Wikipedia has gained a status of a new kind of organization based on purpose
Back in 2010, I was brainstorming a start-up to make a big difference with my friends in Tokyo. My friends searched for connection with events to shape their ideas for a new product. A new product was supposed to give birth at present day. But none has come to existence. Three business plans have been dead for more than a decade.
Among them was one electronic card to consolidate a flood of plastic cards, one-card only. The second idea was based on an increasing demand of remote blood testing. This idea has proven right at the idea level as Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford drop-out, started her venture to fail. Last idea was elegantly laid out by my friend of Fuji Film, a high tech firm with a struggle. He came up with a charming bell to ease the pain of stressed young Tokyoites. The brainstorming exercise was especially informative in the scholarship program funded by Nissan Corporation.
During the program, a generous director distributed an offer for a research. I bought a bunch of books, which include a leading thinker of tomorrow like Donella Meadows. Her book inspired me to work on my project. I read her articles in the archives, too. The best of Academy of Systems Change, the Donella Meadows Project, is “A New Kind of Organization Based on Purpose and Principle.” It was thrilling to read chaordic organizations. The word is a combination of “chaos” and “order”. I was directed to form a new initiative but stuck with the word. Things have passed for more than a decade.
On January 9th, The Economist, a British left-of-center newspaper, published an episode of free online encyclopedia, “Wikipedia at 20”. A science-fiction writer, Douglas Adams, came up with the idea of Wikipedia in 1971. On January 15th, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit celebrated its 20th anniversary. The site hosts more than 55m articles in hundreds of languages, among which English language shares 6.2m articles to print 2,800 volumes. It ranks the 13th-most-popular digital field on the internet, Alexa Internet, a web-analytics firm reckons.
Wikipedia is an odd product with unorthodox model. It has no shareholders, no billionaires with no stakes what so ever, and no advertising. A good deal of studies highlights the reliability of amateur reference site anybody can contribute for liberation, education, and enlightenment. The Economist writes an investigation by Nature in 2005, as it compared Wikipedia with “Britannica”, concluding that little difference appeared to exist between two references in the number of errors. Then, what is the beneficial value of Wikipedia?
In America, one study in 2018 estimates that average American consumers would spend $150 a year. The price tag of that amount would be worth $42bn a year equivalent to revenue from users’ consumption. In business, many tech firms rely on the site to generate profits. Amazon and Apple let Alexa and Siri, voice assisting tools, to answer factual questions respectively. Google uses it to populate the fact boxes for a search. Facebook is said to do a similar thing. Two tech titans employ AI language models for collecting factual text. The number was not given but no organization could have achieved such a universal guide as Wikipedia. How would you explain the success of it? An indicative description can be found in the essay of Donella Meadows Archives.
The site of Wikipedia is pulled by demand, a human’s desire to know the world and contribute to tell the truth. It serves its purpose year after year, “Becoming the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. This is perhaps the most significant part to describe that this tech giant has no obvious headquarters, not center of power, and no centralized command. No billionaires own anything. Toby Negrin, a board member of the Wikimedia Foundation, refers to it as a “guardian of the truth” in the office of the San Francisco charity. Donella Meadows wrote on chaordic organizations. They are self-organizing and self-governing. They operate through networks of equals. It is the power of shared purpose to make the site effective. It is ethical principles and responsibility distributed through the internet.
As long as the actual idea is spread on the internet, it can be abused by the incompetent or the criminal. But this open free reference book has incredible powers of self-policing and self-repairing from curious people around the world. Social media are surrounded by rumors of fake news, disinformation, and conspiracy. But I have never heard a similar critique on Wikipedia to send deliberate distortion to the readers. For last two decades, it served its purpose, making it consistent with real need of human endeavor. It has never been run by a desire to command and control. Instead, it is still running on notions of engineered solutions, compelled behavior, and separable self-interest, as Donella mentions in her essay on chaoric organizations.
The purpose is “what ought to be.” The challenge of creating what ought to be is authentically align with human nature to do something good. But idea generation to develop the adequate product within appropriate team is another mysterious challenge, perhaps far from putting them to work for value. Literally, Wikipedia has gained a status of chaordic organizations.