The Wikipedia founder on empowering his army of volunteers while still maintaining control of the site—and not selling out
Everyone assumes it's hard for us to take no advertising on Wikipedia, but that decision was actually easy. It's just not the right place. The more difficult question for us was how we could organize and empower volunteers while still maintaining control. It's a constant balancing act to promote local autonomy with consistency across the brand.
Early on, some people thought we should radically decentralize and have local groups in different countries control their own sites. Each could have its own look and its own standards. The Germans were the first to organize and want to start a chapter. Some wanted to set up a club to represent Wikipedia there, but the idea raised tough questions. You don't want to give away too much power. What if they started endorsing a political candidate? We decided there was no way we'd do that. Still, we needed a local presence and couldn't afford to set up offices with paid staff. The best solution was to set up a local nonprofit chapter. It meant more work and sometimes more costs, but we could decide how they'd operate under our trademark.
That became our policy, but there have been challenges along the way. In China, it's almost impossible to set up a local nonprofit. We deal with the government while our volunteers can only meet up informally in bars or on social networks. For three years, Wikipedia was completely banned in the country. We're there now, though officials filter out some pages without our permission. In Italy, it was an expensive, long struggle to get through the paperwork and legal hurdles. We're setting up our own office in India soon, because we can accelerate growth there. In most parts of Africa, we don't even know where to start.
People ask why I didn't try to get rich off Wikipedia. I'm not a raging communist or anti-business—I'm just fixated with having a free encyclopedia for everyone on the planet, in their own language. Five hundred years from now, nobody will remember much that's on the Internet now. But I think they'll still point to Wikipedia.