Why You'll Never Hear Me Call Wikipedia "Crowdsourcing"

I can clearly envision the reaction to this blog title: “Lori! Don’t you write and talk about crowdsourcing all the time? And don’t you write and talk about Wikipedia just as much?” Well, yes. But it’s true. You’ll never hear me describe Wikipedia as an example of crowdsourcing.

The short answer? Wikipedia is so much more.

Here’s the long answer, which just might renew your respect for Wikipedia:

Wikipedia is often described as the classic example of massively decentralized, peer-produced content on the Web. The site’s success and unwavering tenacity have led it to become arguably the most influential application of the open source software movement within the cultural and academic spheres.

Mia Ridge, a doctoral researcher at the Open University and editor of the forthcoming book Crowdsourcing Our Cultural Heritage, defines crowdsourcing as asks directed toward a shared goal that cannot be done automatically and which have inherent rewards for participation. But crowdsourcing is just one facet of a wider spectrum of Open Authority, with deeper levels of collaboration and dialogue occurring between experts and community members as the spectrum progresses.

Crowdsourcing is just the beginning, encompassing more passive, contributory participation models that include voting, tagging, or transcription. Community-sourcing, on the other hand, is a more collaborative approach between participants that involves bigger asks made of a more committed, loyal community. On the far end of the spectrum is co-creation, which is true participatory interpretation where the community and the experts work together to develop a project from beginning to end.

Wikipedia isn’t merely crowdsourcing — it’s the quintessential example of community-sourcing.

When you’re talking about Wikipedia, you’re not actually talking about a website. You’re talking about a community.  What makes Wikipedia so unprecedented is not its size or its structure — it’s the passion of tens of thousands of active Wikipedia volunteers around the world.

From the beginning, the Wikipedia community has prided itself on its collaborative and consensus-based approach to policy and content creation, all with the goal of maintaining the integrity of the encyclopedia. This is taken so seriously that Wikipedians have developed a reputation for being rather prickly if you don’t follow the rules. But at the community’s heart is an ever-present altruistic character and a stern determination to compile the sum of all human knowledge for anyone to freely use, distribute, and improve upon. As a Wikipedian myself, I’ve experienced sappy moments of camaraderie as well as maddening bureaucratic disagreements, and I’ve learned that they work hand in hand. I’ve also learned that no other peer-production platform can hold a candle to what’s been achieved by Wikipedians.

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, frequently expresses his disdain for the term crowdsourcing. Jimmy’s vehemence is rooted in the fact that crowdsourcing came out of “outsourcing,” or seeking cheap labor from the general public to complete tasks.  This encourages a focus on the product, rather than the process of achieving the goal. Wikipedia flips this idea on its head, focusing more on the process and passion of growing the sum of all human knowledge, rather than a preoccupation with completing the encyclopedia.  Jimmy puts it this way, “Real communities aren't your cheap labor force. They are real people with passions, hopes, and dreams. Your job is to help them do what they want to do, not to extract labor from them.” Wikipedia thrives because the community is motivated by its distinctly humanitarian foundation.

Ultimately, it’s not inaccurate to label Wikipedia as an example of crowdsourcing, because it is in fact an inherently motivated group working toward a shared goal. Many have described it as such in the past, and many will continue to do so in the future. But, it would be immensely more accurate to describe Wikipedia as community-sourcing. It is, after all, an awe-inspiring example of that.

Lori Byrd Phillips is a museum, Wikipedia, and social media strategist and researcher who defines and explores open authority in museums. She has a background in pre-primary and secondary education, and is the Digital Content Coordinator at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. She can be reached at loribyrdphillips.com/contact.

Third image CC BY-SA 3.0 by Adam Novak


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