Wikipedia's lessons for media owners: harnessing the power of community and content

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Jimmy Wales, Journalist, Patrick Smith, TheMediaBriefing Experts' Blog, Video game, Wikipedia, Digital Media

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (pic by @FTDigitalMedia)

Media businesses tend to dismissive of Wikipedia. A few years ago there were a spate of stories of journalists being banned from using to the biggest concurrently human-edited source of information the world has ever seen.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales doesn't see the logic and sees the site as an integral "part of the structure of the world". Its 20 million articles available in 270 languages, plus 65 million monthly visits, seem to confirm that.

"If you think about a student aged 14 or 15 years old, Wikipedia has been around for as long as they've known how to read," he says. "For the next generation of students coming up it's part of their infrastructure."

So what about the accusation that Wikipedia is full of errors and journalists shouldn't trust it? The simple answer from Wales in an interview with Journalism.co.uk today is a) don't cite it and b) follow the discussions within articles to find out what's going on.


He says: "Generally speaking we always recommend journalists shouldn't cite Wikipedia and we rely on good quality journalism to do what we do. We hope journalists use Wikipedia as a starting point.

"I would say journalists should go to not just the Wikipedia entry but the discussion page - because there's where you'll find the Wikipedia community discussing and trying to figure something out - and maybe there's a contradiction in the sources or something's not covered in the sources. So it helps you know what the public is interested in."

So don't just search for facts - follow the debate. As Wales puts it, his creation is "not an abstract website, it's real people" - 100,000 people contribute regularly, a healthy proportion of whom are Drs and phD-level experts in their field.

Of course, some things on Wikipedia are incorrect. But journalists, of all people, should be able to follow the citation and judge for themselves.

Why does this matter from a media business point of view?

Wikipedia has exactly the kind of engagement and interaction that hundreds of free and paid-for news, entertainment and B2B media sites would kill for. It's a self-policing and volunteer-led community that maintains a vast amount of relevant content. Rather than relying on paper encyclopedias and the news media for facts and information, people are increasingly turning to wikis - which is, essentially, turning to each other.

Through a relentless focus on community, the end product is a revolutionary world leader. Could a media owner, on a smaller scale, similarly harness the power of their community to create something worthwhile?

Also, media owners should pay attention to how fans of things coalesce and create wikis of their own. During his talk Wales mentioned Lostepedia, the wiki created by and for fans of the baffling US TV series Lost. It has 7,260 articles: how could you even start to build your own Lost site half as comprehensive as that?

Such was its popularity that writers of the show were regular users, with the site's submissions and theories later appearing the script. "That kind of interaction between the fans the writers of a TV show is a really new thing," says Wales. "We're not just seeing in TV but in video gaming and lots of other information-rich products."

It's wise not to write off any platform that your users and customers are so enthusiastic about using.

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