Submissions/Informed but unempowered

From Wikimania 2014 • London, United Kingdom

This is an accepted submission for Wikimania 2014.

Submission no. 2512
Title of the submission

Informed but unempowered: Why our movement only fulfills half its mission

Type of submission (discussion, hot seat, panel, presentation, tutorial, workshop)


Author of the submission

Benjamin Mako Hill, Aaron Shaw

E-mail address,


User:Benjamin Mako Hill, User:Aaronshaw

Country of origin


Affiliation, if any (organisation, company etc.)

University of Washington, Northwestern University, Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University

Personal homepage or blog

Mako: Homepage; Academic Homepage; Blog Aaron:Homepage

Abstract (at least 300 words to describe your proposal)

The mission of the Wikimedia Foundation is to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop free educational content, and to disseminate it effectively and globally. Although the Wikimedia community has made enormous progress in developing and disseminating free culture, this is only half of the mission. In fundamental and persistent ways, our movement has struggled to empower and engage people in the collection and creation of knowledge.

These challenges are not new. Although peripheral — even passive — participation in the community is legitimate and important, Wikimedia projects do not create themselves. It has been well known for years that despite growing global editorship, Wikimedia projects increasingly struggle to attract, mobilize, and retain new contributors. Millions of dollars in donations and dozens of paid staff members might turn the tide against the editor decline, but this underscores just how hard it has become to attract new contributors. Relative to viewership, Wikimedia has only ever empowered a minuscule fraction of its readers to contribute — a fraction of a percent. As readership has grown, the fraction that contributes has fallen by more than half.

Nearly all Internet users access and consume Wikimedia project content, so why is it so difficult to convince more people to help produce it? Observers and participants in our movement have articulated numerous reasons why mobilizing participants has become such a struggle. However, few have stopped to consider how we may not be alone in this regard. The free software and broader free culture movements, both of which have also grown and experienced spectacular successes over the past twenty years, have run into nearly identical challenges. What makes collaborative knowledge production so hard?

In the first half of this talk, we introduce a bit of history — not of Wikimedia — but of the broader context that set the stage for Wikipedia as a project and Wikimedia as a movement and set of organizations. In particular, we focus on how the free software movement helped lay the foundation for Wikimedia and the movement for free culture. Free software also has a two part mission (i.e., access and empowerment) and has succeeded, like Wikimedia, primarily in terms of advancing access. In the second half of the talk, we describe how this background provides a perspective to evaluate what Wikimedia — and the broader free culture movement — is doing well, and what things we could be doing much better. We use data from scholarly research (ours and others') to suggest that although Wikimedia and free software are devoted to promoting access to knowledge and to enabling users to transcend their role as consumers of information, both movements' success in doing the former has not translated into success in the latter. Finally, we talk about why Wikimedia and free software have struggled to empower users to transcend their roles as consumers and suggest different approaches our communities might adopt.

For people who are newer to Wikimedia and the free culture movement, this talk will hopefully provide some critical context to understand where we came from and why what we're doing is so important. For more established community members, the talk will raise what we think are major achievements and challenges of our movement as well as pointing out a series of things that our movement — along with our sibling/parent movements — is doing much less well.

Note: This talk will build off another talk Benjamin Mako Hill gave at the Wikimedia Foundation's all staff meeting in September 2012. Since most of the WMF staff (at least as of September) have seen a version of this before, they can probably chime in here with feedback/evaluation.
  • Legal & Free Culture
Length of session (if other than 30 minutes, specify how long)
30 minutes

30 minutes

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