Wikimedia, the “movement” that includes Wikipedia and all the other Wiki-things, shouldn’t really exist. Its basic operating procedure defies our strongest convictions about incentives, work, and community: It is made with no form of payment, has a very thin formal hierarchy, and users lack any real common history other than their participation.

And yet it not only exists, it almost is the Web: Wikipedia is the sixth most popular website in the world, with 22.5 million contributors and 736 million edits in English alone. It’s as if the entire population of Australia (23.6 million) each contributed 30 times. Last year Wikimedia sites overall (which includes the likes of Wikiquote and Wiktionary, as well as Wikipedia itself) averaged 20 billion pageviews per month.

This paradox of its success is most striking at the top of the Wikimedia food chain. Running this huge enterprise is a little-known hierarchy of volunteer leaders, effectively each working an extra part-time job to police the site, battle vandals, seek out spammers and sock puppets, and clean and control what you see. Thousands of people around the world actually apply to do more work for free as a Wikimedia administrator, autopatroller, rollbacker, or bureaucrat.

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