Wikipedia: the triumph of crowdsourcing

Wikipedia has become one of the top ten most popular websites on a tiny fraction of the staffing or budget of the others. It has created more than 30 million articles in 13 years, across more than 280 languages, harnessing hundreds of millions of person-hours of work. Clay Shirky estimated in 2010 that around 100 million person hours of volunteer effort had gone into making Wikipedia. Collectively, the Wikimedia sites have around 80,000 active volunteer contributors (defined as those making at least five edits per month) and in 13 years have reached more than two billion edits.

A large proportion of changes made to Wikipedia are reversions of other changes: this is not a failure but a consequence of how easy it is to edit, just as it was integral to the DNA computer that most of its steps are reversals of past steps. A huge number of person-hours have gone into heated-but-pointless discussions, but given how controversy is inevitable in topics like Abortion, 2003 invasion of Iraq, or Capital punishment, contributors’ disagreements have not stopped them creating detailed, extensively referenced articles. Wikipedia has an internal bureaucracy that can be arcane and frustrating for users, but when compared to the scale of bureaucracy required for similarly complex tasks, such as running a university, it could be seen as remarkably un-bureaucratic.

Wikipedia is just the best known of eleven multilingual, freely reusable, volunteer-led projects hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation. These include Wikidata, Wiktionary, and others that will be considered later. “Wikimedia” is the umbrella term encompassing these projects, their communities, national and regional non-profit organisations and related activities such as outreach, research and software development.

The change management infoKit distinguishes four kinds of organisational culture: Collegiate, Bureaucratic, Innovative, and Enterprise. By being very individualistic, consensual, focused on freedom, driven by local cultures rather than global coordination, and focused on the long term, Wikimedia strongly maps onto the Collegiate culture, which also happens to be the culture of old, research-focused universities.

Wikimedia projects have glaring imbalances and biases in their output, reflecting that:

  1. The things needed to contribute – including broadband internet, access to sources, IT skills, free time, and confidence – are not evenly distributed through the world’s population. For example the density of articles, mapped geographically, corresponds strongly to the availability of broadband internet.
  2. Contributors’ effort goes into writing about what they are interested in.

Several projects that are very similar to Wikipedia have nothing like the same success (Mako-Hill, 2012). Citizendium is almost exactly like Wikipedia except that contributors have to be credentialed experts. Google Knol shared some features with Wikipedia but allowed individual authors to take ownership of articles. So to learn from Wikipedia’s success it is essential to look at its distinctive recipe.