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!
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