Reasons for hope seem to be in short supply these days. Politics are a mess, everything is getting expensive, and the modern internet built on social media seems to only inflame these tensions. Yet there is a website where people put aside their differences and work toward a common goal to great effect. That website is Wikipedia.

Wikipedia contains over 6.5 million articles, and nearly 600 new ones are added every day. There are an average of two edits per second, adding up to over a billion since its founding in 2001. You can access Wikipedia in over 300 different languages and in every country in the world except for the 15 that block it.

Moheen Reeyad, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The scale of Wikipedia is nearly impossible to comprehend. The English Wikipedia alone is said to be “approximately 95.4 times the size of Encyclopædia Britannica.” That is a staggering amount of information to have in one place.

On top of that, Wikipedia is run by volunteers and funded by donations. Even without a clear hierarchy of leaders, Wikipedia maintains surprisingly good quality. Many lofty promises of collaboration and cooperation and the expansion of human knowledge were made by companies during the heady days of the dotcom boom. But of all the sites in the world, Wikipedia has come closest to achieving that goal. It’s a shockingly functional and erudite online community.

The success of Wikipedia can teach us a lot about how to create businesses and organizations that function really well without a top-down command structure. This is really useful for small businesses with tight resources, limited time, and a desire to give staff room to do their best work.

The Five Pillars of Wikipedia

Every organization needs common goals in order to succeed. When branding your business, it’s important to focus on some kind of mission or vision that goes beyond daily, weekly, quarterly, or annual goals.

For Wikipedia, these are known as the Five Pillars. They are:

  1. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia.
  2. Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view.
  3. Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute.
  4. Wikipedia’s editors should treat each other with respect and civility.
  5. Wikipedia has no firm rules. 

For a website as complex and comprehensive as Wikipedia, these fundamental principles are remarkably straightforward. Each pillar is loaded with meaning, though. To see what I mean, here is my interpretation of the subtext implied by each pillar.

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. This is really simple – it’s an explanation of the goal. On the Five Pillars page, they go on to describe some things Wikipedia is not (such as a vanity press, soapbox, advertising platform, and so on). This pillar works because it clearly defines the goal of the website as a whole in unambiguous terms.

Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view and Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute. Part of why Wikipedia is trustworthy, despite its ability to be openly edited, comes from the presence of these two pillars. As soon as edits are made, they can be written over or rolled back. That means no one can claim ownership over anything written on Wikipedia. Editors know what they’re doing when they edit Wikipedia. A sense of non-attachment is baked into the process. Anyone who wants their personal point of view permanently displayed online knows that must go somewhere else.

Wikipedia’s editors should treat each other with respect and civility. The meaning is obvious here, although it should be noted that Wikipedia has a much friendlier community than most places online. I’ll discuss why I believe that is in the following section.

Lastly, there is the pillar that Wikipedia has no firm rules. Members of the community know that Wikipedia is an experiment in maintaining quality data at a massive scale. As such, this pillar advises people to use their best judgment and focus on progress over an overly rigid concept of perfection. This focus on continual improvement and willingness to change based on new data meshes really well with the general concepts behind the scientific method and education in general.

Albert György, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How Wikipedia maintains quality on a day-to-day basis

First, let’s acknowledge that Wikipedia is not perfect. Though websites like Wired have called Wikipedia “the last best place on the internet,” it’s still on the internet. That means dealing with the problems that come with being online.

Wikipedia editors have to fight off the usual issues that come with running a big website. That includes everything from internet horrors like trolling, doxing, hacking, and death threats to general low-quality content. It’s also a bit of a boy’s club, as men outrank everyone else in terms of editors.

But here’s where Wikipedia differs from Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other similar online giants. It has actively taken steps and spent a lot of money to fix its problems. You can read more about that in this article on the Community health initiative. Suffice it to say, the important thing here is that Wikipedia acknowledges problems and spends money and time fixing them.

In the mid-2000s, when Wikipedia was starting to get attention, teachers would tell you not to cite Wikipedia. Even on this blog, outside of this article, I generally advise my writers to only cite Wikipedia for basic and easily verifiable facts, as well as definitions. But public opinion has been changing for a while, and you don’t have to go far to find multiple think-pieces defending Wikipedia.

Editor culture at Wikipedia

Why does Wikipedia work? First, let’s consider the editors. There are over 40 million registered users, many of whom are editors. About 66% of them mostly edit articles, 42% mostly do research, and only 28% add new articles. These facts alone show that of the dedicated Wikipedia editors, there is a baked-in culture of improving existing articles over making new ones.

Editor culture at Wikipedia also lines up pretty well with the Five Pillars, and there is an ethos that has been cemented through over 20 years of social norms. The most common reason editors cite for their volunteer work is their motivation to “share knowledge” (71%). After that, 69% of editors are motivated by their belief that information should be free. The third most common reason is that “contributing is fun” – a statement espoused by 63% of editors.

In short, Wikipedia editors are informed by a benign ideology that to share accurate information is to make the world a better place. They believe they have a moral imperative to do so, and many find fulfilling their duty enjoyable. Compare this to the only 7% of Wikipedia editors who do so for “professional reasons.” The altruists massively outnumber the people who are only in it for a paycheck.

Wikipedia runs on passion

When you consider all this together, it’s clear that Wikipedia is driven by passion. A large enough majority of the editors are compelled to work on the site in pursuit of a common mission, which also has the effect of drowning out the voices of those only editing Wikipedia for selfish reasons.

Of course, it’s not just sentimentality that makes Wikipedia run. Every edit is cataloged and every version of every page is backed up. Volunteers can see where edits are made, roll back bad ones, and block offenders.

There are also WikiGnomes – users who focus on incremental edits like cleaning up grammar, punctuation, and spelling issues, fixing broken links, and generally making the housekeeping edits that need to be made. That fact that there is a subgroup of Wikipedia editors focused on the minute details of keeping Wikipedia intact is also an important part of why quality is so high.

WikiGnomes keep Wikipedia’s quality high with their tolerance for grunt work.

Finally, in cases where articles are generally good, but a few statements don’t quite work, there is always “citation needed” – a designation that editors can tack to the end of statements that need to be verified. That way, Wikipedia readers can see opinion statements clearly marked and make their own decision about whether to take it at face value.

6 ways your business can be more like Wikipedia

Wikipedia is an example of an aspirational online community with great team dynamics. Every business – big or small – ideally wants to have a team that can work together toward common goals with this level of effectiveness. That’s why I think we can learn a lot of marketing and management lessons from Wikipedia as an organization.

First, let me get this out of the way. Wikipedia is not an irreplicable piece of art. If you look at other wiki-style websites like TVTropes or the various wikis on Fandom, you will notice similarly successful communities. TVTropes is focused on the storytelling conventions that make movies and TV work. Fandom wikis are focused on super-niche subcultures.

My point here is that you don’t have to be doing something super serious or academic like Wikipedia to have a community based on attention to detail, passion, and decency. So with that in mind, I would like to leave you with six practical tips that you can take from Wikipedia’s story to apply to your own business.

1. Find a common mission.

Nothing brings out the prosocial tendencies in people quite like having a shared goal. That’s why it’s so important to have a company mission that resonates. This is something that goes beyond generating revenue and bringing in leads. Your mission needs to speak to the reason your business exists in the first place.

It’s said that when employees believe in a company’s mission, they are 54% more likely to stay for five years or more, and 30% more likely to grow into high performers. In an age where employees very reasonably job hop between disloyal, soul-dead companies, you have a chance to create something better.

Ask yourself “how is my company going to leave the world better than we found it?” Keep mulling on that question, slowly if needed, until you find an answer that truly resonates with people, especially your employees.

2. Look for passion even in dull work.

There’s an old parable about bricklayers which I think is so important.

The construction architect observed the three workers on a scaffold, and asked “What are you doing?” to which the first bricklayer replied, “I’m laying bricks.” The second responded, “I’m repairing a wall.” But the third replied, “I’m building a cathedral to The Almighty.”

University of Michigan

Drudgery goes down easier when you believe you’re part of something bigger than yourself. In the case of Wikipedia, WikiGnomes are able to justify using their time correcting typos and fixing broken links on Wikipedia because they believe that having a reliable one-stop-shop for human knowledge is worth the effort.

In practice, once you have a mission that resonates – which is 80% of the battle, by the way – the next part is making sure that even the most boring parts of the job can be traced back to the mission.

With my own marketing agency, my goal isn’t to make a buck – it’s to help people achieve their dreams, which just so happen to take the form of small businesses and passion projects that need digital marketing help. So when I’m knee-deep in Amazon ads trying to figure out why my client’s money won’t spend, I do so knowing that correcting the problem will help someone to accomplish their deeply held dreams.

This is how much some people love Wikipedia.
ProtoplasmaKid, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
3. Have a good quality control process.

Missions and dreams and meaning are all very important to the psychological health of those in your organization. But you cannot neglect the importance of good processes to back up your lofty missives. In the case of Wikipedia, that means keeping a record of all edits so that volunteers can monitor them.

In your business, you need to have some kind of feedback loop that ensures that your business is effectively able to accomplish its goals. For example, in our post about the downfall of Rax restaurants, we talk about how their food offerings slowly deviated from what their customers wanted. Their original mission of giving customers a nice, comfortable place to get a good meal was left unmet because there wasn’t a good system in place for collecting and incorporating feedback.

4. Be ambitious.

Wikipedia is a result of the starry-eyed optimism of a bygone era of the internet. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the internet was a weird, wild, impossible-to-comprehend tool that had not yet been ruthlessly monetized. In this milieu, Wikipedia was born because the creators said, “why don’t we just run a massive global experiment in maintaining the world’s largest encyclopedia?”

That ambition is part of why Wikipedia editors have an ideological commitment to sharing quality information. If Wikipedia didn’t have such a lofty mission, it probably wouldn’t inspire people.

By all means, start small and work your way up. Practicality is still important, especially in small businesses. But allow yourself to dream, if only a little bit, when setting your mission. Leave it open enough for people to imagine great success. It’s leaving some room open to the imagination that gives people a chance to be inspired and find true enjoyment in their work.

5. Give people room to work.

People tend to become experts in areas they care about. Once you have basic quality control processes in place, give people the room they need to make their best work.

Just over half of employees feel like they lack autonomy in their work. Feeling constricted in this way reduces role clarity, engagement, and satisfaction. All of this can lead to turnover, which is, of course, expensive.

Wikipedia makes people accountable to their peers, so garbage is not published (for long). But as for the actual individual day-to-day operations of what to edit and when to edit it, there are no rules.

You might not be able to give people total freedom in their work. Nobody wants a creative accountant or air traffic controller! But on the little day-to-day, non-mission-critical items, give your staff some leniency. It will pay off.

6. Look professional, but let a little humanity slip through.

Wikipedia is a professional, neutral website. That doesn’t mean that no human touches slip through. After all, people can edit what they like and make whatever articles they want (within reason). So often you find these little passages where people gush about what they like, which gives the site a unique feel. When it is truly over the top, quality control kicks in, and you see “citation needed.”

In your own business, certain things will be required. You need to look professional and give your customers a sense that you know what you’re doing. But don’t try to control everything. Let your employees be themselves, within reason, as it’s these small bits of leniency and kindness that keep passion alive, much as we see with Wikipedia.