A fascinating article in the latest issue of MIT Technology Review details some of the challenges facing Wikipedia, the wildly popular online encyclopedia whose ambitious goal is to “compile the sum of all human knowledge.” In short, Vannevar Bush’s memex on mega-steroids.
The sixth most popular website in the world, Wikipedia is totally unlike the others in the top ten, mostly because it has never been commercialized. Run by a leaderless collection of dedicated volunteer editors bound by a byzantine set of operating guidelines, every month it gets 10 billion (yes, that’s a “b”) hits in the English version alone, and it has grown to over 4 million entries. Although it continues to be decried by dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists who question the value of crowd-sourced knowledge, it has nonetheless managed to establish itself as an authoritative voice, so much so that Google (another internet powerhouse) and Siri often pull information directly from the massive site as though it is accepted fact.
If you are like me, you have come to rely more and more on Wikipedia as a quick-and-dirty way to find info the info you need. It is not unusual for me to query the site several times a day, and I even use it professionally (if carefully) in my teaching and research. So it pains me to learn that the number of editors has declined, that new editors are being discouraged from contributing, that the contributor’s interface remains decidedly un-userfriendly, and that the coverage continues to be heavily skewed toward the interests of the current editors and administrators, who are estimated to be 90% male. That translates into obsessive detail on individual Star Trek episodes (and, according to the author of the Technology Review article, female porn stars), but scant coverage on things like poetry, art, literature and any number of topics that fails to stand out on the average geeky male’s radar screen.
Wikipedia represents the highest hopes of those who originally envisioned the personal computer and the internet: authoritative knowledge freely available to anyone connected to the web, carefully curated by an self-less community of committed volunteers striving to continually improve on its quality and quantity. No commercials. No paywalls. No monthly fees. Of course, the reality of Wikipedia has always been much more complicated than that, but it would be a shame if that dream were allowed to completely wither and die.