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HBS Cases: How Wikipedia Works (or Doesn't)  September 13, 2013 – 03:22 pm
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HBS professor Andy McAfee had his doubts about Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia created and maintained by volunteers. "I just didn't think it could yield a good outcome or a good encyclopedia. But I started consulting it and reading the entries, and I said, 'This is amazing.' "

So when the concept of "Enterprise 2.0"—a term coined by McAfee on the general idea of how Web 2.0 technologies can be used in business—popped up on Wikipedia, McAfee beamed. "I was bizarrely proud when my work rose to the level of inclusion in Wikipedia." Then, however, a turn of fortune took place. A "Wikipedian" nominated the article for deletion as unworthy of the encyclopedia's standards. McAfee thought, "It's not even good enough to get on Wikipedia?"

He left the sidelines to join the online discussion about whether the article should be kept or jettisoned. It was also that moment that would eventually lead to an HBS case study, written with professor Karim R. Lakhani, on how Wikipedia governs itself and faces controversial challenges.

The elbows are sharp on Wikipedia. It's not cuddly.
—Andy McAfee

The case offers students a chance to understand issues such as how online cultures are made and maintained, the power of self-policing organizations, the question of whether the service is drifting from its core principles, and whether a Wikipedia-like concept can work in a business setting. (See related story below.)

The Wisdom Of Crowds

Even by online phenomenon standards, Wikipedia is huge. Begun in 1999 by Jimmy Wales under the name Nupedia, the service today claims 1.8 million articles in English, 4.8 million registered users, and 1, 200 volunteers who regularly edit Wikipedia articles.

Anyone can submit or edit an article, which is why Wikipedia has been lampooned for high-profile inaccuracies, such as a biography of journalist John Seigenthaler Sr., who, according to the anonymous contributor, "was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother Bobby." Not so. A recent article in The Onion parodied, "Wikipedia Celebrates 750 Years of American Independence."


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