Wikipedia is operated by the Wikimedia Foundation, a 501c-3 (non-profit) organization that runs a total of 16 projects aimed at providing free, objective educational content to the public. Started in 2001, Wikipedia is a free online open-knowledge platform that contains over 24 million articles published on an array of topics in 284 languages.[i] It is a platform that brings together those who wish to acquire knowledge and those who wish to share their knowledge.[ii] The value of the Wikipedia platform is in its scale (the number of articles) and in the quality of the information (information that is “good enough”) that is provided on these pages.
The company derives its revenue from donations. In 2014, 2.5m people (less than .5% of Wikipedia readers) contributed a total of $50m. [iii] Most of this revenue is funneled into managing the organization’s web properties, investing in engineering infrastructure and apps, and capacity building of the Wikimedia community.[iv][v]
The company is focusing current efforts on enhancing tools for existing editors and on increasing access and diversity of content through initiatives such as the the Wikipedia Zero project which offers the site free of access (internet) charges.[vi],[vii], [viii], [ix]
Operating Model & Alignment
Anonymous, volunteer contributors (Wikipedians) create the articles and content for Wikipedia sites. The volunteers are not compensated or formally incentivized and there are very few limitations on the types of articles they can create or edit. A relatively small number of individuals are responsible for the vast majority of article edits, with 70,000 contributors working on more than 35,000,000 articles.[x], [xi] In addition to creating new webpages, these contributors are constantly updating and editing existing articles. Contributors are the primary drivers of content growth and (theoretically) crowd- regulate the quality of the content. These contributors are more likely than non-contributors to become donors to Wikipedia.[xii]
There are no pre-requisites or levels of expertise required to become a contributor to Wikipedia. However, contributions must adhere to the organization’s policies around the neutrality and verifiability of information. Contributors who routinely violate these policies are blocked or banned from editing. In 2015, Wikipedia banned 381 accounts for violating its policies around creating and editing content.[xiii]
Although the community is largely allowed to operate autonomously, a few hundred administrators are granted special governing privileges that they use to enforce good behavior and arbitrate content disputes. The company has both formal and informal dispute resolution processes managed by volunteers and internal staff.[xiv]
Wikimedia Foundation has both engineering and product teams tasked with streamlining and improving the platform’s software and editing tools.[xv] There are two main methods of editing—using wiki markup and VisualEditor. The wiki markup is accessible by the clicking on an “edit” button on the article requiring editing. Editors are then taken to a new page and can edit the content using the wikitext language. The second option is more user friendly. It enables users to edit pages they land on directly and requires no knowledge of a new language or code. This engineering innovation makes content editing more accessible, enables Wikipedia to attract a diverse set of contributors, and results in better content quality and robustness.
Public policy concerns are a very real risk to the Foundation’s business model as it affects the quality of the Wikipedia community and the webpages the community creates. Because of this, a primary goal of the Foundation, and its significant legal advocacy staff, is to shape policies around access, censorship, copyright, and privacy that directly threaten quality of the Wikipedia community and platform.[xvi] This illustrates how the operational model of the company is leveraged to sustain its competitive advantage of providing high quality information.
Competition & Alternative Models
Citizendium and Veropedia are the most well-known (and failed) competitors to Wikipedia. Citizendium was founded by Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger in 2007. It was an experts-based online wiki encyclopedia that, unlike Wikipedia, required creators of articles to use their real names. The site had significant issues gaining traction against Wikipedia. After a scandal involving an article about homeopathy, the organization had difficulty attracting experts to edit content for the site, a crucial prerequisite to attracting web visitors.[xvii], [xviii] Although the site is still currently active, it poses little, if any, competitive threat to Wikipedia.
Veropedia, another failed Internet encyclopedia started by a scion of the founding Wikipedia team, focused its efforts on verifying information before it was posted and on “locking” content– making it un-editable once it had been created.[xix] This business also model attempted to strengthen reliability of information as compared to the information on the Wikipedia web platform. Veropedia relied on advertising to generate revenue and keep the site up and running.[xx] Unable to gain enough traction from readers and editors alike, the site shuttered in 2009.[xxi]
The most likely current competitive threats to Wikipedia may be traditional encyclopedias such as Encyclopedia Britannica and the Columbia Encyclopedia (Encyclopedia.com) that have moved online.[xxii],[xxiii] The content available via the Britannica and Encyclopedia.com websites is viewed as extremely high-quality, though is not (fully) free. For example, Britannica offers both a limited, free ad-based version and a more complete offering and tailored products available by subscription. Britannica’s operating model relies on small groups of editors to create and monitor content, which results in a much more limited selection of content that is covered.[xxiv] Britannica’s target audience is also focused on educators and libraries, much narrower than the target audience of Wikipedia.[xxv]
Other Business and Operating Model Risks:
- Content diversity & content quality: The main contributors to Wikipedia are predominantly white, male, and living in the United States.[xxvi], [xxvii] The contributors directly impact the types of articles or topics covered in Wikipedia articles and in the points of view that are shared.[xxviii] Thus, a non-diverse contributor base means that Wikipedia is not capturing the true breadth and depth of knowledge, a crucial element of their value proposition. Because it so directly affects the organization’s value proposition, the onus for cultivating this diversity lies with Wikipedia rather than on individuals.
- Quality of Content: As more content has been created and laws and regulations regarding that content or the repurposing of content have caught up with technological changes, Wikipedia has had to invest increasingly in content monitoring.[xxix] However, the need to rigorously manage content may come at the expense of attracting or retain contributors who may view the quality control as overbearing.[xxx] In addition, ensuring quality of content may also come at the expense of the diversity of opinions for controversial topics such as religion.[xxxi]
- Retention of contributors and staff: More recently, Wikipedia has suffered from a declining level of contributors. [xxxii],[xxxiii] These contributors are the true value-creators of Wikipedia and losing significant numbers of contributors would be the death knell for the platform. Wikipedia is taking this issue seriously and has plans to alter the culture of the contributor community, which they identify as the main concern.[xxxiv] In addition, several internal Wikipedia staff have left to create competing products of their own such as Veropedia and Citizendium.[xxxv]
- Compensation of true value generators: Critics argue that donations to Wikipedia should instead be redirected toward those who are the true value creators—the editors of content. [xxxvi],[xxxvii]