Made with CC
Sep 26, 2017 · 7 min read

The twenty-four case studies in Made with CC were chosen from hundreds of nominations received from Kickstarter backers, Creative Commons staff, and the global Creative Commons community.

Image by Bryan Mathers CC BY-SA

We did background research and conducted interviews for each case study, based on the same set of basic questions about the endeavor. The idea for each case study is to tell the story about the endeavor and the role sharing plays within it, largely the way in which it was told to us by those we interviewed.

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The Wikimedia Foundation is the nonprofit organization that hosts Wikipedia and its sister projects. Founded in 2003 in the U.S.

Revenue model: donations

Interview date: December 18, 2015

Interviewees: Luis Villa, former Chief Officer of Community Engagement, and Stephen LaPorte, legal counsel

Profile written by Sarah Hinchliff Pearson

Nearly every person with an online presence knows Wikipedia.

In many ways, it is the preeminent open project: The online encyclopedia is created entirely by volunteers. Anyone in the world can edit the articles. All of the content is available for free to anyone online. All of the content is released under a Creative Commons license that enables people to reuse and adapt it for any purpose.

As of December 2016, there were more than forty-two million articles in the 295 language editions of the online encyclopedia, according to — what else? — the Wikipedia article about Wikipedia.

The Wikimedia Foundation is a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that owns the Wikipedia domain name and hosts the site, along with many other related sites like Wikidata and Wikimedia Commons. The foundation employs about two hundred and eighty people, who all work to support the projects it hosts. But the true heart of Wikipedia and its sister projects is its community. The numbers of people in the community are variable, but about seventy-five thousand volunteers edit and improve Wikipedia articles every month. Volunteers are organized in a variety of ways across the globe, including formal Wikimedia chapters (mostly national), groups focused on a particular theme, user groups, and many thousands who are not connected to a particular organization.

As Wikimedia legal counsel Stephen LaPorte told us, “There is a common saying that Wikipedia works in practice but not in theory.” While it undoubtedly has its challenges and flaws, Wikipedia and its sister projects are a striking testament to the power of human collaboration.

Because of its extraordinary breadth and scope, it does feel a bit like a unicorn. Indeed, there is nothing else like Wikipedia. Still, much of what makes the projects successful — community, transparency, a strong mission, trust — are consistent with what it takes to be successfully Made with Creative Commons more generally. With Wikipedia, everything just happens at an unprecedented scale.

The story of Wikipedia has been told many times. For our purposes, it is enough to know the experiment started in 2001 at a small scale, inspired by the crazy notion that perhaps a truly open, collaborative project could create something meaningful. At this point, Wikipedia is so ubiquitous and ingrained in our digital lives that the fact of its existence seems less remarkable. But outside of software, Wikipedia is perhaps the single most stunning example of successful community cocreation. Every day, seven thousand new articles are created on Wikipedia, and nearly fifteen thousand edits are made every hour.

The nature of the content the community creates is ideal for asynchronous cocreation. “An encyclopedia is something where incremental community improvement really works,” Luis Villa, former Chief Officer of Community Engagement, told us. The rules and processes that govern cocreation on Wikipedia and its sister projects are all community-driven and vary by language edition. There are entire books written on the intricacies of their systems, but generally speaking, there are very few exceptions to the rule that anyone can edit any article, even without an account on their system. The extensive peer-review process includes elaborate systems to resolve disputes, methods for managing particularly controversial subject areas, talk pages explaining decisions, and much, much more. The Wikimedia Foundation’s decision to leave governance of the projects to the community is very deliberate. “We look at the things that the community can do well, and we want to let them do those things,” Stephen told us. Instead, the foundation focuses its time and resources on what the community cannot do as effectively, like the software engineering that supports the technical infrastructure of the sites. In 2015–16, about half of the foundation’s budget went to direct support for the Wikimedia sites.

Some of that is directed at servers and general IT support, but the foundation also invests a significant amount on architecture designed to help the site function as effectively as possible. “There is a constantly evolving system to keep the balance in place to avoid Wikipedia becoming the world’s biggest graffiti wall,” Luis said. Depending on how you measure it, somewhere between 90 to 98 percent of edits to Wikipedia are positive. Some portion of that success is attributable to the tools Wikimedia has in place to try to incentivize good actors. “The secret to having any healthy community is bringing back the right people,” Luis said. “Vandals tend to get bored and go away. That is partially our model working, and partially just human nature.” Most of the time, people want to do the right thing.

Wikipedia not only relies on good behavior within its community and on its sites, but also by everyone else once the content leaves Wikipedia. All of the text of Wikipedia is available under an Attribution-ShareAlike license (CC BY-SA), which means it can be used for any purpose and modified so long as credit is given and anything new is shared back with the public under the same license. In theory, that means anyone can copy the content and start a new Wikipedia. But as Stephen explained, “Being open has only made Wikipedia bigger and stronger. The desire to protect is not always what is best for everyone.”

Of course, the primary reason no one has successfully co-opted Wikipedia is that copycat efforts do not have the Wikipedia community to sustain what they do. Wikipedia is not simply a source of up-to-the-minute content on every given topic — it is also a global patchwork of humans working together in a million different ways, in a million different capacities, for a million different reasons. While many have tried to guess what makes Wikipedia work as well it does, the fact is there is no single explanation. “In a movement as large as ours, there is an incredible diversity of motivations,” Stephen said. For example, there is one editor of the English Wikipedia edition who has corrected a single grammatical error in articles more than forty-eight thousand times.1 Only a fraction of Wikipedia users are also editors. But editing is not the only way to contribute to Wikipedia. “Some donate text, some donate images, some donate financially,” Stephen told us. “They are all contributors.”

But the vast majority of us who use Wikipedia are not contributors; we are passive readers. The Wikimedia Foundation survives primarily on individual donations, with about $15 as the average. Because Wikipedia is one of the ten most popular websites in terms of total page views, donations from a small portion of that audience can translate into a lot of money. In the 2015–16 fiscal year, they received more than $77 million from more than five million donors.

The foundation has a fund-raising team that works year-round to raise money, but the bulk of their revenue comes in during the December campaign in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They engage in extensive user testing and research to maximize the reach of their fund-raising campaigns. Their basic fund-raising message is simple: We provide our readers and the world immense value, so give back. Every little bit helps. With enough eyeballs, they are right.

The vision of the Wikimedia Foundation is a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. They work to realize this vision by empowering people around the globe to create educational content made freely available under an open license or in the public domain. Stephen and Luis said the mission, which is rooted in the same philosophy behind Creative Commons, drives everything the foundation does.

The philosophy behind the endeavor also enables the foundation to be financially sustainable. It instills trust in their readership, which is critical for a revenue strategy that relies on reader donations. It also instills trust in their community.

Any given edit on Wikipedia could be motivated by nearly an infinite number of reasons. But the social mission of the project is what binds the global community together. “Wikipedia is an example of how a mission can motivate an entire movement,” Stephen told us.

Of course, what results from that movement is one of the Internet’s great public resources. “The Internet has a lot of businesses and stores, but it is missing the digital equivalent of parks and open public spaces,” Stephen said. “Wikipedia has found a way to be that open public space.”

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Made with Creative Commons

CC’s digital whiteboard for ideas, thoughts, and questions about open business models made with CC.

Made with CC

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Made with CC is a guide to sharing your knowledge and creativity with the world, and sustaining your operation while you do.

Made with Creative Commons

CC’s digital whiteboard for ideas, thoughts, and questions about open business models made with CC.

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