What we can learn from Wikipedia

The similarities between OpenStreetMap and Wikpedia are obvious: “We are the Wikpedia of maps!” – in fact they are so obvious that they hide some important differences. And it isn’t only that Wikimedia have US$ 30 million in cash and we don’t. I’ll try to explain how things work over at our elder sibling, and draw some ideas for OSM from that.

Before I begin, a quick definition of terms for those not familiar with the Wikipedia universe. Wikipedia is a project and an encyclopedia web site at the same time, and it is part of a greater endeavour called Wikimedia which also encompasses things like Wiktionary or Wikimedia Commons. The whole Wikimedia endeavour (sometimes also called a “movement”) is supported by a charitable organisation called the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF).

There are about 30 national WMF chapters and hundreds of Wikipedias in other languages than English, and they may use different structures to accomplish their work. In this article, I’ll talk about WMF and the English Wikipedia only.

The Wikipedia project

The heart of Wikipedia are the editors; people who actually contribute content. The editor community (which I will call the “Wikipedia community”) once started out following the rules laid down mainly by Larry Sanger who founded Wikipedia together with Jimmy Wales, but meanwhile a very complex set of rules and procedures has emerged. These rules are not absolute and not created in some kind of law-making process. Rather, they are like our “We don’t tag for the renderer” rule – more a creed perhaps than a rule.

The Wikipedia community is mostly concerned with content and the procedures that guide its creation. Most of the rules, therefore, deal with what content is acceptable and what form it should take, and with resolving disputes that may arise during content creation.

Resolving disputes is probably one of the most important activities in the Wikipedia community. When there’s a dispute, there’s an expectation of a sensible and factual discussion which will usually be closed by a “closing administrator” after it is felt that all arguments are heard. There may be polls but it is not the mere count of votes that decides; it is also the strength of the argument that decides. The “closing administrators” therefore have considerable leeway in deciding the outcome, but are not expected to exercise any power themselves in such decisions; they are there to help the community come to a decision. Over-reliance on rules will result in the accusation of Wikilawyering, the name Wikipedians have given to the practice of trying to defeat ideas on procedural terms alone.

Such an absence of strict rules may sound like an open and creative environment at first, but in his 2011 article on “Wikipedia and Authority”, Mathieu O’Neil writes:

Dismissing codified solutions as “rigid” or “bureaucratic” guarantees stasis, as there is no universally accepted way of changing the way things are and few avenues for legitimate critique. Finally, the approach’s long-term viability is open to question. As Wikipedia operates following the constant reform and refinement of social norms, the issue of changing policy with an ever-increasing number of participants grows more complex.

There are about 740 administrators (not to be confused with system administrators) in Wikipedia, and several possible layers of escalation comprising a group of about 35 so-called “bureaucrats”, an “Arbitration Committee” with about 15 members and ultimately co-founder Jimmy Wales who, while having given up a number of his “founder privileges”, still theoretically retains ultimate authority in some points.

Everyone in Wikipedia – editors, administrators, bureaucrats, Arbitration Committee – is a volunteer; nobody gets paid for any function they perform in the community.

The Wikimedia Foundation

In parallel to the world of the Wikipedia Community, there’s the Wikimedia Foundation. WMF was founded to primarily take care of servers, domain name, and trademarks. WMF was never a membership organisation, but presided over by a board of trustees who were initially appointed by Jimmy Wales. Today, the WMF board comprises ten people, of whom three are elected by the community, two selected by chapters, four appointed by the board itself, and the tenth is a permanent seat for Jimmy Wales. The board is the ultimate corporate authority of the Wikimedia Foundation, and its members serve as volunteers (but may be reimbursed for expenses). The board aims to have quarterly regular meetings (usually in person at varying locations), and extra meetings for things like budget planning (usually online).

WMF has about 100 employees. In the second half of 2011 (the latest figures available), WMF had an income of about US$ 27 million, and spent US$ 15 million. About half of the expenditure is for staff, recruiting, and contract services. Less than US$ 2 million were spent on hosting and equipment. As of December, 2011, WMF had US$ 30 million in their bank account (the amount I mentioned in the intro). The bulk of WMF’s income is from donations; while a few large donors contributed over the last few years (a total of US$ 4.5 million from the Stanton Foundation; US$ 3 million from the Sloan Foundation; US$ 2 million each from Google and the Omidyar Network), the mainstay of donations are those from community members and users, and WMF intends to keep it that way because they believe this model is scalable and reduces the danger of large funders influencing the organisation.

Mayo Fuster Morell writes in “The Wikimedia Foundation and the Governance of Wikipedia’s Infrastructure: Historical Trajectories and its Hybrid Character”, about the phase of “professionalizing” WMF in 2007, when hiring paid staff started to become the standard mode of operation:

These changes represent an ambivalence regarding the foundation’s relationship to the community. In one sense, it lost “organic” contact because it no longer followed the community’s organizational form and because half of the foundation staff and some board members were not originally part of the community. However, the foundation won contact with the community because of its increased capacity to respond coherently to community requests, release reports of its activities, and increase coordination with the chapters. Some applauded the shift towards professionalization because “things get done” while previously this was not the case. The foundation’s reputation increased, but suspicion and uncertainty also surfaced as the changes generated many questions about the foundation’s expanded boundaries.

The division of labour between the Wikipedia community and the Wikimedia Foundation is basically such that the community cares about the content, and the Foundation is tasked with making sure that the community can do their job. Initially this just meant running the servers; soon after, legal issues (defending the project when sued) and fundraising (to pay for servers and legal) became part of the job too.

At the interface between the two worlds of community and Foundation we have a group called the “functionaries”. which includes all members of the Arbitration Committee and additional users granted certain system permissions that might affect user privacy. These people, while doing volunteer community jobs, have to be approved by the WMF. It is also the WMF who technically rolls out software changes or changes to the web site layout although if this interferes in any way with editing there will have been intense discussions with the community beforehand. And while the community doesn’t directly control the servers, they can of course make requests; such a request from the community, the result of a discussion involving over 1.000 editors, led to the anti-SOPA blackout in January 2012.

Criticism of Wikipedia and the WMF

Of course with such a large project, Wikipedia criticism is not hard to come by.

A lot of it focuses on the WMF and how it spends its money. The most important question asked by critics is: is WMF really so different from what they were a few years ago? In the fiscal year ending June 30, 2007, WMF had an income of US$ 2.7 million and expenses of US$ 2 million. That is about one tenth of the half-year values quoted earlier, which means growth by a factor of 20 in four years. Measured as a proportion of expenses, salaries and wages were one fifth then, and make up half of the expenses now. Critics claim that only a fraction of revenue is actually used towards the original goals (running servers etc.), and the rest is stashed away or spent for “staffing bloat”.

Some critics of Wikipedia would also like the WMF to get more involved in editing, setting policies about objectionable content (e.g. how much nudity is acceptable) or enforcing quality standards.

The Wikimedia Foundation has, with the help of professional strategy consultants, created a medium-term strategic plan, outlining how they intend to grow (150 employees and US$ 50m yearly expenditure by mid-2015) and what their most important goals are. These include

WMF is also contemplating to become more active in political advocacy, i.e. using their weight to influence the political process, especially where the legal framework that allows Wikipedia to exist is concerned, and they have already hired professional lobbyists to that effect.

It is obvious from these goals, and also from the job titles on WMF’s staff list, that WMF’s mission has gone far beyond simply supporting the Wikipedia project. By allocating major resources to attract different kinds of contributors, WMF is shaping the project. Developers paid by WMF build new features for the software that the community uses; public relations officers portray the Wikipedia project in ways seen fit by WMF, and global outreach teams bring the benefits of Wikipedia to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it.

Shun-Ling Chen writes in his 2011 article, “The Wikimedia Foundation and the Self-Governing Wikipedia Community”:

That the WMF often has to act on behalf of the community when it performs functions in this category [of liaising with press and public] adds difficulties to its enrolment, for the community is unable to effectively cut or weaken the links between the WMF and other entities, and to lock the WMF in the community-designated positions. In fact, the community sometimes relies on the WMF to establish links with other actors. Hence, the WMF has a special role as it may compete with the Wikipedia community to represent the network, and the community constantly attempts to keep it in check. …
Although in the Strategic Plan the WMF identifies its role as supporting the community, this is not a modest role that performs only community-designated functions, but one that is “positively transformative” and may “ultimately, increase the overall impact of the projects on readers and the world”.

And Mayo Fuster Morell in the article quoted earlier:

But then there are several views on other issues. There is a tension over where to situate the Foundation from a more active role to a less active one. Some of the interviewees fear the expansion of the foundation could go too far and ask if the foundation’s working system will expand beyond organizing on a community basis. For example, some interviewees expressed concerns about contracting staff to solve issues that were already solved well by volunteers, such as Wikimedia organizing. … Related is that the community follows a democratic approach in which “who does, decides”, while the Foundation’s board makes decisions and staff implement them – decisions and actions are separate. If volunteers contribute to implementation, they may do so but without necessarily changing the decisions of the board.

Her general message, though, is that what she calls the “hybrid model” – a foundation to deal with some things and a community to deal with others – is a positive development that promises the best of both worlds.

Comparison: Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap

The number one problem in Wikipedia is disagreement between different editors. Wikipedia has a strict policy of neutrality (“NPOV”), and sometimes it takes a lot of discussion to achieve a neutral presentation of the facts. This is less pronounced in OpenStreetMap’s realm – either something is a post box or it isn’t, there’s not much room for discussion. We do have occasional edit wars but those are mostly about language and could be easily defused by having different language versions of OSM.

While I have personally read about many lengthy and tiring debates in Wikipedia, I have a suspicion that there might be a selection bias in reporting; you seldom hear about the many cases were things just worked. I have the impression that Wikipedia has developed a lot of very sensible guidelines and policies, for example “Don’t disrupt Wikipedia to prove a point”, “The rules are principles” (and not laws), “Don’t be a fanatic”, “Avoid instruction creep” or the already mentioned “Avoid wikilawyering”. OpenStreetMap hasn’t reached that stage of development; we do have a few principles (“Don’t map for the renderer”, the “On-the-ground rule”) but we have very little in terms of community conduct. For example, in my role as a member of the Data Working Group, when trying to mediate in a conflict, I often have to remind stubborn editors that they cannot be part of a community when they are not willing to talk to others, a very simple fact that doesn’t seem to be written anywhere.

While Wikipedia appears to be more refined on the community side, I have the impression that OSM has advanced much more on the technical side. It is still hard for many to edit OSM and to use the data, but if you look at how far OSM has come since its humble beginnings, with now over a million lines of code in editors alone and possibly a multiple of that in various tools and rendering engines, and compare that with what has changed on the technology side in Wikipedia in the past five years, OSM seems more dynamic. Even though I have no doubt that Wikipedia have excellent people and lots of work is done “behind the scenes”, some part of me wonders where all the money went. If nothing else, this may be a little warning sign to those who believe that a few million US$ and a couple of hired hands could transform the OpenStreetMap experience; I cannot see this having happened in Wikipedia.

Just so I’m not misunderstood, the WMF operations department has to run over 700 servers and handle top request rates of 140k per second, whereas OpenStreetMap currently runs 25 servers and serves 3.5k tiles peak per second, plus maybe 100 web site or API requests per second. So even if not much technological change is visible to the Wikipedia end user, the operation of one of the global top 10 web sites on the planet certainly offers some challenges.

Comparison: WMF and OSMF

Our OSMF is currently a membership organisation where all members decide who gets on the board. This means that we have the somewhat artificial distinction between “community member” and “OSMF member”, where only the latter have a say in OSMF business.

The OSMF doesn’t have any staff (compared to one hundred for WMF), and is currently very focused; OSMF doesn’t try and shape the project by identifying underrepresented groups and reaching out to them specifically (with the possible exception of a drive to internationalize the web site). But OSMF’s stated aim is to “encourage the growth, development and distribution of free geospatial data and to provide geospatial data for anyone to use and share”, so such activities could well be on the cards for the future.

While WMF has already published their financial figures up to December 2011, OSMF’s latest available reports are for the fiscal year ending August 2010, and they list a total income of £100k – that was US$ 150k at the time, or 0.6% of WMF’s income in their fiscal year ending June 2010. Financially, in August 2010 we were as big as WMF was at the end of 2004.

With no paid staff, the OSMF board members – currently seven – have to do all the work themselves, or find volunteers to do it. There are a number of OSMF working groups in which a handful of volunteers are organised to do the most important work, and occasionally there’s some friction because, being volunteers, working group members feel obliged to do what they individually feel is right for OSM, which can differ from what the OSMF board feels is right.

The OSM community seems to be less organised than Wikipedia’s, which means that there’s very little counterweight from the community to anything OSMF does; there’s nobody there to watch OSMF or balance their power. This is different in Wikimedia Foundation’s relation to the community; they do undertake credible efforts of including the community in what they do, and they know full well that the community is capable of organizing resistance if they don’t.

Wrapping up

On the whole, I think that the the “hybrid model” of WMF and Wikipedia community works rather well. I don’t subscribe to WMF’s idea of a constantly growing organisation; I think that they must be seeing diminishing returns on every additional dollar that comes in, and that a lean and mean operation could also have worked, but on the whole things are not too bad over at Wikipedia.

Saying “OSM has a foundation and a community too so it’s the same here” is oversimplifying things; with so little community involvement in OSMF affairs, and with a community that has not yet developed skills and methods to define what they want and speak with one voice, there is a danger of OSMF exerting too much influence, of OSMF not supporting, but steering the project; of a few ambitious people on the OSMF board pursuing audacious goals while leaving behind the community that does the hard work.

I can see some people impatiently eyeing Wikimedia Foundation and saying: OSMF should quickly start playing with the big guys now like WMF does, roll in the cash, set up an office, hire 20 staff, and so on. My response to them is: Smoothly does it. At OSM, we still have to find our ideal “hybrid model”; we have to make the community stronger at the same time as we grow OSMF.

There’s one thing I’d like to copy from Wikipedia immediately though which would come in handy in a lot of debates we’re having on the lists, with Data Working Group business, or even occasionally for the OSMF board: They have a rule called Don’t be a dick.

Further reading

If you are at all interested in analyses about Wikipedia and the Wikimedia foundation, check out the excellent Critical Point of View reader from which all the quotes in this blog article have been taken. You might also want to read some of WMF’s board meeting minutes to get an idea of what they are discussing. And of course you’ll find myriad pages about Wikipedia on Wikipedia itself or on meta.wikimedia.org.

I would like to thank Tim Alder and Mayo Fuster Morell who have read an early draft of this article and helped me avoid a number of faux pas.

There's 3 Comments So Far

  • Tom Chance
    April 26th, 2012 at 09:40

    Really interesting, thanks.

  • !i!
    April 26th, 2012 at 09:51

    Hi Frederik, thanks for this great article! But as you post bigger ones from time to time, it would be great, if you could highlight most important phrases, so everybody can get a basic idea of the content, just reviewing the bold words. (sorry was just my first impression)

    About the content:

    I agree on you perspective (OSM is currently not that big/more technical, which makes things easier). To me it was quit interesting to this Wikipedia book (http://wikimedia.de/wiki/Wikipedia_Buch) and I saw a lot of parallels on the user stories. I’m pretty sure, that some day we have to decide on similar questions (pay staff for maintaince and public relation, expand technical platform, pay developers, …). I’m still very excited how our project will grow at this point and how we can stay a simple to join community :)

    From my point of view, we should take care about OSMF or similar groups (HOT, Admins, …). Not because I mistrust the persons that are encouraged or that I believe they will gain to much power. All in all it’s basically just the impression, that they become more and more isolate from the basic ‘worker’ community. This starts with simple things as seperated websites and wikipages and end’s up with closed mailinglists and chats. Nothing very dangerous, but a first sign, that we must keep our community together, if they still want to be assistants (spec. users that deal with particular problems/tasks) only and to encourage the rest of the community to help them.
    I know there are good reasons not to do so (e.g. public relations needs pretty webpages, not ugly wikis), but please let’s stay a single community and not a bunch of loose coupled people :)

  • David Schmitt
    May 9th, 2012 at 21:52


    from what you say about WMF, I get the feeling that the community is more in a customer role than anything else. e.g. three out of ten board members, or “while the community doesn’t directly control the servers, they can of course make requests”.

    I think I’d prefer a model where the foundation is directly responsible to the community at large. Debian takes this to the extreme (with its own share of problems) by using SPI only as a delegated legal body to hold funds and having all the technical work done by community volunteers.

    Surely there must be a middle ground where some can contribute monetarily and others can contribute work directly, as I think that a certain core of professional support is needed to keep a project healthy. Perhaps for more hygienic tasks like basic server maintenance, accounting, legal council, technical writing, marketing, et al.

    Best Regards, David