Wikipedia is 15. It’s amazing. It needs help.
Is there anyone reading this who does not use Wikipedia routinely? Be honest.
The online encyclopedia (and more) is just 15 years old this week. Consider that for a second. When I do, I tend to think this global collaboration is close to miraculous.
Needless to say, Wikipedia and other projects of the site’s not-for-profit parent, the Wikimedia Foundation, are far from perfect. Moreover, foundation and community are facing some internal struggles over key issues and decisions. Dig deep and you see an adolescent organization at a number of turning points.
But we should recognize, and celebrate, the achievements of the Wikimedia community. And we should all ask ourselves what we can do to help ensure that this unprecedented project not only survives but thrives in decades to come. In a word: Participate.
Before I go on, a disclosure: Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia and chairman of the foundation’s board of directors, is a friend, and I’m a small shareholder in his separate, privately held consumer-wiki service, Wikia.
I was amazed by Wikipedia from the minute I saw it. But I had no real idea how big, or important, it would be come. When I first wrote about it in my Silicon Valley newspaper column in 2004, I focused more on the wiki phenomenon — sites that anyone could edit? really? — and marveled that such a thing could possibly work. At the time, Wikipedia was nearing the then-stupendous number of 200,000 articles in English. Now it’s up to some 35 million articles in scores of languages, and still growing. English remains the top language, for all kinds of reasons.
Even if you rarely go to the Wikipedia site, you’re probably seeing its content, especially if you do a significant amount of searching on Google or other search engines. The results pages often include excerpts from Wikipedia, and those snippets can be enough to get a good sense of the topic at hand.
And if you’re like me, you go often to the site itself. It has become, for me, a first stop for all kinds of quick lookups. But as I tell students, with Jimmy Wales endorsement, while Wikipedia is often the best place to start, it is almost always the worst place to stop. At the bottom of any solid Wikipedia article is a long list of original sources from which site editors have drawn the information that appears in the article. Don’t quote Wikipedia, I tell students; quote from the source material.
The site’s most obvious drawback is, of course, its best feature: the ability of almost anyone to edit almost any article. Trolls, PR people and sock puppets abound. You can never, ever absolutely rely on the accuracy or neutrality — a core principle — of an article at any given moment. Inaccuracies, some deliberate, are usually fixed quickly. Sometimes they aren’t, however, and several high-profile cases of sustained inaccuracy have pointed to what looks to many (including me) like an nearly unsolvable problem: even if I, as the subject of an article, know that something is wrong, I can’t fix it without some kind of outside documentation (such as a news article) “proving” that what I know is right. The site’s rules, aimed at reinforcing a “neutral point of view,” make perfect sense in principle, but can lead to real problems for individuals.
The Wikimedia Foundation operates other ventures, including the Wikimedia Commons, a collection of (as of this week) more than 30 million media files that anyone can use. Probably the most important new initiative is Wikidata, an astoundingly useful linked database from a host of different sources of publicly available data. This is worth a separate column in its own right; watch this space.
For all their amazing qualities, Wikipedia and the foundation have more than a few problems. The finances appear to be in relatively good shape, but the foundation has been shaken by internal changes and dissension, and the legions of volunteers who make Wikipedia what is is are in what looks like a constant state of angst. Little of this has reached the wider public, but a recent blog post on “The Wikipedian,” a site that obsessively keeps track of what’s happening inside the project and the foundation, suggests the latest turmoil — with major leadership changes — is more than the usual stuff in any organization of this kind.
Andrew Lih, a professor at American University in Washington and author of what I consider the best book on Wikipedia (disclosure: he’s also a friend), tells me he hasn’t “seen this kind of (internal) tension in a long time.” “The overall health of Wikipedia is still strong,” he says, but the project and its parent are at what he calls a “pivotal point” in their evolution.
Among the pivots Wikipedia has to navigate is the shift from desktop to mobile computing. Wikipedia has a great mobile web version, for looking things up and browsing. But the mobile site’s editing mode is crude and the opposite of user-friendly, which strikes me as a major drawback since community editing is part of the point. The rise of video has also left Wikipedians somewhat uncertain; thanks largely to Hollywood’s insistence on locking down everything it can, open video formats remain somewhat stalled.
One of the longstanding issues, meanwhile, has been a lack of diversity in the community, especially among editors. The foundation has made this a priority, as it should.
For all the problems, the promise — and achievements — remain awesome. I find it difficult today to imagine a web without Wikipedia. The criticism, often justified, has led to improvements in the service and to competition from traditional and new entrants in the research arenas. But many places, Andrew Lih notes, Wikipedia is the only encyclopedia in a local language. On a recent trip to Armenia, for example, I discovered a vibrant Wikimedia community, which is working hard, with an explicit endorsement from senior public officials, to expand the localized Wikipedia.
But those of us who just use Wikipedia should do more than donate money. By a key measure, participation on the site has flattened. The community is in what Andrew Lih calls a “steady state,” but that’s not enough.
More people should become editors, and encourage others to do the same. I require students in a media-literacy course I teach to edit an article and participate in the online conversation (every article has a Talk page) about it. I ask that they pick a topic they know a lot about already — when they’re at a loss for what that might be, I usually suggest they add or fix something in the article about their home town — and that they understand the rules before they start editing. The exercise is illuminating, for them and for me.
About a decade ago, I was giving a talk about journalism at a midwestern university, and mentioned Wikipedia. This was still in the relatively early days of the project, remember. A professor jumped to his feet and, almost shouting, denounced Wikipedia as a pox on scholarship, and went on a sustained rant about a specific article that had, he said, a glaring error.
I asked him, “Did you fix it?”