Wikipedia: Information in the 21st Century
“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.”
~ Jimmy Wales (Founder of Wikimedia Foundation)
In the late 90s, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger were working on Nupedia, an early online encyclopedia. Nupedia was limited to published content generated by experts, and their extensive review process severely limited the number of articles they were able to release. Sanger and Wales were exploring ideas to allow the general public to generate content for review by experts, but due to resistance from existing Nupedia editors, they decided to give the project a separate name. This project – Wikipedia – was launched on January 10, 2001 .
The site grew rapidly and had 20,000 English articles after just one year with that figure rising to 100,000 after two years . Today, Wikipedia has over 5 million articles in English alone, and has 55 alternative language versions that each contain at least 100,000 articles . It is the 7th most popular website in the world according to Alexa page rank .
Business Model: Focus on Quality and Neutrality
While Wikipedia isn’t a traditional business, they have a clear mission statement: “to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally” . To achieve this goal Wikipedia prioritizes its efforts on ensuring the quality and the neutrality of its information.
For any source claiming to aggregate information, the quality of the content will be a key factor in its success. “The passion of the [Wikipedia] community is for the quality of the work”, says Wales, and to date, they have consistently delivered on that objective . While it is far from perfect, Wikipedia has been examined by a number of independent studies, and its quality has been shown to be in line with other Encyclopedias such as Britannica and Encarta. Considering that Wikipedia is orders of magnitude larger, this is quite an impressive feat !
Wikipedia’s other challenge is maintaining their commitment to a neutral point of view (NPOV). The NPOV is “a core principle that is completely not debatable”, says Wales as he describes Wikipedia’s objectivity standards. Most organizations strive to deliver the truth, but in Wales’s view, the “truth” is an impossible standard to define that can vary between people – especially on controversial topics. What Wikipedia attempts to do is convey information in a way such that “Wikipedia itself does not take a stand on the issue.”
Operating Model: Enabling Quality and Neutrality
Wikipedia has a unique business model and enables that business model through a unique operating model. Their content generation and editing standard ensure quality while their open community and donation-based revenue model ensured neutrality.
Content Generation & Editing
Anyone, anywhere can update (almost) any Wikipedia page at anytime. Additionally, people are free to create Wikipedia entries about new topics – a practice that has fueled their growth. With such a large amount of content, ensuring quality is a challenge. Wikipedia handles this with two unique solutions: 1) a real-time peer review process and 2) a strong community dedicated to ensuring quality.
Every change that is made to Wikipedia is tracked and immediately reviewed by a community of volunteers – many of whom are experts in their field. If a change is found to be inaccurate or in violation of the neutrality policy, it can be quickly fixed to maintain the integrity of the page.
Secondly, Wikipedia has a unique community and governance structure. It has found a way to organize a disparate group of volunteers around a common cause. Its governance structure includes a mix of democracy (consensus based decisions), aristocracy (opinions of preeminent Wikipedians carry more weight), and occasionally monarchy (Wales has the authority to make executive decisions to preserve the quality content on Wikipedia).
This unique operation structure has enabled Wikipedia to leverage the cumulative knowledge and manpower of its volunteers, but maintain quality content at the same time .
Wikipedia maintains a very lean operation, but still requires funding for a limited staff and web-servers. Since its founding, Wikipedia has never run advertisements, but in 2014-15, raised $75.5 million from 4.9 million donations. This commitment to donation based fundraising ensures that Wikipedia will never be put in a situation where their financial incentives are in conflict with their incentive to generate high-quality and neutral content .
In the future, Wikipedia’s most difficult challenge will be maintaining the community of contributors and editors . Additionally, there is much excitement about the Wikibooks project – a way to create free and open textbooks for the world. Since Wikipedia is typically written at a university level, much of the content is inaccessible to people with lower levels of education. Wikibooks is a way to repackage the information on Wikipedia in a way that facilitates learning . With the total knowledge of humanity behind you, the possibilities are endless!
 “Essays on History and New Media.” Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media RSS <http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=42>
 “Size of Wikipedia.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Size_of_Wikipedia>
 “List of Wikipedias.” – Meta. <https://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/List_of_Wikipedias#Grand_Total>
 “Top Sites.” Alexa Top 500 Global Sites. <http://www.alexa.com/topsites>
 “Mission Statement.” – Wikimedia Foundation. <https://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/Mission_statement>
 “Jimmy Wales: How a Ragtag Band Created Wikipedia.” YouTube. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQR0gx0QBZ4>
 “Wikipedia Survives Research Test.” BBC News. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4530930.stm>
 “2014-2015 Fundraising Report.” – Wikimedia Foundation. <https://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/2014-2015_Fundraising_Report>
 “WikiPeaks?” The Economist. <http://www.economist.com/news/international/21597959-popular-online-encyclopedia-must-work-out-what-next-wikipeaks>
Student comments on Wikipedia: Information in the 21st Century
Nice post Prasad. Wikipedia is such an interesting innovation. My favorite part of the business model is that the site attracts university professors, among the most educated people in the world, to share their knowledge for free with the unappreciative masses. I wonder what motivates Wikipedia editors to contribute to the website? It seems like a lot of work for very little reward. I’m surprised that a for-profit competitor hasn’t entered the space and poached editors with a freelance or “get-paid-for-your-contribution” model. Wikipedia would make a great HBS case for understanding human incentives and motivation. #eveythingbecomesLEAD
Wikipedia was a great example to focus on. Even if it is known and used by everyone, I don’t think the site gets nearly enough credit for what it has achieved. The creation of a community-sourced repository of insights that is constantly expanding is such an exciting realization of the internet’s potential. The breadth and depth of content is impressive and, even if most teachers don’t encourage students to rely too much on Wikipedia, I have been able to clarify even complex math and physics problems through the site’s content.
The single accomplishment that impresses me most is the “strong community dedicated to ensuring quality”. It is impressive that they were able to set up an system that, on the one hand, always anyone to edit any article on the site, but on the other hand, enables the broader set of users to determine its relevance and validity. I believe there are many more potential applications of this type of “social curating and certifying”. It feels like a powerful tool for organizing the collective knowledge on the internet.
Intriguing post Prasad! I wonder though in the context of TOM whether Wikipedia’s operating model is preventing them from being innovative. It seems from your write-up that Wiki’s focus on quality is almost part of a culture of “risk aversion”, and the lack of change could result in Wiki’s greatest asset, the community, being bored with the website and moving on. Is the dash of innovation from the textbooks enough to help maintain that community’s interest and attention? This is part of a broader TOM-related question of how a company with a solid business model/operating model stays innovative and attracts the best and brightest over a long period of time.
Thanks for sharing this!
This was a great article. “In the future, Wikipedia’s most difficult challenge will be maintaining the community of contributors and editors” – spot on. What’s crazy to me is the fact that they bring in 50-75M in donations per year and spend close to 2/3 of that just to run Wikipedia – seems not to efficient. Also, they’ve done little to increase grants over the past year years despite a rather massively growing surplus for a non-profit. Given the fact they need people to continue contributing and editing, and these people need to be above some metric of pedigree as writer/editors for the content to stay relevant, they need to start putting some of that $75M+ cash coffer to work promoting writing and etc. (e.g. youth scholarships for creative writing, etc.)
Prasad, I like the subject and direction of the post. Quick question, in your research, did you find any evidence of automation in editing. I was just thinking if some basic AI can do basic fact checking and editing which frees up human editors to do more concrete work.