Introduction – Where Did the Edisons go?
It is out of place in contemporary society that an organisation thrives without profit margins, production goals and brutal market strategies. The success of Wikipedia shows a radically different portrayal of innovation to its contemporaries, one that trusts in its ability to advance society. By placing innovation at the core of its business model, Wikipedia succeeds at internationally distributing its core business service through mutual co-operation with its’ stakeholders.
This radical approach to an old medium: the encyclopaedia, and it’s revolutionary results place it’s founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in the same echelon as Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein. Public genius for the betterment of society is a notion waning out of fashion as companies like Monsanto create genuinely revolutionary technology only to be caged by intellectual property laws, to the detriment of everyone. Not only is Wikipedia a case study for business success, it is a beacon of humanism in an economic climate dominated by numbers, and as a platform for human collaboration, it offers a glimmer of hope for the future.
Innovation – Wikipedia, A Singularity
Wikipedia, A Different Kind of Success…
Two interesting strategic insights come from Wikipedia’s approach to innovation: Firstly that their unique product allows them to pursue a very unique target market, and that this target market bolsters the value of their service.
Wikipedia is a free to use, international, web-based encyclopaedia. The Wikimedia Foundation, the organisation that runs the site calls it “a free knowledge project” (Wikimedia, 2017). Its proportions are gargantuan with “the combined Wikipedias for all other [and including English] languages greatly exceed the English Wikipedia in size, giving more than 27 billion words in 40 million articles in 293 languages” (Zachte, 2017) In the spirit of its name, each article is open for editing to anyone (the word Wiki denotes an online collaborative space). This is its current service, which it goes to great measure to remain free and open. Once a user sets up an account with Wikipedia, they are free to begin contributing to the site. It is these contributions, almost entirely sourced from the site’s users, create the fabric of Wikipedia.
From this logic, we can see that a wider user base creates a better, more detailed, diversified site. The nature of its service: an easily accessible online encyclopaedia that is consistently updated, pairs well with its business model. Users act like nodes spread across the world to discover and maintain information. The value of the service hangs on the quantity and variation of users willing to contribute, and only through attempting to cater to everyone, could Wikipedia gain the critical mass needed to cater to everyone, which it succeeded in doing. Their business model is designed to target the widest market possible: any customer from anywhere in the globe in pursuit of information regarding anything. Strategically, this is clearly shown through the deliberate removal of all major consumer barriers to entry, with service being free, in nearly 300 languages. This is also evidence that Wikipedia actively encourages users to create content for the site, with user sign up also being free, granting immediate autonomy to contributors. Their marketing funnel is as wide as it gets.
The universal need to learn and adapt to life and society’s collective desire to categorise and produce knowledge ground Wikipedia’s broad value proposition. The desire to understand the world has lied at the top of humanities concern, all from Plato, to Russell agree it is the key component in what we know as self-actualization (Maslow, 1943). Wikipedia’s service, with its low barriers to entry, provides a high-value solution to this universal need.
Its competitive environment consists of one direct competitor: Encyclopaedia Britannica, which is also an online encyclopaedia. It charges a fee for its service, which it justifies through an emphasis on its accuracy of information and credibility as citation material; however both Nature and Epic (in partnership with Oxford University) have published papers testifying to Wikipedia’s near mirror accuracy to Britannica in multiple languages (Taraborelli, 2012). Wikipedia’s substitute competitors consist of academic journals and libraries which have high barriers to entry like costs and memberships in exchange for advantages like further reliability, primary research and citation value. All of these competitors somewhat exercise closed innovation models which use expert-centric hierarchies produce content, placing rigour and quality over the efficiency of Wikipedia’s decentralised model (Gerybadze, et al., 2010)
In the Business of Knowledge
The competitive ecosystem of online knowledge is vast but size-asymmetrical, with the majority of the market share at Wikipedia’s disposal, gaining the 5th highest internet traffic of any website in 2017 (World Economic Forum, 2017.). Its competitive advantage over its closest competitor is orders above a normal competitive relation. As mentioned above, the business model Wikipedia employs is respectively different to their competitors in size, cost, dynamism and resources.
While knowledge production is a market flooded by many smaller decentralised actors: university faculties, R&D departments and individual agents, its dissemination and publication is a market which, hitherto Wikipedia, functioned in a strictly hierarchical manner. Knowledge would be submitted to journals which ensure each article is peer reviewed, journal articles are reported on by the news and books are written. Britannica would also act as a channel for distribution.
Wikipedia’s success is quite unique, it has taken a service which has a universal demand and large potential for utility, a business model based on the open-source modelling of the time (Linux and Firefox are both open-source alumni’s), and combined it with mass user adoption (Muller-Seitze & Reger, 2010). The result is a sprawling mass of user contributions, anarchically borne of mutual aid and cooperation. The size of Wikipedia acts in the same manner as a black hole, pulling in more leads as it grows bigger, absorbing the information of those who encounter it, therefore reifying the value creation process. In this manner, it is similar to the ancient Hellenic Library of Alexandria (Quattrocelli, 2012).
For many organisations, despite its’ benefits, a large market share can be burdensome. Powerful actors become targets for legal investigation, political pressure and have more rigid standards placed on them by the public and their stakeholders (Schein & Greiner, 1988). Wikipedia takes market share dominance to another level, and so theoretically exposes itself to disproportionately higher risks, which led Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard University to state that it “works well in practice, but not in theory” (BigThink, 2016). Two reasons allow for this model to work: firstly, lower costs and continued innovation lower the risks involved; and secondly, the nearest competitors have resource pools so small in comparison to Wikipedia that they pose little threat. In short, Wikipedia’s size, Innovative capacity, cost advantage, and resource advantage lever the risks they take on as a size-asymmetrical competitor (Bloom & Kotler, 1975).
If You Build It, They Will Come
Wikipedia’s master-play was creating a business model for knowledge distribution based on what exists already for knowledge production. Many actors, each contributing based on autonomous impulse. At the time of conception in 2001, the technological world was capitalising on developments in open source technology, which allowed users to modify the program itself; organisations like Mozilla and Unreal followed the footsteps of Linux, which saw great open-source success and released Firefox (2002) and Unreal Engine (1998) respectively.
Open-source can be messy, and for organisations that want a recognisable service, the endless modifications of open-source work against them. What Wikipedia adopted was an Open Innovation method, incorporated into the business model with user value co-creation at its core. The scale they achieve this at is orders above anything else a non-profit organisation.
The model for contributions is Anarchic, based on non-hierarchical free associations (Suissa, 2006), the technical term for this is non-pecuniary outbound innovation (Gabison & Pesole, 2014) which is marked by freely shared resources without financial incentive. Most of these contributions are filtered through several layers of automatic moderating, fact checking and source-checking before deemed publishable. Unfortunately, this process isn’t perfect, latest estimates state that Wikipedia displays an average of 3 errors per article, however, the 2012 paper published by Epic shows that this is similar to Encyclopedia Britannica’s error rate (Casebourne, et al., 2012).
User contributions are sorted and reviewed, particularly if Wikipedia intends to promote any particular article. For example every day, Wikipedia hosts a different article on its front page as their ‘featured article’ (at the time of writing this, Saturday the 27th of may’s featured article was on the 2015 Indian comedy-drama “Waiting”). For an article to be placed on the front page it has to go through rigorous peer review before it can be accepted (Viegas, et al., 2007). The Minimal centralised framework is complemented by the enfranchisement of autonomous agents under Wikipedia’s system.
These markings: open access to resources, the enfranchisement of agents, no-cost service, ubiquitous accessibility, are the markings of exceptional treatment of stakeholders, which is further incentive for agents to cooperate under a model of non-pecuniary outbound innovation. Wikipedia’s greatest resource lies in its stakeholders; responding to this, Wikipedia successfully observes and improves the stakeholder space: building a rich community for contributors and providing an immense platform for readers. This is a clear sign of attention being paid to “critical stakeholders with a potential to contribute to the organisational resources” (Sharma & Starik, 2004) (See Appendix 3).
A Victory of the Commons…
The Wikipedia model has been adapted by behemoths like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and countless other online hotspots. Free content, ultra-accessibility, and degrees of user autonomy result in ample user created content. Yet Wikipedia stands alone amongst its contemporaries. The ‘free knowledge project’ alongside Project Gutenberg (the oldest online library), and many other open-source organisations lack several features that are integral to their contemporaries business models.
Firstly, they are not-for-profit, and furthermore do not accept advertising, opting to rely on donations for funding (Wikimedia, 2017). Their deliberate omission of advertising revenue as a possible income stream is representative of their desire for transparency and neutrality, issues that lie at the heart of discourse on the ethics of internet (Quail & Larabie, 2010). Instead of the gargantuan privately owned apparatus of Facebook, Wikipedia’s non-profit, state size presence is uniquely public. But Wikipedia’s public platform belongs to no singular government or sovereign, it exists in the domain of the commons (Fuster-Morral, 2010).
This means that Wikipedia is a political force, albeit subtle. Its status as an apparatus of the digital commons, one that “strives to maintain and enlarge the precious kernel of social customs without which no human or animal society can exist” (Kropotkin, 1898), Wikipedia’s precious kernel is the dissemination of knowledge to the world. This humanist betterment of desire harkens back to the praxis of Thomas Edison, and Otis Boykin, in which research resulted in technologies that revolutionised societies capacity to care for its people.
Wikipedia as a commons allows for international cooperation in a space uninterested in monetary influence; this is a powerful thing. Individual agents on the internet exist as digito-ontological nomads, and Wikipedia presents itself as a Multitude (Hardt & Negri, 2000) of autonomous actors engaged in grand scale international mutual-aid. Wikipedia exists as one of the single greatest existing examples of ‘positive anarchism’ the world has ever seen, proving humanity’s capacity to cooperate without financial incentive.
Beyond this its historical significance must be noted: Wikipedia is an anthropological artefact. Many markers of what anthropologists call “The Anthropocene” (Edwards, 2015): the human epoch, are in reality disastrous negative externalities of human activity (see Appendix 4); the extinction of species, environmental degradation, and so on. Wikipedia, a key player in the information revolution, provides humanity with the richest documentation of our global culture, with both objective, empirical accounts and subjective, hermeneutic accounts of our history. Not only does Wikipedia contain what humanity has accomplished, but also the subjective desires behind these accomplishments. In short, Wikipedia, through its unique model of open innovation, captures the very historicity of the human species.
Conclusion – Wikisociety?
Wiki (adj) – Hawaiian: Fast, Quick. Ward Cunningham’s proliferation of the loanword ‘Wiki’ stems from Hawaiian roots. Yet its contemporary meaning is strictly without borders. The digital commons are a better place thanks to the success of Wikipedia. Globalisation is still a process in motion, and alongside its benefits society must experience growing pains. We know have a model, albeit limited, for successful global cooperation, and its main ingredients are transparency, enfranchisement of individuals and mutual aid, all stemming from it’s unique innovation methods.
How this will affect the historical process is unknown, but meanwhile, Wikipedia stands testament to the positive effects of effective innovation; it can benefit the world, but its spoils must be accessible to all for it to be truly revolutionary.
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