Insights From Wikimedia Foundation Advisor Sue Gardner
Few companies have disrupted so-called business-as-usual as much as the Wikimedia Foundation. The nonprofit foundation is behind the website Wikipedia, an online, crowd-sourced encyclopedia that has become the fifth most visited website in the world.
At the 2014 NACD Board Leadership Conference, Sue Gardner, the former executive director and current special advisor for Wikimedia, shared her insights on the open nature of Wikipedia and the risks involved in that business model. Her thoughts resonate not only for the technology or publishing companies, but also for corporate boardrooms across a variety of other sectors.
Wikimedia aims to encourage the growth, development, and distribution of free educational content available in multiple languages.
Nobody, however, oversees the contributors.
“I will never read all the articles on Wikipedia, right? Unlike most organizations, there’s no central point of control. It’s very much about trusting the process.”
“For the most part, Wikipedia works great,” Gardner said. The articles contributed to the website are generally cited and thoroughly researched. Contributors to the site actually are very knowledgeable about intellectual property law and copyright law, Gardner said.
“We aspire to contain the sum total of human knowledge.” “But,” Gardner said, “the Achilles’ heel of Wikipedia is that the number of people contributing to the site is small and limited in its diversity.”
“It’s a systemic bias,” she said. “In order to edit Wikipedia, you tend to be living in a wealthy country with a good Internet connection. You have to have the leisure time to edit Wikipedia. What that adds up to is that the typical content contributor is a 25-year-old male grad student in Germany. People from poor parts of the world and women are underrepresented.”
Gardner said she believes that the contributions of women are missing. Several different studies conducted by researchers have found that somewhere between 12 percent and 15 percent of content contributors are women, she said. This dynamic might be a result of what can be a process that is not very collaborative, but more of a rough, confrontational back-and-forth between content generators.
Gardner also discussed the lack of diversity among the technology industry, specifically in Silicon Valley. When she moved to the San Francisco Bay area, she began a three-month tour to seek funding for Wikimedia. In that period, the only women she met were those who held positions such as administrative assistants. None were company leaders or business investors.
“I think the lack of gender equality of the Silicon Valley area is a symptom of an immature industry,” Gardner said.
In addition to a lack of diversity, Gardner said she has another concern: data privacy. While many people are concerned about government surveillance, she is weary of vast amounts of data being collected by for-profit companies.
“I worry not just about what the advertisers know and how the information is traded, I also worry increasingly about companies that are going to be bought and sold for parts,” Gardner said. “The whole game in Silicon Valley is that a lot of companies are just going to go under. What is going to happen to the information that they have? I don’t think we’re worried enough about that.”