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Wikipedia’s Unique Ways to Become the Most Influencing Encyclopedia

Wikipedia has been existing in our digital world for a while. Yet this non-profit organization manages to defeat other encyclopedias and hold the throne. Let us analyze how they made it!
By Iris Cao | 8 min read
on August 5, 2020
Image credit: Press associate

Wikipedia has become such a popular research tool for anyone using the Internet. The online encyclopedia with different languages is created and maintained as an open collaboration project, which means that its content is constantly created and updated by a community of volunteer editors. Wikipedia is the largest and most popular general reference work on the World Wide Web.

Moreover, in June 2020, Alexa also ranked this encyclopedia as one of the 15 most popular websites. To ensure that the knowledge is free and accessible for anyone on the planet, Wikipedia chose its path to be a non-profit organization with free content and no commercial ads. 

Keeping a non-profit business on the top was not an easy task. Wikipedia has its own ways to operate, which differentiates them from other encyclopedias. But before jumping to this part, let us discover a bit about its history. 

How Wikipedia Was Found

The history of Wikipedia begins with the computer programmer, Ward Cunningham, who created a new website model known as Wiki. This type of website allows users to create and edit information on the site. Although the Wiki model has been around for a while, until recently, its use has become more popular since we live in a world where collaborating and sharing ideas has become so important. 

In March 2000, Jimmy Wales together with his friend Larry Sanger decided to create a free online encyclopedia that could compete with rivals such as Microsoft Encarta or the Encyclopedia Britannica. Their initial project was called Nupedia, which was a for-profit venture, in which they included ads to earn profits. The purpose of Nupedia was similar to Wikipedia that we know. But the difference is that before being published on the Nupedia site, the articles had to undergo a strict peer-review process and the public contributors should be the experts in their respective fields. 

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Courtesy: Nupedia

In the early 2000s, the Internet was experiencing some growing pains and Nupedia was not immune to this. The lack of resources, direction, and cumbersome review process caused to project to go belly-up. During its three years of existence from 2000 to 2003, Nupedia could produce only 24 articles and that’s why Wales and Sanger started to move on to another project. On January 15, 2001, Wikipedia was launched based on Wiki technology. Unlike Nupedia, anyone could join the discussion, create or edit the content on Wikipedia. 

In the first year of their launching, Wikipedia could expand to even 20,000 articles in 18 different languages. The development of Wikipedia resulted in the termination of Nupedia in 2003 and its articles were removed into Wikipedia later. 

By 2006, Wikipedia contained more than one million articles in the English language version, and by 2011, the number had exceeded 3.5 million. In contrast, although the encyclopedia experienced an increase in millions of words per month, there was indeed a slight decrease in the number of new articles per year, from 665,000 in 2007 to 374,000 in 2010. 

To deal with this issue, Wikipedia developed a new strategy to reach more international readers and contributors. It put efforts into developing other non-English versions of Wikipedia. While most versions could have hundreds of thousands, the French and German versions both reached more than one million. Additionally, Wikipedia also paid attention to some other parts of the world, which are often underserved by the Internet such as Swahili and Tamil. Still, this famous encyclopedia still has faced some problems when launching in China due to their government’s restrictions on the site’s content. 

What Factors Drive the Success of Wikipedia?

The first reason that seems to be most obvious in retrospect: the contributors find Wikipedia more attractive since it sticks with a familiar product, the encyclopedia. The way encyclopedias organization information is particular and universal. It is true that prior to Wikipedia, most online encyclopedias tried to put the effort in innovations hoping to create the differences such as challenging old metaphors, exploding analog traditions, or even inventing brand new forms.

On the other hand, according to the experts, chasing after the new forms could hurt the business. As a result, that newness is not always the best. Wikipedia has overcome others because they have innovations, but they keep the format familiar enough for the contributors to keep on using. This is basically what defines Wikipedia from others, which is professional but still simple for all users to get access to. 

The second factor that contributed to the success of Wikipedia is that this encyclopedia does not spend all time on technology, instead, they focus on substantive content development. In fact, Wikipedia was the only project that did not build its own technology and it was also considered as technologically unsophisticated by other founders in the same industry. Other rivals like GNUpedia assumed that the successful encyclopedia depends on the smart technology, thus they had several people to contribute to building its infrastructure and none to devote to build its articles’ content.

While the losers in the encyclopedia sector claim that providing the platform should be the job, and the content is the community’s job, Wikipedia has another view that makes their business different. Using simple technology has allowed Wikipedia to concentrate on the content and spend less time on building technology. Therefore, instead of acting like technologists, founders of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, and Larry Sanger could act as evangelists. They helped seed Wikipedia with content that was solicited from contributors, and hence, this led to more content and more contributors. There are on-going discussions about if the success of peer production projects relies on the technology, yet in encyclopedias’ case, it appears that technology is indeed a distraction. 

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The final reason for the success of Wikipedia is that it offered low transaction costs to participate and it also minimized the importance of ownership of content. Accordingly, editing on Wikipedia is often easy, instant, and virtually commitment-free. Thus, a normal contributor can just add content and never contribute, which is up to his or her choice. That it is difficult to tell who wrote the article or who edited it indeed encourages the collaboration from more people. 

Understandably, being involved in something stellar could be a great feeling but it also generates the pressure. Thus, with Wikipedia, the contributors will not feel the pressure from their contribution, they simply contribute their thinking and ideas towards something. Taking advantage of this, Wikipedia gradually has more marginal contributions, which added up and turned into informative articles, which later added up and turned into a massive encyclopedia. 

There are several factors deciding the success of the non-profit Wikipedia. In the end, what makes them unique is their operation way, which is to build platforms that are familiar and easy. Barriers to participating are also eliminated. And instead of dazzling the contributors with new technologies, Wikipedia clearly defines their purpose and helps them understand what it wants from them.

How Does Wikipedia Make Money?

Wikipedia has grown bigger and offered the readers with more informative articles on topics ranging from Sedlec Ossuary all the way to 52-hertz whales. In fact, each month Wikipedia attracts 1.5 billion unique readers. However, the organization does not depend on advertisers to make money. Rather than working closely with private organizations that could shake the style, nature, or tone of the content, Wikipedia chooses to raise money exclusively through donations. 

Despite the meaningful purpose behind their business model, some people show their dissatisfaction towards this, over the past few years, several people have complained on Twitter about how troublesome it is to see donation banners on Wikipedia site. 

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To defend Wikipedia against the complaint, the founder Jimmy Wales shared his thought in an interview with WISE Channel in 2013 that: “Wikipedia was supported by Wikimedia Foundation, which is the charity. Our non-profit business exists primarily thanks to the help of great people, to us, $20, $30 are kinds of amounts that basically builds up our funding.” 

He also added: “Our organization plans the budget for the next year to be around 29 million dollars, so it’s such a small amount of money to create big things. Yet only a small percentage of people who are viewing donate money, which is a problem for us.”

Despite that part of their funding comes from the charities, a great proportion of their financial resources comes from small donations. The donations could allow Wikipedia to keep its neutral tone and non-commercial style. Additionally, the organization also needs the fund to pay for other fees relating to its internal operations, such as updating the website or offering new staff learning and training opportunities. 

In 2019, the Wikimedia Foundation released a financial report of Wikipedia, it showed that around 32 percent of the annual financial gains were used to provide learning and networking opportunities for its volunteer editors and writers while 43 percent of the fund went to improving the website. The other small amounts, 13 percent was used on administration, governance and another 12 percent went toward fundraising. In 2019 alone, according to a Wikipedia page, the organization was able to raise a whopping more than $28 million.

In fact, Wikipedia has several large contributors to keep its business going. For example, in 2018, Amazon donated $1 million gift to Endowment. Amazon claimed that the company and Wikipedia shared the same vision, which is to make it easier to share knowledge globally. To Wikipedia, the fund from Amazon has helped the business more resilient and ensure the stability in the times that small donation patterns are uncertain. In addition, Amazon donated to Wikipedia makes sense a lot since Amazon Alexa, the smart assistant of the company, relies much on Wikipedia to answer countless questions from millions of users every day. 

And the latest donation comes from Google, which has long relied on Wikipedia for its content. In 2019, Google decided to contribute $2 million to Wikimedia Endowment and another $1.1 million to Wikimedia Foundation. 

Google has indeed made numerous contributions to Wikimedia before, and the sum could go up to $7.5 million in total. For instance, in 2010, Google granted $2 million to the Wikimedia Foundation. However, the donation to Wikimedia Endowment in 2019 was their first time, which has partly supported Wikimedia’s success in the long run. 

Apart from the donations, these two influences, Google and Wikipedia, also worked together for a project called Project Tiger, which aimed to expand the content on Wikipedia to additional languages. Currently, the program is already able to deliver the content locally in 12 Indic languages, and their goal is to include 10 more languages in the near future. 

Although Wikipedia is getting bigger and supported not only by individuals but also the giant companies, this non-profit organization still finds itself in numerous problems and controversies. 

Controversies and Scandals

Relying on the community to create and edit content has pushed Wikipedia into some troubles. In detail, in 2005, an American journalist John L. Seigenthaler, Jr., discovered that the information about his biography on Wikipedia was false, it declared him as the potential conspirator in the assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. And this wrong fact was on Wikipedia site for 132 days. 

However, it was not easy to trace back the author who wrote the false fact since when the unregistered contributors make any changes, they do not leave their names behind but only computers’ IP or Internet protocol, addresses. Then the contributor to that wrong information about Seigenthaler confessed and apologized and said that his intention was to write those false facts as a joke. 

The scandal led Wikipedia to be more careful in their process. Unregistered users are not allowed to edit certain articles that contain influencing information. Besides, the site administrators decided to formulate a procedure, by which the experienced editors would review certain changes before uploading them online. 

In 2010, there was an accusation that Wikimedia Commons, a site belonging to Wikimedia Foundation, involved pornographic images, sexual acts involving children. The Wikimedia Commons served as the place of media files for all Wikimedia products. Although Wikipedia was not related to such illegal images, this scandal forced Jimmy Wales himself to delete many of them on Commons files, which could partly help administrators realize the importance of removing any prurient content from Wikimedia sites. 

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

Besides, there has been an on-going debate about if the utility of Wikipedia should be accepted as reference materials for the academic sector since Wikipedia itself also claimed that it was not a reliable source. Accordingly, several classrooms, at nearly all grade levels, discouraged or banned students from taking information for their projects from Wikipedia. To improve the situation, in 2010, several public professors were recruited by the Wikimedia Foundation to create a course work. The aim of the program was to encourage students to contribute to writing content to the Wikipedia site. 

As Wikipedia has been around for a long time and became an inescapable part of the Internet, its claims to legitimacy were more supported by a growing number of citations of the encyclopedia in U.S. judicial opinions. The German government also joined when they worked with the German-language site to administer a program, which aimed to improve the coverage of renewable resources. 

The Bottom Line

Although Wikipedia has gone through numerous problems relating to its reliability, it has always kept on the top as the most popular source. Its ease of use, simplicity to read, create, or edit has become the primary reason for its success. With the speed, and convenience, it has been the main research tool for any students from middle schools to college, sometimes, the researchers also utilize its information to gain some initial and basic background of any topics. 

Wikipedia is growing bigger and stronger. Recent statistics from Wikipedia showed that as of 31 July 2020, the number of English articles is 6,131,953 articles, which contain 3.6 billion words. Moreover, the number of languages that Wikipedia can cover is 310 languages. As seen, these figures can illustrate how popular Wikipedia is nowadays. 

In this digital world, people have realized the importance of sharing information, which not only benefits others but themselves. Thus, Wikipedia, where people can share and the knowledge could get to any areas of the world, has been an indispensable part of this generation. In the future, the next generations might invent another research tool, but up to now, Wikipedia has remained its top position as the fastest and easiest encyclopedia for people to create and share knowledge.

The article is also credited to Megan Rose Dickey, Leila Kozma, Megan Garber.

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