What Working for Wikipedia Taught Me About Collaboration

    by Sandra Ordonez
    July 13, 2010
    Flags fly at the Wikipedia's 2007 annual conference, which the author helped organize. Photo via Wikimmedia Commons

    A little over three years ago, I started working as the communications manager for Wikipedia. I had just moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., and was ecstatic to hear that this quirky website, which had begun to pop up in many of my web searches, was based there. Having grown up in New York, my culture radar detected that this was a one-of-a-kind project that attracted eccentric individuals. Needless to say, my radar never fails me.

    At that time, Wikipedia’s internal structure did not match the widespread success and attention it was beginning to enjoy. I found myself working in a thrifty “rent-by-the-month” office building with three other employees: An administrative assistant, a fundraiser/hardcore Wikipedian, and a CFO. I was told that most tasks, including the communication projects, were carried out by a large network of international volunteers.

    I immediately began to review the public relations materials available to me, and almost immediately went into panic mode. There was no polished press kit, press list or, dare I say, communication strategy. In fact, the majority of individuals on the communications committee had little to no public relations training, and were more intellectual and techie than the average PR practitioner at that time.


    Crisis Mode

    A few weeks into the job, with little training and a very primitive understanding of the wiki ethos, I encountered my first PR crisis. A hardcore and well known Wikipedian, Essjay, had lied to the New Yorker about his credentials. Not surprisingly, the years of crisis communication training I received was useless in the context I found myself in. For a brief moment, I honestly thought that my career as a PR specialist had come to an end. The New Yorker, in my mind, was the bible of the media world; there was no way that our online encyclopedia was going to survive the PR damage.

    In the midst of my concerns, I soon became a believer in the power of collaboration. That crisis was the moment when the new media landscape unfolded before my eyes.



    The volunteers took charge. They created a Wikipedia entry that documented the event in gruesome detail. It was honest, direct and, amazingly, had no PR spin. In fact, for most Wikipedia members, the biggest concern was that Essjay had used his false credentials in content disputes. It was apparent to me that there was never any malice or hidden agenda. Essjay himself had revealed his real credentials on his user profile when he was hired by Wikia, a company owned by Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales. In fact, in the months that followed, I found the community became self-correcting by encouraging the use of real names and identities. It found a way to help prevent this type of issue from happening again.

    At the time, some critics argued that the incident ruined Wikipedia’s reputation. Of course, this was the farthest thing from the truth. Since then, the site has grown both in content and in language versions. (My husband is a philosophy professor, which means I regularly meet academics who are quick to point out how “surprisingly accurate” the site is, and how fascinated they are with how it has impacted how our society views information.)

    Learning From Collaboration

    As someone who identifies herself as a bicultural New Yorker who specialized in cross-cultural communication in college, I was not a stranger to collaboration. In fact, that was my biggest criticism of American culture — we were too individualistic and not group focused enough. But nothing prepared me for the wiki world. I learned some valuable lessons about collaboration and how to make it work. Below are some of the key learnings.

    • Trust the Crowd; Its Smarter than You — The sooner you trust the group and empower it, the sooner it can produce high quality results. The group can make up for any weaknesses you may have as an individual. The idea is to bring out the strongest skills and downplay the weakest in each person.
    • Diversity and Creativity Are Intrinsically Connected — Creative brainstorming is significantly improved by diversity. Individuals not only challenge each others’ ideas, but they also inspire each other as well.
    • Collaboration is Messy — When Jimmy Wales said “[Wikipedia is] like a sausage: you might like the taste of it, but you don’t necessarily want to see how it’s made,” he wasn’t kidding. Chaos, in many ways, seems to be the spark of great collaborative endeavors.
    • Be Open to Receiving and Giving Criticism — When working collaboratively, it is important to let go of your ego. Learn to not take things personally and be honest about what you think without being disrespectful.

    Wikipedia still receives a lot of flack — it’s an easy target for institutions and individuals who are desperately trying to survive in a digital world. However, I feel grateful for having worked for a short time with the “free culture” trailblazers behind the project who are responsible for making the world a bit more open, democratic, smarter, and much more collaborative.

    Sandra Ordonez calls herself a web astronaut who has been helping organizations navigate the internet since 1997. Currently, she helps run OurBlook.com, a collaborative online forum that gathers interviews from today’s top leaders in the hopes of finding tomorrow’s solutions. Since December 2008, the site has been conducting a Future of Journalism interview series. Sandra also heads up the Facebook page, “Bicultural and Multicultural People Rule.” Previously, she was the Communications Manager for Wikipedia. She graduated from American University with a double degree in International Relations and Public Relations.

    Tagged: collaboration crisis management essjay jimmy wales new yorker wikipedia

    18 responses to “What Working for Wikipedia Taught Me About Collaboration”

    1. > “In fact, for most Wikipedia members, the biggest concern was that Essjay had used his false credentials in content disputes.”

      Right. NOT lying to the _New Yorker_ about those credentials. Quoth Wikipedia CO-founder Jimmy Wales “I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it.”

      > It was apparent to me that there was never any malice or hidden agenda.

      “malice”? Well, against whom? That’s a rather inapplicable word here. There was certainly intent to deceive, that’s the point of lying to the _New Yorker_. I think it’s true it was a fantasy rather than a quasi-criminal scheme. But this doesn’t excuse Wales’s trivialization.

      > In fact, in the months that followed, I found the community became self-correcting by encouraging the use of real names and identities. It found a way to help prevent this type of issue from happening again.

      Please provide some evidence this in fact happened broadly, as opposed to a few extremely narrow contexts. There are several examples that gainsay it.

      > Trust the Crowd; Its Smarter than You

      Nonsense. Crowds are notoriously dumb. Wikipedia is not a “crowd” – it’s a cult.

    2. when the crowd is loosely affiliated and as diverse as that attracted to wikipedia it is smarter than most individuals. Research shows those two are the keys.

      Your four keys are pithy and powerful – and when all 4 are present collaboration is more likely to be fruitful.

      Of course, there are many other kinds of collaboration, from peer2peer to self-organized project teams (perhaps the most versatile and thus the most valuable).
      In this increasingly connected, complex and bottom up world, two keys to staying relevant and to savor one’s life is to strengthen one’s top talent and one’s capacity to collaborate, especially with extremely diverse people – around a sweet spot of mutual benefit. See more examples and tips for collaborating at moving from me to we.

    3. FYI, I recommend the column I wrote on the meaning of the Essjay scandal:

      Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive

      “Frequently, what is naively viewed as
      spontaneous generation is in fact the product of a relatively small
      number of people who have been induced to provide a huge amount of
      unpaid labour. The lifeblood of Wikipedia is selling heavy contributors
      a dream that their donated effort will give them the prestige of an academic.”

    4. Jon Awbrey says:

      The cult-like character of Wikipedism is a frequent topic at The Wikipedia Review, for example, this long-running thread. Discussion is invited, here or there.

    5. Ten Thousand Argonauts says:

      So, the Wikipedia Review is just the hivemind of a bunch of anti-Wikipedia trolls. Don’t get sucked into Awbrey’s Vortex of Mindf**kery™!

    6. I agree with Seth that the crowd is unlikely to produce anything very clever. I have explored that idea here.


      What kind of philosophy does your husband teach? I’m a philosopher and my opinion, shared by many other professional philosophers, is that it is one of the worst-covered subjects in Wikipedia, and that’s saying something.

      Here’s what another philosopher has to say (Oxford lecturer, well known in his field): “Philosophy I’m a philosopher; why don’t I edit the article on my subject? Because it’s hopeless. I’ve tried at various times, and each time have given up in depressed disgust. Philosophy seems to attract aggressive zealots who know a little (often a very little), who lack understanding of key concepts, terms, etc., and who attempt to take over the article (and its Talk page) with rambling, ground-shifting, often barely comprehensible rants against those who disagree with them. Life’s too short. I just tell my students and anyone else I know not to read the Wikipedia article except for a laugh. It’s one of those areas where the ochlocratic nature of Wikipedia really comes a cropper. ”

    7. Piriczki says:

      Yes, Wikipedia has problems but if you want to see an example on how project collaboration has failed, see Citizendium. It’s an absolute mess with unworkable levels of bureaucracy and egotistical admins. A model that should be avoided.

    8. For an example of how really and unbelievably bad Wikipedia can get, see this article in the Spectator here


      and see a further analysis here http://ocham.blogspot.com/2010/06/avicennian-logic.html

      Wikipedia is pretty good on the exact sciences. When it comes to the humanities (I am a humanities PhD) it is a complete train wreck. Not just ‘needs further work’, not just ‘7 out of 10). I mean, train in the quarry, everyone dead or mutilated. Disaster. Try this article e.g.


      A subject with a 2,500 year old history, which is central to the Western intellectual tradition, which has been discussed with care and attention by philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Scotus, Kant, Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Sartre. Wikipedia has nothing, I repeat nothing of value to say about this. Just rambling nonsense. Compare it with the elegant and careful article in the Stanford Encyclopedia, which is not crowdsourced:


    9. Ordonez says:

      “Trust the Crowd; Its Smarter than You”

      I should hope Ordonez trusts the crowd, because they will more likely understand the use of an apostrophe in the contraction “it’s”.

      Practically all of the story above is a concoction of fabrications and delusions. In my experience with Wikipediots like Ordonez, it does no good to even attempt setting them on the right track. All of the parts of their brain that handle critical thinking and objective reasoning have been scooped out and replaced with happy wiki thoughts.

      Even the very phrase “Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales” is a lie. A fat, ugly lie. What is documented, if only Wikipediots would take the time to check, is that Dr. Larry Sanger came to Jimmy Wales in January 2001 with the recommendation that Wales install wiki software on the Bomis server, to try crowdsourcing the encyclopedia project. Wales installed the software. Sanger named the new project “Wikipedia”. Sanger issued the first public call for participation. Sanger labored full-time over the next nine or ten months, developing the key guidelines and policies that still govern Wikipedia today. All of the official communications from the project described Sanger and Wales as “co-founders” of Wikipedia.

      What did Wales do? He stopped paying Larry Sanger. Essentially, he sat back, waited until 2004, then concocted a story that he was the “founder” or, even more ridiculously, the “sole founder” of Wikipedia. As Wikipedia then really took off, he then parlayed this inflated credential into $100,000-a-day speaking tour gigs.

      People like Ordonez who not only refuse to acknowledge how low and cheap such a sham is, but actually sign up to help trumpet the lie to the far corners of the globe, make me want to puke. There really is nothing more low in the professional world than to take credit for other people’s ideas and labor.

    10. Ishmaelblues says:

      The thing is Mr. Kohs, Sanger was never a co-founder. He was in fact a paid employee of Jimmy Wales. The myth of Sanger being co-founder was perpetrated by Sanger himself. It is correct to call Wales founder. I should point out also Kohs has been banned from numerous WikiMedia projects for peddling his own commercial websites.

    11. Ishmaelblues, the historical record is unequivocal on this point, in favor of Larry Sanger. Please examine the references he has collected at the page


      Sanger was designated co-founder in Wikimedia’s press releases and publicity. It is only when Wales started to commercialize wikis that the campaign to remove Sanger’s status as cofounder was started. Again, these seem objective facts, not subject to dispute.

      I do not deny Wales’s contributions to Wikipedia’s success, though I think they’re mostly marketing-oriented than anything else. But I believe the campaign for him to remove Sanger’s status as cofounder is rewriting history and deeply wrong.

    12. Thanks for reminding me of that piece, Seth http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2007/mar/08/media.comment .

      Meanwhile, I’m still curious about these professors who are quick to point out how “surprisingly accurate” the site is. Who are they? Is Sandra’s husband a philosophy professor? Has he read any philosophy articles in Wikipedia? Tell him to read this


    13. Two things have become clear to me in these comments.

      First, we can infer that Ordonez has skipped along to her next PR puff piece for next month on PBS. She probably has utterly no intention to answer the direct question about her philosopher husband that Peter Damian has posed here. Never looking back and never addressing criticism is a hallmark of the Wiki-way.

      Second, I note that virtually every one of the comments left here that are either supportive of Wikipedia or are critical of its critics, are signed by respondents unwilling to leave any bit of identifying info or a URL point of contact. That strikes me as cowardly, and it should serve as a reminder to uninvolved readers that Wikipedians, like the KKK, carry out their editorial work that damages the reputations of others while cloaked in hoods, if you will. “Ishmaelblues” and “Ten Thousand Argonuats”, indeed.

    14. Just want to thank misters Finkelstein and Kohs for their detailed commentary about irrelevencies. Mr. Wales has had little to do with Wikipedia’s operations in the last several years; critics would do well to pay attention to reality rather than their own out of date spin.

    15. jnykq says:

      The thing is Mr. Kohs, Sanger was never a co-founder. He was in fact a paid employee of Jimmy Wales. The myth of Sanger being co-founder was perpetrated by Sanger himself. It is correct to call Wales founder. I should point out also Kohs has been banned from numerous WikiMedia projects for peddling his own commercial websites.

    16. Jon Awbrey says:

      There’s a thread devoted to this article at The Wikipedia Review. Discussion is invited, here or there.

    17. Mr. Vibber would know about having little to do with Wikipedia’s operations in the last several years.

      Sorry, Bri, you set yourself up for that one.

      But in all seriousness, the relationship between Wales and the operation of Wikipedia is not what we’re talking about here, is it? I got onto that track of discussion because it was a natural extension of picking just one example of Mrs. Ordonez’s falsehoods in this article. I think the main item we should be addressing is the how and why of certain influentials in the “Wikimedia sphere” having such difficulty telling the truth about the history of their organization and its projects. Even when the facts are in plain view, they will recharacterize them into a different reality, or just lie about them altogether.

    18. Jon Awbrey says:

      @ 104 Argonauts

      I can hardly take credit for all the wit and wisdom at The Wikipedia Review, but I do (attempt to) moderate its Meta*Discussion Forum, where we try to take a Big Picture view of internet phenomena in general.

      Back to the topic at hand, there is this meta*eddy in Awbrey’s Vortex Of Mindfunkery™ (AVOM™) where we collect a number of threads on cult phenomena.

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