Thinking about it – the idea of Wikipedia is crazy. From the traditional encyclopedia, written and verified by experts, the world has converted to an open platform of knowledge sharing as the source of truth.
How did it happen?
It started in 2001 as a complementary product to an online traditional encyclopedia, “Nupedia”. The founders decided to enable articles that are publicly edited, with only two rules: Write things that others can verify, in a neutral point of view. As the platform grew and in order to ensure these two rules, additional restrictions were put in place, such as that only registered users can write and review articles.
The main driver behind the amazing phenomena is the community. “The Wikipedians”, which stand on about 31.7M people today (!). These are the ones who spend Billions of human hours to make sure that I can have immediate access to any random topic on earth. Why? Good questions. Various studies have been done to solve this mystery: belief in the values of sharing knowledge and education, learning by doing, supporting ideologies, gaining work experience, and the interesting of them all (in my eyes)– gaining recognition within the Wikipedians community.
This community is so strong, that it stands behind not only the extensive growth of this giant (37M articles in 250 languages), but also its integrity. And that is the key here. Today, if it’s written in Wikipedia – it’s true. You can rely on it for your academic studies, reference it in social interactions and base on it personal decisions you make. Here and there are stories that show the flaws in this system, but the way Wikipedia is incorporated in our daily lives – it is De-Facto the source of truth.
The biggest challenge for Wikipedia is the delicate balance between the freedom of contributing to the platform and the integrity of the articles. First, no one “owns” the truth, and there are many topics where, no matter how long the discussion might be, there is no one right way to address things. The current solution is the statement: “this article might be unbalanced towards certain viewpoints”, with a call to improve the article. But who is the main authority to judge?
Second, there is a limited ability to track problematic edits that are done to an article. The rule today is that claims that are likely to be challenged require a reference resource, and the main motto is “verifiability, not truth” – to express that the readers are in charge on verifying the information. Yet critics easily find flaws and argue that Wikipedia’s open nature and a lack of proper sources for most of the information makes it unreliable. As a consequence of the open structure, Wikipedia “makes no guarantee of validity” of its content, since no one is ultimately responsible for any claims appearing in it. But the rules haven’t changes, and all users can register as an editor with a recommendation from an existing editor.
The value creation for the world’s population here is clear. Wikipedia is the 6th most used website in the world, with 8B visitors every month. Community members gain value here as well, otherwise they wouldn’t spend hours of their time writing, verifying and discussing different topics.
The value capturing is interesting: this is a non-profit, and every once and a while, the website suggests that you contribute one dollar. And then I think to myself – is this really all they are asking for after all these hours that I am spending here? (I based all my math degree on Wikipedia) of course I will donate!
If they wanted, they could have captured much more value. They have such a critical mass, brand name and community as a resource, that there is no way that a competitor will rise in time prevent this. And yet, it seems against their values of free knowledge sharing and education the world. Is it possible that there are organizations in this world that operate solely on values?