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Wikipedia's Balancing Act

 

Wikipedia's standards have never been higher, but the site needs to attract a new generation of editors to survive. 

 

Wikipedia’s launch was kind of an accident. Initially founder Jimmy Wales envisioned an online encyclopedia vetted and edited exclusively by experts—basically a free, online Britannica he called Nupedia. But it was Nupedia’s crowdsourced sister site—designed to let users create entries that experts could later perfect—that took off. It didn’t take long for Wales to dump Nupedia and embrace his radical side-project, which blossomed faster than anyone expected. Today Wikipedia is the sixth most visited website on the internet (ahead of Amazon and Twitter) and its authority online is almost without parallel. Google the Krebs cycle or the French Revolution, and Wikipedia is the first page you see.

 

But behind Wikipedia’s success lays a tough balancing act, says Tom Simonite at Technology Review, and that balance may now threaten the site’s long term survival. From its beginning in 2001, Wikipedia has struggled to reconcile its conflicting missions, from building an authoritative source for all information on the planet to doing it all through open, anonymous, and decentralized volunteer labor. These contradictions came to a head in 2005 when a volunteer posted a defamatory “bio” accusing journalist John Seigenthaler of involvement in the Kennedy assassination. Big changes followed: editors introduced a system of bureaucratic hoops and automated edits to combat vandalism and raise standards. New edits were now easier to spot and dispute, articles were harder to change, and new computer “bots” roamed the encyclopedia to flag down formatting mistakes and vandalism.

 

The new policies were effective, says Simonite, and then they were too effective. The changes did much to improve Wikipedia’s quality and image, but they also led to a drop in participation that’s hounded the site ever since. Today, first-time users encounter byzantine editorial guidelines and swift reprimands for mistakes, leading many to simply leave: since 2007, Wikipedia has lost more than a third of its volunteer base. And with fewer newcomers comes less diversity. More than ever before the pool of volunteers is overwhelmingly Western, male, and nerdy, with predictable consequences for the site’s coverage (the ratio of Pokémon profiles to articles on female novelists is revealing, says Simonite).

 

A larger problem is that the internet’s social landscape has shifted over the past decade, from anonymous, collaborative communities to commercialized, egocentric hubs like Facebook. Wikipedia remains one of the last of the internet’s old-style gatherings and one of the largest. But with Twitter and Facebook dominating our online lives, “people steeped in that model will struggle to understand how and why they should contribute to Wikipedia or any project like it,” Simonite adds.

 

And while the folks at the Wikimedia Foundation are well aware of these issues, their authority to introduce changes is limited. Wikipedia has always been a community project, and it’s the community that takes the lead in determining and implementing policies (like it did to combat vandalism). If that community is going to survive, it needs to grow.

 

Image by Giulia Forsythe, licensed under Creative Commons.