Wikipedia Turns 15. Will It Manage to Make It to 30?

Wikipedia Co-Founder Jimmy Wales
Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, poses for a photograph following a Bloomberg Television interview in London, U.K., on Monday, June 16, 2014. The number of jobs in technology and information has swelled 15 percent in the past five years, outpacing the rest of the city as a growing pool of educated workers and government support helped the sector thrive, according to the Boston Consulting Group report. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Simon Dawson — Bloomberg via Getty Images

After 15 years, Wikipedia has become one of those Internet services that is so central to the online world that it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without it. Would we go to the library to read physical books? Turn to a printed encyclopedia? Or just trust the information we find through a random web search?

As it celebrates its birthday, Wikipedia has announced the creation of a new $100 million fund that is designed to ensure its longevity, or at least more so than the periodic pleas for funding that pop up at the top of Wikipedia pages. But money matters are only one of the issues Wikipedia confronts as it enters adulthood.

The bigger issues fall into a couple of broad categories: Namely, management and culture. Of course, those two things are often intertwined, so in a sense they are like two offshoots or symptoms of the same larger problem.

Those who have seen inside the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent entity that theoretically manages Wikipedia (to the extent that a massively crowdsourced phenomenon can be managed) say there is a lack of strong leadership. This threatens the organization’s ability to spend money wisely or come up with a coherent long-term vision, they say.

Every so often, this kind of thing bursts out into the open, as it did recently with the dismissal of Dr. James Heilman, a community-nominated Wikimedia trustee. There has been widespread criticism of that decision, and of the choice of Arnnon Geshuri—a Tesla executive and former Google staffer—as a trustee. Executive director Lila Tretikov has also come under fire for her management style.

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Among those discussing this turmoil and its aftermath is William Beutler, who has been an editor on Wikipedia for the past decade and writes a blog called The Wikipedian. In a recent post, Beutler said of the moves:

“Woven into each strand is a theme that The Wikipedian has covered since 2012 at least, each time with a few more data points and a little more urgency: that the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedia community it supposedly exists to serve have become increasingly at odds with one another.”

On some level, it wouldn’t be Wikipedia if there weren’t these kinds of divisions and arguments and in-fighting, with what amount to armed camps of believers on both sides. Each side fires off blog posts and updates to Wikipedia’s “talk pages,” which are the way editors communicate about what to do with various contentious topics.

This kind of bickering is as much a part of the fabric of Wikipedia as it is any other large, crowdsourced effort such as Linux or other kinds of open-source software.

The larger problem for Wikipedia is that at least some of this in-fighting revolves around or is driven by the perception that the site is controlled by a small, entitled “cabal” of editors, made up largely of white men. To the extent that this is true, it threatens to turn Wikipedia into an encyclopedia for some, but not for everyone.

Wikimedia has fought hard over the past couple of years at least to be more inclusive, and also to make editing Wikipedia less of a chore, one that often requires in-depth knowledge of specific codes of behavior. As Aaron Halfaker of the Wikimedia Foundation told Wired:

“We have to have better technologies that people can use more easily. We need to figure out better ways of making people literate in the Wikipedia way of doing things. We need to help find others on the site who will appreciate their work and help them learn the ropes.”

In a sense, Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation are also struggling with an identity question that has been bubbling under the surface since its creation so many years ago. Is it primarily a technology company whose chief output is a crowdsourced encyclopedia, or is it a non-profit educational institution of some kind that happens to rely on the web? To some extent, those things require different approaches.

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On the one hand, there is no question that managing to survive for 15 years in any form means that Wikipedia and its founder Jimmy Wales deserve praise—how many sites can make that claim, especially ones that generate almost 20 billion pageviews a month?

Despite its flaws, both management-wise and output-wise, Wikipedia is a powerful example of what the web—and humanity in general—can accomplish when we put our minds to it. It is something so inherently unselfish that its continued existence almost defies belief, especially at a time when so many other technology companies are focusing primarily on boosting their sagging revenues and share prices.

As Jimmy Wales put it himself in a recent Guardian piece, at its best “Wikipedia has the power to be an instrument for collective understanding and resolution – a place to find nuance in things painted black and white, and a place to seek truth together.”

Will Wikipedia be able to survive the turmoil in its management ranks, and broaden its appeal and inclusiveness, while at the same time raising enough money to keep it operating for at least the next decade? The answer to those questions is unknowable. But it is definitely a site worth rooting for, in all of its troubled glory.

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