What the weirdest, wildest, most successful participatory project in history tells us about working together.
By Stephen Lurie
Illustration by Pablo Delcan
Wikimedia, the “movement” that includes Wikipedia and all the other Wiki-things, shouldn’t really exist. Its basic operating procedure defies our strongest convictions about incentives, work, and community: It is made with no form of payment, has a very thin formal hierarchy, and users lack any real common history other than their participation.
And yet it not only exists, it almost is the Web: Wikipedia is the sixth most popular website in the world, with 22.5 million contributors and 736 million edits in English alone. It’s as if the entire population of Australia (23.6 million) each contributed 30 times. Last year Wikimedia sites overall (which includes the likes of Wikiquote and Wiktionary, as well as Wikipedia itself) averaged 20 billion pageviews per month.
This paradox of its success is most striking at the top of the Wikimedia food chain. Running this huge enterprise is a little-known hierarchy of volunteer leaders, effectively each working an extra part-time job to police the site, battle vandals, seek out spammers and sock puppets, and clean and control what you see. Thousands of people around the world actually apply to do more work for free as a Wikimedia administrator, autopatroller, rollbacker, or bureaucrat.
But at the very top of this tree are 36 users who demonstrate Wikimedia in its most concentrated form: the stewards. They wield “global rights” — the ability to edit anything — and respond to crises and controversies across all Wiki platforms. They come from all around the world, receive no compensation, and rarely, if ever, encounter each other offline. You definitely don’t know them — but their work is essential to understanding how Wikimedia’s unique existence has thrived.
The stewards would prefer to go unnoticed. Only one has ever had any real fame — Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales served as a steward from 2006 to 2009. They operate above the fray, giving and taking user privileges and intervening in matters that lower-ranking editors can’t handle. You can summon them for emergencies in the Wikimedia Stewards IRC chat room by typing “!steward.”
Their secrecy has a certain irony, given the very public product they manage, but perhaps it’s emblematic of Wikimedia as a whole. When your foundational value is that “every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge,” hierarchies become a necessary evil.
“One thing though that you shouldn’t forget,” a steward who goes by the username Trijnstel told me. “We have indeed a couple of extra rights, but in theory it doesn’t make us more important than other editors. Consultation with community is key so the regular editors have a voice, through us.”
Trijnstel was one of the few stewards who responded to my requests for interview. Others declined, some saying they feared that attention to stewards would differentiate them too much from the rest of the Wikimedia community.
As you peruse the list of stewards, one skill is eminently apparent. Among the 36 current stewards, only one is monolingual (Bsadowski1, who only lists English in his profile); as a group they average 3.6 languages per person. The group includes native speakers of Azerbaijani, Indonesian, Tamil, Swedish, and Sicilian — among the 33 unique languages the stewards can claim competence in.
Only slightly less diverse than the language capacity of the group is their geographic diversity: they span five continents and 22 countries.
Although there are some notable holes — Wikipedia in general lacks African participation and is in the process of growing in East Asia — the spread is impressive nonetheless.
The same can’t be said about gender: only one steward is female. This gap isn’t unique — it’s representative of the male-dominated culture of Wikimedia, where both contributors and content are skewed male. It’s an issue that faces tech-related projects as a whole, but the Wikimedia community is attempting to address it, though they are far from achieving balance. Gender, however, seems to be the sole characteristic shared by a majority of stewards. There are a good number of students, but there are also professors, accountants, and software engineers. Stewards are also intergenerational: Born decades apart, some came of age with the internet while others had to rely on print reference materials.
Though on some level they and all Wikimedia editors are tied together by an appreciation of knowledge, there isn’t necessarily a natural intellectual camaraderie. One steward is an expert on American roads and highways; another on Jupiter and its moons; one on Ancient Greek; another on theoretical physics. To each their own constellation of Wikimedia pages and resources (of course, quite a few are interested in computers).
They come to the project through different paths, too. Vituzzu, a steward from Italy, told me his participation with Wikipedia began when he “started adding something about WWII [he] didn’t find” and it took only a couple months before he started doing countervandalism work, later taking on a formal position. A different steward started by fixing typos, got drawn into writing articles, and eventually started fighting vandalism, too. Mentifisto, from the UK, said “it was actually the technical aspects of it that seemed interesting and worth discovering… the software behind the wiki, which is structured in such a logical way.”
The commitment from each steward is consistent. Two of these three have been participating in Wiki projects for over eight years, the other for more than five years. Half of all stewards are set to serve in that position for more than three years. Some spend over 20 hours per week on Wikimedia work; barring “real life” interruption, none spend less than eight per week. And yet the most compensation they receive are little badges called barnstars. As that concept’s page describes, barnstars are used to reward “contributors for hard work and due diligence.” “These awards are part of the Kindness Campaign and are meant to promote civility and WikiLove.” The page explains, “They are a form of warm fuzzy: they are free to give and they bring joy to the recipient.” Beyond barnstars, it’s possible to be named Wikipedian of the day and to get to post other badges on your profile. That’s about it (though one steward reported once being sent a free T-shirt).
Participation and administration works not because anyone is paid or recognized, but apparently because people are authentically interested in the project. In fact, many stewards have expressed adamant opposition to payment. Among the stewards I talked with, satisfaction depended only on the intrinsic nature of the project itself: instant gratification from immediate publishing, the ability to spread knowledge, and learn — and yes, because it is fun.
Yup, the largest and most successful collaborative project in history, the modern center of human knowledge — a radically participatory model for this technologic age — is possible because people find it inherently satisfying to participate.
This weird, almost ungainly success has left Wikimedia, and the stewards who manage it, at the center of a political tug-of-war. Almost every political camp has tried to claim this unique work ethos as their own: After all, who wouldn’t want to take credit for the enormous success? Libertarians and anarchists say it all works because the project lacks a central authority; capitalists boast about the laissez-faire dynamic and tendency toward equilibrium; socialists suggest that Wikimedia is an egalitarian model unaffected by capitalist incentives.
Erik Olin Wright, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, likes the last theory most of all. For him, as he describes in Envisioning Real Utopias, the success of Wikipedia is remarkable proof that our most utopian ideals can thrive in the real world.
“What is remarkable is that these principles have underwritten the collaboration of tens of thousands of people across the world in the production of a massive global resource. Wikipedia shows that productive non-market egalitarian collaboration on a very wide scale is possible.”
But the precise makeup of Wikimedia makes it even more unlikely to be such a standout. Social democracies with robust safety nets — think Sweden — tend to thrive where there are homogenous populations; people are willing to care for people like themselves. With diverse and distant participants, stewardship, and Wikimedia itself doesn’t have that natural benefit.
So, from the angle of political economy, sociology, or just common sense, Wikimedia shouldn’t exist — and it certainly shouldn’t be so successful. What the nature and commitment of the stewards tells us, though, is that the mystery isn’t so mysterious at all.
People take part because they enjoy it, because they learn, because it has the ability to teach. They become leaders not to gain power or money or fame, but simply because it is a community and project they value. It’s just everyone and anyone.
“Everyone can participate and every voice is heard,” said Trijnstel. It works, says Mentifisto, because “anyone who can contribute, does.”