Is this the end of Wikipedia?

Greg Hunt, our environment minister has been caught relying on Wikipedia, Google results often rely on it, Siri loves Wikipedia yet Wikipedia themselves are thinking they may be in a bit of trouble.

Since 2007, in its hey-day, editors are in decline and the volunteer base of a self-managed 90% male collective has become so bureaucratic the site is at risk of self-sabotage.

Tom Simonite in an in-depth feature for MIT Technology Review reports that the Wikipedia Foundation, the group that supports the legal and technical infrastructure is staging a “rescue mission”. Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikipedia Foundation and Jimmy Wales the founder, says “the biggest issue is editor diversity”. Both agree they need to draw a new crowd to keep Wikipedia developing and sustainable.

But if you have tried to edit a Wikipedia page or set up a new page, users can find themselves quickly put off. It is not the clunky system that is testament to a success story that started in 2001. It is the bureaucracy of the current collective, and that proves the challenge.

A good example of this is the language in which Wikipedia pushes you to edit in, WikiText. To the average would-be editor, it looks like complex computer language. Wikipedia did address this by launching a visual editor, easy and simple to use. But after much argy-bargy from the collective you now have sift through a number of hidden settings to opt in to use visual editor. It is this type of barrier to entry that is seeing editors in decline from 51,000 in 2007 to 31,000 today.

The stats don’t look pretty:

  • Since 2007, when bureaucratic controls began to bite on whom, what and how to contribute and edit Wikipedia, the likelihood of a new-users edit being deleted climbed.
  • The proportion of automated deletions grew
  • Research showed that newcomers are far less likely to still be editing Wikipedia two months after the first try.

Researchers added a suggestion to update Wikipedia’s motto, “The encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Their version reads: “The encyclopedia that anyone who understands the norms, socializes him or herself, dodges the impersonal wall of semi-automated rejection and still wants to voluntarily contribute his or her time and energy can edit”.

The other issue Wikipedia is dealing with is the weighting of information that is heavily western and male dominated. There is a disproportionate amount of content about Europe and North America, and Antarctica had more entries than a continent like Africa. The gender issue is also interesting with female editors contributing far shorter entries than male counterparts. There seems to be many more articles discussing computer games and female porn stars and very limited information regarding female literature.

Wikipedia says it is addressing the issue, while not quite admitting the issue. The foundation has set up two teams, one focused on growth and the other core features. It is endeavoring to offer positive feedback mechanics, thank you buttons and so on. However there is no current statement that the harsher rules of contributing and the slap from the hard-core bureaucratic collective will decline anytime soon.

On the brighter side Wikipedia recently partnered with mobile operator Airtel to offer a free service that sends articles via text messages called Wikipedia Zero. The service is aimed primarily at people in Africa where smartphones and internet access are not commonly used. Wikipedia’s initiative could generate educational access to the millions of people in Africa. It’s ironic that Wikipedia are able to implement quite an impressive service like Wikipedia Zero yet are struggling to maintain diversity within their company.

Ironically the essence of Wikipedia as an open network of human knowledge needs revitalising. The Wikipedia Foundation need to realise running the site based on a bureaucratic committee will not work. The Foundation needs the courage to stand up and open up to the masses again, regardless of the faceless old editors that better lose the elitist attitude.


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