference, and translate articles. It also partners with experts (ex: scientist, medical students…etc) to improve the content quality of the different fields.
  • Bureaucracy: Currently the English Wikipedia has more than 50 official policies enough for a thick book. Experienced editors reinforce their own status by smacking newcomers with their ignorance. In open collaboration, project members enjoy their influence by generating rules and norms. Wikipedia may need a specialized, volunteer-driven, trusted task force, working to eliminate the bureaucratic.[10]
  • Declining page view and editors: Monthly page view has declined form 21.4 billion in early 2013 to 19.8 billion in 2015 [8], and from 2007 to 2012, the total number of active Wikipedia editors has gradually declined, and the gender ratio is heavily tipped towards men [9]. To improve participation, the foundation is investing in projects to encourage more women to participate, and to develop a visual editing kit for a more user-friendly editing interface.














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Student comments on Wikipedia

  1. Great topic! Wikipedia, as an example of crowdsourcing, makes me wonder about the validity of crowdsourced data. Wikipedia undoubtedly adds value in use cases in which you quickly need moderately accurate information, but I’m sure professors would frown upon a student submitting an academic paper with Wikipedia citations. The current level of accuracy obviously works for Wikipedia, but I do wonder whether crowdsourced information is appropriate for other applications in which verification and accuracy of data is of the utmost importance (ex: data that’s helping to navigate self driving cars)..

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