January 15, 2009
IF YOU are a regular user of Wikipedia, the not-for-profit collaborative online encyclopedia, you would have found it hard to miss the Wikipedia Foundation’s recent drive for public donations.
The aim was to raise $US6 million ($A8.4 million) over the course of six months. Wikipedia, with the charismatic and self-confessed autocrat Jimmy Wales at the helm, announced on January 1 that it had met its target.
Is $US6 million all it takes to fund the world’s largest online knowledge bank? It has about 8 million entries translated into more than 200 languages. It’s the eighth most-used website in the world, with credible estimates numbering 300 million page views per day. All that for $US6 million? That’s some business model!
The Wikipedia Foundation currently employs a mere 23 people, most of whom are software developers, but it matters not, for the standout resource of Wikipedia is its global community of volunteer contributors. Be they enthusiastic amateurs or academic specialists, inclusiveness is the key.
Flying in the face of Wikipedia sceptics who question the site’s accuracy, the “anyone can edit” mantra is proving remarkably successful. A 2005 study by Nature magazine found that Wikipedia had around the same number of mistakes as Encyclopedia Britannica — the latter being compiled by paid experts — and that mistakes were more promptly responded to.
Wikipedia has also proved to be highly agile in response to new turns of events. I did my own comparison by keying “Gaza Strip” into both services. The contrast could not have been starker. Wikipedia specifically addressed the current crisis.
The entry began with a number of caveats: that the site was being reviewed, that the site needed additional citations and that the site might change rapidly as the conflict evolved. The content itself was impressive: a timeline of attacks, the casualties, the subsequent humanitarian crisis, the Israeli media campaign and world reaction ranging from the UN and NGOs to civilian protests; then a discussion on alleged violations of international law from the perspective of both the Israelis and Palestinians.
By contrast, Encyclopedia Britannica Online was a non-starter. I was given the merest glimpse of what looked like a generic-only reference to Gaza, before an unsightly black box appeared blocking all content and demanding I log in for a “free trial”. The only information that remained visible was embedded advertising for credit cards, banks and computers.
Wikipedia’s superior design goes right to its core, by utilising what business journalist James Surowiecki famously described in 2004 as “the wisdom of crowds”.
Many of the more than 125,000 donors left comments expressing how they feel about this innovative model:
“Wikipedia is the new frontier of human knowledge,” wrote Anonymous, donating $US100. American Patrick Culligan wrote: “Accurate information is what enables society to act in the appropriate way in which we can change the world. History cannot be left for the winners to write.” Another wrote: “Wikipedia is one of those ‘big ideas’ which will change our world for the better.”
In his thank-you to users, Jimmy Wales invokes the “free-culture movement”, the mission of which is “to bring free knowledge to the planet, free of charge and free of advertising”.