Growing on volunteer power

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Nobody knows everything but everybody knows something. That's the spirit in which Wikipedia users keep the site going without ads and the revenue that ads could fetch.

Jimmy Wales
Jimmy Wales

Vipin V Nair

ASK Jimmy Wales about mainstream media, and chances are he would say, "Oh, you are talking about Wikipedia?'

Nearly five years after he founded Wikipedia, the free online encyclopaedia that anyone can edit, Wales can today afford to ask that question. Because the 4.2 billion page views Wikipedia gets a month is more than what the online editions of many prominent media players do.

At the recently concluded World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis, this writer had attended a conference called by the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent organisation of Wikipedia. The sheer number of people who turned up at the meeting, held amidst scores of similar events at WSIS, was a testimony to the popularity of Wikipedia.

"We have no ads, no business deals," says Jimmy Wales, who was present at the conference. Then how does Wikipedia manage to grow so exponentially without any obvious source of revenue? Wales says the 120 servers located across the world, which handle the huge traffic to the site, are all managed by volunteers. "There are only two employees at the Wikimedia Foundation. Rest are all volunteers," he says.

Most of the revenue of the Wikimedia Foundation comes from donations and grants. For instance, Yahoo! donated some servers. A plan to license the Wikipedia trademark also fetches some income. "We don't worry about money. We worry about growth; getting servers,' Wales says. As for bandwidth, it does not cost much anyway these days.

The philosophy of Wikipedia is that nobody knows everything but everybody knows something. That is why it lets any visitor to the site edit an article if he or she feels like doing it. This is possible unlike other Web sites because Wikipedia uses a software called `Wiki' that allows users to edit a Web page. While this openness of Wikipedia has given rise to a great deal of criticism on the accuracy of the site's content, Wales argues that it is always better if a larger number of people work on a subject.

Till date, any effort to vandalise Wikipedia has been successfully thwarted by its passionate volunteers. If anyone intentionally puts in mistakes in an article, it so happens that another user who finds the mistake will immediately rectify it. But not everyone is satisfied with the accuracy of the site.

"Wikipedia has been criticised for a perceived lack of reliability, comprehensiveness and authority. It is considered to have no or limited utility as a reference work among many librarians, academics and the editors of more formally-written encyclopaedias," the article on Wikipedia in Wikipedia itself says.

Wales says Wikipedia's English language version has some 800,000 articles now, containing around five million words. This makes Wikipedia larger than Encyclopaedia Britannica. In addition to this, Wikipedia also has about 200 language editions of which some 100 are active. Some other languages that have more than 50,000 articles are German, French, Japanese, Polish, Italian, Swedish, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish.

So how many people does Wikipedia need to run its site? Surprisingly, not too many. "There is not a million people working on Wikipedia, adding a sentence each," Wales points out. He says that 50 per cent of all the editing is being done by 0.7 per cent of volunteers. Also, just 2 per cent of the volunteers are responsible for 75 per cent of the work, thereby making the Wikipedia community a rather small one wherein everybody knows the others.Why not accept advertisements on the site? Wouldn't that help Wikipedia expand and reach out to more people? Wales says ads are `extremely unpopular among the Wikipedia community,' though he adds that it is never said "we will never have (ads)."

"We don't need money to survive. There are lots of other resources to get revenue," he says. Accepting advertisements on the site will undermine the credibility of articles and affect independence. For instance, if there is an ad from Microsoft on the site, many would suspect that an article on that company is influenced. "Ads in an encyclopaedia don't fit in," Wales says. Also, it is a matter of aesthetics of the site. But the final decision on ads will come from the Wikipedia community itself.

But how long would a user be motivated to volunteer for Wikipedia, constantly monitoring and editing articles? Will people eventually get bored (with Wikipedia) and leave everything? "I don't know," says Wales. But going by the ever-growing popularity of Wikipedia, it seems Wales can ignore that question.

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(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 5, 2005)
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