Whither Wikipedia?

The collaborative encyclopedia faces growing pains

February 12, 2010


You’ve got to feel a bit for Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales. Here’s a guy with a fairly simple but incredibly powerful idea: Create a way for people to share what they know with the wider world and in the process build a resource that can be of great benefit to everyone.

As he said in a recent message to the Wikipedia community, “One person writes something, somebody improves it a little, and it keeps getting better, over time.” Later, in bold face, he says, “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge.”

Lofty stuff, and you can’t deny he and the project have been incredibly successful. I can’t help wondering, though, whether it has all turned out quite the way he had in mind. The wild success and popular embrace of Wikipedia has given way of late to reports of difficulties.

It doesn’t take advertising, so there’s the continuing need to raise funds. (The above statements come from a recent fundraising appeal. With just the faintest whiff of anxiety, Wales also says, “We need to protect the space where this important work happens. We need to protect Wikipedia.”) And as we all well know, in a down economy, that sort of fundraising gets harder.

There are other darker clouds on the Wikihorizon. We’ve heard about increasing bureaucratization and calcification of its procedures, that there are fewer people participating and more people who seem more dedicated to committees and process than to writing new articles. (I’m sure there are more than a few organizational-theory dissertations gestating on this.)

Those might someday spell difficulty for the project, if the product starts to dim in terms of usefulness or interest. It’s also possible that something better might come along to dislodge or supersede it. This seems less likely, since, like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, Wikipedia is pretty firmly lodged in the pantheon of Internet Tools Everybody Knows. That’s not to say it couldn’t be supplanted, though it would have to be by something more popular or sexier, since there wouldn’t be much competition on speed, cost, or quality.

It’s also possible that some other technology—a more mobile-friendly or natively mobile tool, for example, could come along that would make the current Wikipedia passé. It sends a bit of a shiver to conceive of a text- or tweet-based “encyclopedia” (maybe I shouldn’t even say that, lest such a creature arise), but it’s not beyond conception.

For now, Wikipedia is doing fine. Usage and visibility are strong, it met its 2009 fundraising goal of $7.5 million, and there’s no clear rival lurking in the shadows. (Neither, though, is there a clear heir apparent should Jimmy ever be unwilling or unable to continue his role as God-King. One wonders what would happen if he were suddenly not in charge.)

Wikipedia, like any socially or collaboratively structured entity, requires a virtuous spiral to thrive. People have to enjoy and value working on it, which makes a good product that people like working on, which attracts more people who like it, which makes it better, and so on.

That spiral can reverse, though, if the work becomes difficult or unpleasant or frustrating, if the neutral point of view Wikipedia fosters goes out of fashion or can’t be enforced, or if consensus breaks down; then the process and the product suffers, people get turned off and leave, and down it goes—not with a bang but with a whimper. And in the process, the rules of the game for recording and sharing “all” of human knowledge will have been rewritten, probably forever, which has very broad implications indeed . . . but that’s another story.