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Wikipedia, the Father of Crowdsourcing

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Wikipedia can probably be said to be the father of internet crowdsourcing. Building on a non-for-profit business model, Wikipedia launched a free, web-based, multilingual and collaborative encyclopedia in 2001. Aiming to be “The sum of all human knowledge in one place” and with 17 million articles written collaboratively by the community, Wikipedia is now the most popular reference site on the internet. All of the pages are written collaboratively by community members without pay. Anyone with a computer can create or rewrite Wikipedia articles and users can choose to contribute anonymously. “SuggestBot” further enables and entices users to edit other related articles to which they are reading or have edited. Although Wikipedia’s credibility has been questioned due to it’s open sourcing of content by anyone, studies have shown it to be as accurate as traditional encyclopedias like Britannica.

Looking deeper into the crowdsourcing content generation model, we can see that a continuous flow of new content relies on only a small percentage of active contributors among the users. There is a network of Trusted Contributors who are registered and known to provide most of the content, where over 50% of edits were done by 7% of users. Quality control is maintained through community engagement in debates and vetting out low quality content through Wikipedia moderated discussions called “Revert Wars”. When a conclusion based on consensus is hard to be reached, the case will go through internal processes like “Arbitration Committees” who will perform due diligence to administer a final verdict.

Wikipedia also harnesses the power of the many advantages of crowdsourcing. It creates a collective platform for sharing previously scattered and unstructured knowledge to be shared ubiquitously and in turn builds on direct network effects that becomes more valuable as the knowledge base grows. It also provides timely coverage of information that could be constantly updated and dispersed, a function that traditional encyclopedias can never achieve given the tedious process of editing, proofreading and publishing. The content created on it thus always possesses high relevance to current events and also follows customer interest due to the nature of its crowd sourcing process. When facing the common challenge of quality control among crowdsourcing sites, Wikipedia’s community acts as its own quality control. Because the platform is live and free, it is constantly challenged under constant evolution and supervision.

Despite its broad success and the high value of the platform, Wikipedia resolved to never run ads and runs entirely on annual donations. This business model is based on their mission to provide free information that belongs to everyone, which is also highly connected to user engagement motivation. The community is built on a highly democratic spirit that makes it hard for Wikipedia to pursue a for profit business model without deterring their user engagement. This can seem like a potential impetus for financial distraught, but the platform also takes very low costs to maintain. As of 2014, Wikipedia’s net profit was 4 times its previous projections, netting 36 Million. It seems like they are sitting on a bunch of cash with no apparent use of cash.

On the financial front, Wikipedia’s crowdsourcing model has proven to be successful and seems to be quite sustainable even as a non-for-profit. However, given that recent numbers in user engagement has lowered, their continual success will depend on how they would invest in boosting active contributing users.

3 thoughts on “Wikipedia, the Father of Crowdsourcing

  1. $36MM?! What?! I swear they are always placing the most pity-inducing banners on their site asking for donations! I never donate, continue to use the site for whatever information I was searching for, and then feel really bad afterward. But now I certainly won’t feel bad next time I don’t give; apparently that banner is driving plenty of donations. The fact that they have “no apparent use for cash” is interesting, though. And their non-profit status is certainly problematic with net profit figures like that. Perhaps they should start donating those funds to knowledge-related public goods like libraries; or maybe they should start funding college scholarships, or non-profits focused on education in the developing world. Dang. I’m truly shocked.

    1. I’m a little shocked myself. The money could go to other things though, such as covering a bad year (especially if news of their particularly good years gets out). I would suggest “considering an expansion,” but Wikipedia is not out to be a profitable business. It could also go to legal funds to ensure it can continue for some time (there have been issues in the past as people try to modify their own articles or declare data classified even though it isn’t- for instance, the time the French secret service tried to censor a web page about a station related to French nuclear deterrence that became a victim of the Streisand Effect: At the very least it should have enough money to last a while…

  2. I agree that the quality control is the most important factor for Wikipedia. While I think overall the community approach does a good job to correct facts, I wonder how much personal opinion gets missed. Additionally being online based allows for longer entries (compared to the limitations experienced by traditional encyclopedias). I’m curious if the increased text makes quality control harder especially for less popular topics that might not be read in detail. It seems like there could be a way to supplement the crowdsource model with some innovation in quality assurance with the $36 million they have because getting more contributors overall is important, so is getting a higher contributors per post rate. They could assign additional contributors to pages that have low contributors per post rates to try to improve the quality of the site overall.

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