How Wikipedia Works/Chapter 17

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Who is actually in charge of Wikipedia and its sister projects? The Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), first introduced to you in Chapter 2, The World Gets a Free Encyclopedia, has taken on this role. The Foundation does not oversee any project content but instead owns the projects legally and provides a central resource to keep the projects' infrastructure, such as the web servers, up and running.

Because the Foundation staff is small for such an ambitious venture, most day-to-day decisions are still made by the community that has developed around each project. The wiki spirit of volunteering does not stop at the individual project level, however. Daily work on Foundation-level tasks is carried out by hundreds of people, from running elections to talking to the press to helping out with fundraising. Foundation volunteers generally come from individual wiki projects and use that background knowledge in their work. Perhaps they first contributed to Wikipedia, then fanned out to another project such as Wiktionary, and discovered they were interested in cross-project or cross-language issues. Much of the discussion between community members on Wikimedia's different projects occurs on the Meta-Wiki, which we'll describe later in this chapter. Its pages are referenced in the style m:Help, where the interwiki symbol m stands for This is distinct from the Foundation's own wiki, at; the interwiki code for the Foundation is wmf. We'll refer to pages on both of these wikis throughout this chapter.

This chapter describes the governance structure for the projects as a whole, how operational work gets done, and how to get involved. Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Wikibooks, Wikinews, Wikisource, Wikiquote, and Wikiversity in all their language versions together represent thousands of varied, individual wiki communities. A few broad policies apply to all the projects, but central control is mostly ad hoc; the Foundation is really a federation of projects and activities, bringing together everyone who wishes to help with cross-project work.

The Foundation: Mission and Structure[edit | edit source]

The Wikimedia Foundation was first proposed in June 2003 by Jimmy Wales. With the Foundation's announcement, Wales transferred ownership of all Wikipedia, Wiktionary, and Nupedia domain names to Wikimedia along with the copyrights for all materials related to these projects that were created by Bomis employees or Wales himself. Wales also donated the computer equipment used to run all the Wikimedia projects to the Foundation. The domain names and were secured for the Foundation by Wikipedia contributor Daniel Mayer. The Foundation logo (Figure 17.1, “The Wikimedia Foundation logo”) was designed in 2003 by user:Neolux; this logo came in second in an international contest to choose a new Wikipedia logo. (The first-place choice, designed by user:Nohat, became the current Wikipedia logo, while the third-place choice became the current MediaWiki logo.)

Figure 17.1. The Wikimedia Foundation logo

Since those early days, the WMF has taken on multiple roles. The main areas in which the Foundation operates, both with volunteers and paid staff, are the following:

  • Maintaining the technical infrastructure for all of the projects, including hardware expansion and server maintenance in three countries
  • Starting new projects, overseeing existing projects, and encouraging translation among them
  • Providing a central wiki forum for discussion, the Meta-Wiki
  • Supporting and directing the development of the MediaWiki software
  • Fundraising and finance
  • Handling legal matters, including organizational trademarks and domain names
  • Developing chapters and coordinating volunteers
  • Coordinating publicity work, including outreach and the Wikimania annual conference
  • Participating in free culture and free license discussions and initiatives

The Wikimedia Foundation is a nonprofit charitable organization under US law. From 2003 to 2007 the Foundation was based in St. Petersburg, Florida; in January 2008, the organization moved to San Francisco, California. Most people working on Foundation matters, including members of the Board of Trustees, are volunteers. The Foundation now has about 15 paid employees, including an executive director, chief technical officer, and technical and administrative support staff.

As of August 2007, the Foundation's mission statement is:

The mission of the Wikimedia Foundation is to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.
In collaboration with a network of chapters, the Foundation provides the essential infrastructure and an organizational framework for the support and development of multilingual wiki projects and other endeavors which serve this mission. The Foundation will make and keep useful information from its projects available on the Internet free of charge, in perpetuity.

Wikimedia also has a clear role in promoting free culture and free content—not just text, but also images and other media files. In addition to adopting free licenses for all of the projects, the Foundation has adopted the Free Cultural Works Definition, which is similar to the free software definition, for all of its projects (see

Infrastructure and the Board[edit | edit source]

The Foundation is governed by a Board of Trustees. Currently (mid-2008) the Board has eight members: three members directly elected by the Wikimedia community and five appointed members. In Spring 2008, the Foundation announced that the Board would be expanded to ten seats, with the addition of two seats appointed by the local chapters of the Wikimedia Foundation, which are community-based organizations operating within a specific geographic region. The Board is generally responsible for the Wikimedia Foundation, including supervising the finances and legal and technical infrastructure.

The Foundation as a whole tends not to become involved in internal debates on Wikipedia or any of the other projects, and the Foundation Board members and staff are not responsible for project content, editorial policies, or resolving disputes. Instead the Foundation provides broad guidance for the projects, such as advocating for free content. Foundation-level volunteers like stewards (described in "Project Coordination" on Section 2.1, “Project Coordination”) may deal with issues on smaller projects, especially ones that are just getting started and having troubles. Overall, however, the Foundation model assumes very loose central control.

Although the general public might still assume that Jimmy Wales runs Wikipedia, that is far from being the case. Wales still sits on the Board of Trustees but stepped down from being Board chair in 2006. He still retains an informal leadership position on the projects but is, for the most part, continually on the move as a goodwill ambassador for the Foundation and the projects.

An advisory board, currently consisting of 20 appointed members who are experts in many areas, including free software, law, technology, outreach, and nonprofit organization, provides advice to the Board and staff as needed.


Elections for community representative Board members have been held periodically since 2004. In the past, to vote you needed to have a registered account with at least 400 edits on a single Wikimedia project. Each candidate for the Board posts a short campaign statement on Meta, which is then translated into many languages; secure voting takes place over a set period of time. Any community member is welcome to ask the candidates questions. Details, including the results of previous elections and previous candidate platforms, may be found at m:Elections.

Foundation-Level Policy[edit | edit source]

Of all the WMF official policies found at wmf:Policies, here are the most important ones for members of the public, readers, and editors:

  • wmf:Resolution:Licensing policy indicates that projects are expected to host only content that is under a Free Content License.
  • wmf:Non discrimination policy prohibits any type of discrimination against current or prospective users and employees.
  • wmf:Privacy policy indicates that if you only read the Wikimedia project websites, no more information is collected than is typically collected in server logs by websites in general; but if you write something, assume the project will retain it forever.
  • wmf:Access to nonpublic data policy allows only persons whose identity is known to the WMF be permitted to access any nonpublic data held by the WMF.
  • wmf:Code of Conduct Policy includes the need for those acting on the WMF's behalf to respect confidentiality of sensitive information.
  • wmf:Gift Policies relates to gifts to the WMF and the role of the Grants Coordinator.

Fundraisers and Donations[edit | edit source]

Project users expect continuous service with few outages, yet traffic keeps increasing exponentially. This requires more bandwidth, the annual budget for which is already in the high hundreds of thousands of dollars. These costs, and the other expenses of running the projects, must be met in order to provide a stable platform for the voluntary effort of content creation.

Project costs, from staff salaries to new servers, are funded almost entirely with private donations. Typical donations to the Foundation are from individuals who give on the order of $20 to $40. The money goes entirely to the costs of running Wikimedia projects. Although you can donate at any time of the year, the Foundation also sponsors periodic fundraising drives; these are generally announced in project-wide site notices. You can dismiss these site notices if you're logged in.

Why Not Have Ads on Wikipedia?

Advertisements on Wikipedia? This is an old idea that is constantly brought up, though more often these days by "helpful" outsiders.[35] Wikipedia has a large share of Internet traffic, the reasoning runs, and so is prime real estate for ads. And yet, the status quo in the WMF is that the projects have no ads, nor are they ever likely to. To sum up the reasons why, ads would be (1) inconsistent with the tradition and culture of free culture and an affront to many community members who would likely leave over the issue, (2) difficult to reconcile with the Neutrality policy, (3) ugly, and (4) the wrong way of forking because anyone can always fork out a commercial version.

Wikimedia Chapters and Outreach[edit | edit source]

The WMF has 17 chapters (as of 2008), which are independent organizations created by Wikimedians around the world to support and promote the Wikimedia projects within their particular country or area. Chapters have no particular tie to any particular project in any language. Though they are clearly related to the WMF, they are each independent organizations, not subsidiaries. The Foundation enters into separate agreements with the individual chapters regarding use of the Wikimedia name and logos.

In order of their formal founding and recognition, the chapters are:

  • 2004: Wikimedia Deutschland (Germany) and Wikimédia France
  • 2005: Wikimedia Italia, Wikimedia Polska, and Wikimedia Cpбuje (Serbia)
  • 2006: Wikimedia UK, Wikimedia Nederland, and Wikimedia CH (Switzerland)
  • 2007: Wikimedia Taiwan, Wikimedia Israel, Wikimedia Sverige (Sweden), Wikimedia Argentina, and Wikimedia Hong Kong
  • 2008: Wikimedia Österreich (Austria), Wikimedia Australia, Wikimedia Česká republika (Czech Republic), and BикиMeдиa (Russia)

You can find a current list at m:Wikimedia chapters.

Chapters are geographical-based, rather than language-based entities; for instance, Wikimedia Deutschland supports activities in Germany, rather than the German-language projects specifically (which cater to German speakers all around the world).

Chapter creation is centrally coordinated by the Wikimedia Foundation, under the auspices of the Chapters Committee. Any experienced contributor who is interested in forming a chapter should get in touch with this group and visit m:Chapters committee. Chapters may run promotional activities, fundraise for the projects within their countries, and pursue other Wikimedia-related projects. Note

You can begin activities in your area, such as local meetups, without forming a chapter—and, in fact, this is good preliminary activity. You need a group of interested people who can work together before beginning a formal organization.

Other Foundation outreach comes in the form of conferences and special events. Wikimania, the annual international conference of the WMF, was already profiled in Chapter 12, Community and Communication; this event is run by project volunteers. Other events related to Wikimedia have included Wikimedia Academies, which are designed as small conferences focused toward academics and teaching about Wikimedia projects, and regional conferences, such as the Wikimedia Conference Netherlands. You can find a list of such events past and present at m:Events.

MediaWiki[edit | edit source]

MediaWiki, the free program used to run the Foundation sites, is available as open-source software for anyone to use and customize for his or her own wiki site. Download it from To run the software, you need a web server (such as Apache), a database server (such as MySQL), and PHP. To install the software, you must have access to your web server. You can find installation instructions on the MediaWiki site,, which also lists documentation pages and many user-developed extensions.

Development of MediaWiki is now directed by the Foundation, handled by a small team of paid developers, and supported by many volunteers. Brion Vibber, long-time head of MediaWiki development, serves as the current CTO.

Further Reading

The Wikimedia Foundation and Chapters


Wikipedia was first written on the UseMod wiki engine developed by Clifford Adams. Early wikis still used CamelCase, a convention for forming wikilinks automatically by using uppercase in the middle of a word and now an occasion for WikiNostalgia. CamelCase was phased out in January 2002 when Wikipedia migrated from the UseMod engine to its own software. This software was originally developed for Wikipedia as a PHP script by Magnus Manske, a German computer science student, rewritten by Lee Daniel Crocker, and later worked on by dozens of developers. The MediaWiki name, with its intentional play on Wikimedia, was not coined until 2003.

To report a bug in MediaWiki, go to the Bugzilla installation, accessible at Here you can report problems with MediaWiki and some other selected Wikimedia software tools or search for information about currently open bugs.

[35] See, for example, Alana Semuels, "Wikipedia's Tin-Cup Approach Wears Thin," Los Angeles Times (March 10, 2008):,0,7404443.story?page=1.

The Meta-Wiki[edit | edit source]

Meta is the central wiki for coordination and discussion of all Wikimedia projects. Located at, Meta is one of the extraordinary "hidden" parts of Wikimedia and showcases the projects' diversity. Meta is also where announcements are made that affect all of the projects.

The Meta site includes project proposals, discussions about existing projects, translation and language coordination, and day-to-day community development work for all of Wikimedia's wikis. General discussion happens at the m:metapub. Wikimedia-wide announcements are collected on the m:Goings-on page, while a list of historical milestones for all the projects can be found at m:Milestones. Although much of Meta is written in English, some pages are written in other languages; for example, m:Aide:Manuel de MediaWiki gives access to manual pages for French speakers. The normal rules of civility and professionalism apply, and remembering that you are working with people from all over the world is helpful. Related email lists, IRC channels, and in-person meetups provide ways for the thousands of people who work on Wikimedia projects all around the world to meet, plan, and talk.

Links to Meta may be found on Wikipedia, usually on documentation and proposal pages, and occasionally such pages may be transwikied from Wikipedia over to Meta. Meta, therefore, serves to collect general help pages and as a repository of documentation relevant to all of the projects. Meta is not a place for article development or idle discussion unrelated to the projects.

Project Coordination[edit | edit source]

Anything that requires cross-project coordination may be discussed on Meta. For instance, Meta is where new projects and new languages are proposed as well as set up.

Stewards are a special class of users who can assign bureaucrat or system administrator (sysop) privileges on any of Wikimedia's wikis (these users were discussed in Chapter 11, Becoming a Wikipedian). Typically, they help with small projects or new languages that might not yet have any system administrators. To see a list of stewards, you can go to m:Stewards. Normally, they will not perform actions that local bureaucrats or administrators can carry out. Stewards are elected in regular elections on Meta; they are trusted users who may be from any language or project but are generally multilingual. Steward actions are recorded at m:Special:Log/rights on Meta; specific requests for their assistance can be made at m:Steward requests.

Translation[edit | edit source]

Meta is also where translations are coordinated across the projects. Some texts related to all the projects, such as fundraiser and project-wide election notices, need to be widely translated into many or all of the languages used in Wikimedia projects. The Meta page where such requests are posted is m:Translation requests. Questions and discussions regarding translations and translating can be posted at the Babylon noticeboard; see m:Babylon.

If you are fluent in another language and wish to help with translation, you can join a translation team. Especially if you speak a language that is not widely spoken or that lacks current translators, you can also volunteer to be a translation coordinator, someone who keeps an eye on Foundation announcements and other material that needs to be translated and helps recruit volunteers for translations.

New Projects[edit | edit source]

Periodically, new sister projects are suggested. These projects should be discussed first on Meta at m:Proposals for new projects. Any new project must align with the values of the Foundation, particularly with its educational goals. Any new project also requires a large community of interested editors, so Meta is the place to recruit other people for your idea.

Starting a new project is a substantial commitment for the Wikimedia Foundation, so the vast majority of suggestions never come to fruition as Wikimedia projects. If this happens to your project, remember that finding other wiki projects and starting your own wiki are easy. The Meta page also serves as a way to locate other editors who might be interested in the same topic; if you find a number of potential supporters, you will probably be encouraged to start your project independently.

Requests for new language editions of existing Wikimedia projects are handled at m:Requests for new languages.

Communication[edit | edit source]

There are a number of mailing lists and IRC channels related to Foundation work (rather than related to individual projects). The two main places to look are the Foundation-L mailing list, which has open subscription and open archives, and the #Wikimedia IRC channel.

Additionally, nearly all of the projects and many individual language projects (such as the English-language Wikipedia) have their own mailing lists; some of them are more active than others. If you're thinking about getting involved in another project, or a Wikipedia in another language, try browsing the relevant list's archives. You can find a full listing of mailing lists on Meta at m:Mailing lists.

Further Reading

Looking Back and Going Forward[edit | edit source]

Part IV showed you the rest of the picture: the hundreds of Wikimedia wikis that are not the English-language Wikipedia. Maybe the English-language Wikipedia's role as flagship project will persist, but internationalism is clearly a component of all the projects as a whole. The proportion of English content over all the Wikimedia sites is still dropping: Today, three out of four Wikipedia pages are not in English.

As noted in Chapter 2, The World Gets a Free Encyclopedia, most of the ingredients for how Wikipedia (and indeed, all of the Wikimedia projects) works were in place by early 2001: a working site with an encyclopedic mission, a strong community, and core wiki philosophies. After all we've said in Parts III and IV about the current Wikipedia and Wikimedia communities, reviewing some features of early Wikipedia history is worthwhile, so we'll pick up where we left off in Chapter 2, The World Gets a Free Encyclopedia.

Early Days[edit | edit source]

Constant growth has always been a defining feature of Wikipedia. In Wikipedia's first year, over 1,500 articles per month were created; now that number of articles is created in a single day on the English-language Wikipedia. On August 30, 2002, the article count reached 40,000; a year later; the article count was 150,000; and a year after that, in August 2004, the total count was over 300,000 articles. In broad terms, the rate of growth has increased steadily from the project's inception, discounting a few technical slowdowns. (Growth may be slowing, however, for the English-language Wikipedia, if not for the other projects; early 2007 saw continued growth but some flattening of the trend.)

This growth has been technical as well; the initially fairly basic technology behind the site, both MediaWiki and the server infrastructure, has required constant upgrades to keep up with Wikipedia's phenomenal popularity. The number of servers nearly tripled in 2005 alone (the year of the first Wikimania conference, heavy news coverage, and the Seigenthaler scandal), from 39 to over 100. Oldtimers on the site still remember the glitches. How slow the site could be! Early on, the onsite search was often switched off to improve performance, but edits were still commonly lost, in contrast to today's reliability. The number of technical staff has always been small compared to the size of the projects; as of early 2008, all of Wikimedia's projects on hundreds of servers worldwide are run by just four paid technical staff with the help of a few volunteers.

As Wikipedia and the software powering it grew and changed, basic article structure and the style governing articles also changed, and the initial, somewhat primitive look-and-feel was incrementally improved. Big advances in editing came with the use of sections in articles. The category system was delayed, and lists proliferated in Wikipedia's first three years. In the end, categories were enabled somewhat casually in 2004, and three haphazard months of category creation ensued, which annoyed many people (but this settled down in time).

Another theme has been the slow evolution of the Wikimedia community. Wikipedia's social structure has defined itself over time. A preference for very flat hierarchies, which still prevails, didn't stop various classes of Wikipedians from emerging: developers and sysops (administrators), which were first defined as classes of editors in 2001. These classes remain limited, however; today, just as in 2001, any editor who has worked on the site for a few days has the same content privileges as any other editor. Certain community structures also evolved in the first few years as the site grew: The process for requests for administratorship, for instance, was not set up until 2003. This community growth was also reflected in the first in-person meetups in 2004. At the same time, the Foundation began fundraising to try to keep up with the site's growth.

Late 2005 initiated a new era for Wikipedia, as the media generally started to take a much greater interest in the project, its critics, and its internal affairs—a trend that continues to the present. By 2005, the site had arrived.

Continued Values[edit | edit source]

Some early key policy and technical decisions helped shape the success of Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects. One of these is the license: Since the content of Wikipedia is released under the GFDL, anyone can reuse Wikipedia content. The emphasis on open content and open source remain absolutely fundamental to the project.

Another innovation from the early days of Wikipedia's development was originally technical—the development of the article talk page. The very first versions of the wiki software had no talk page; comments were left at the bottom of the article. In retrospect, separating out the talk page seems like a simple idea: You have the article page, for instance Goldfish, and Talk:Goldfish is the separate forum in which to discuss the content of the Goldfish article. The clear division of content (always unsigned) versus editorial comment (signed), was actually a huge step forward. Separating content debates from the articles themselves led to a strong belief that such discussions should be conducted gracefully and certainly not in the flame war style rampant on most Internet forums. Using discussion to work out content and community problems has proved to be a critical part of how Wikipedia deals with contentious issues.

Finally, the key values mentioned in previous chapters—some of which are enshrined as policy, whereas others are simply part of the philosophy behind the site—have made Wikipedia what it is today. On the content side, the ideas of free content, neutrality, and verifiability have been present since the project's first days. On the community side, the ideals of civility, assuming good faith, and being bold have encouraged large-scale participation in a project with shared and interlocking ideals.

Summary[edit | edit source]

Wikipedia has come a long way. Its first seven years have seen the development of many millions of articles and the building of a worldwide community of hundreds of thousands of active editors. At the same time, Wikipedia has become part of the larger Wikimedia Foundation, with hundreds of sister projects and communities, each running the volunteer-developed MediaWiki software. The Wikimedia Foundation is both a crowd of volunteers doing varied work from locations around the globe and in a broad range of languages and an effective, distinctive voice for globally distributed, reusable free content, available to anyone.

Conclusion to Part IV[edit | edit source]

On March 27, 2008, a few minutes after midnight GMT, Wikimedia announced that 10 million articles across all language editions of Wikipedia had been created. This announcement made a media splash, while another significant milestone a few days later, that 100 Wikipedias now have at least 5,000 articles, slipped by without fanfare. Wikipedia watchers won't be surprised at the details. Article number 10,000,000 was on the Hungarian Wikipedia and about Nicholas Hilliard, a painter of miniatures during the reign of Elizabeth I. The 100th language to reach 5,000 articles was Kapampangan, a major language in the Philippines. According to the Wikipedia Signpost from April 7, 2008, 40 percent of new articles are now coming from languages outside the top 10 (by size) language editions of Wikipedia—the leading group including most of the languages dominating global communications (though not Arabic). Wikipedia as a global project, encompassing both the topics and the languages of the world, has become a reality.

Scope exists for another book—or many books—on different models for user-contributed content: Other models are gaining prominence on the Web. A fitting place to end is with the thought that Wikipedia's model, which has become Wikimedia's model, may be one of the hardest to make work. Wikipedia took from earlier wikis the post-moderation concept: Allow people to contribute freely and deal with problematic content later. That this approach could succeed at all is counterintuitive, and even more debatable is whether the approach is feasible as a way to produce quality reference material. But surprisingly to many, Wikipedia has succeeded beyond anyone's hopes, perhaps leading to the truth of the oft-repeated saying that Wikipedia only works in practice, not in theory.[36]

We have written at length about the technical and social means that make this collaboration possible, that underpin the work on the Wikimedia projects, and how you can easily be a part of it all. We hope we have also made clear that technology is not in itself enough to build an editing community. Community is an essential part of Wikipedia's jargon. For each of the hundreds of new Wikimedia Foundation projects, the first and most important milestone is the day an editing community assembles to collaborate on a new reference project.

[36] See, for instance, the user essay on Wikipedia.