Wikipedia Needs to Change. Here's How it Can

In the February issue of PR Week, I've got a one-off column making the case that Wikipedia's long-term growth requires a reassessment of its volunteer culture. Wikipedia needs to change in order to ensure its own long-term success, and key to that is figuring out how to integrate an expanded class of professional editors. To be very clear, I don't argue Wikipedia should do away with volunteerism, nor do I think volunteers should take a back seat. Indeed, Wikipedia's volunteer ethos is very important, and should remain so. However, when I say Wikipedia needs to change, I'm actually encouraging a change that is already happening.


For some years now, Wikipedia has had a group of editors called "Wikipedians in Residence" whose editing and Wikipedia-building activity are often done in the employ of "cultural sector" institutions. I argue this should be expanded to include professional organizations—even for-profit entities.

And why am I so certain that this would work for Wikipedia? Simple: it already has worked for another famous open-source community, this one with deep ties to the business world. I'm talking about Linux. An excerpt:

Like Wikipedia, Linux was released free on the Web without fanfare, caught on quickly, and within a decade was known around the world. While anyone can join the Linux community, you will not be much help if you cannot write code. ...

Linux's evolution from a small open-source experiment to a key part of today's Internet was driven in part by upstart companies such as Red Hat and behemoths including IBM. ...

Wikipedia's volunteers and its nonprofit parent group, the Wikimedia Foundation, should seriously consider this example.

It's no big deal that the Smithsonian has a "Wikipedian in Residence". Why shouldn't General Motors, or General Electric? Granted, there is much more trust among the Wikipedia community that a "Wikipedian in Residence" at the Smithsonian will have the same goals as Wikipedia; it is a like-minded non-profit institution with an educational outlook. These famous generalists of American business are still in it for their share price.

But there is no reason to think that professional associations and even companies cannot find value in helping to build the world's only encyclopedia that matters—and it's very much worth trying to encourage them. For Wikipedia to grow and improve, it needs to find new ways to encourage contributions that its volunteer model, by itself, has not.

P.S. The article is behind a paywall, so you may try plugging the title into Google News and seeing if that helps. Not that you heard it from me...

A version of this post originally appeared at The Wikipedian on February 10.