Wikipedia on Staying Relevant to a Diverse World

    December 3, 2009
    Chris Crum

We recently reported on the notion that Wikipedia losing editors could lead to a decline in accuracy. Sue Gardner, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, tells WebProNews growth in editing has slowed, but the number of editors is just flat, and not declining.

Do you think Wikipedia is usually accurate or do you frequently encounter issues? Discuss here.

The Wikimedia Foundation raised $3 million in just ten days right in the middle of the recession. This is one reason why Gardner was named the Ultimate Game Changer for media by the Huffington Post. That publication says Gardner changed the game by "taking the people’s online encyclopedia to the next level." Gardner answered a few questions for us, and the following is the product of that Q&A.

WebProNews: Can you tell us a little about how the Wikimedia Foundation was able to raise $3 million in just ten days, to cover its operating budget for 2009?

Sue Gardner: Sure. The Wikimedia Foundation’s been running an annual fundraising campaign since 2005 and every year, donations have increased.  Last year, Jimmy [Wales – co-founder of Wikipedia] wrote a really lovely letter asking for people to help us, which we published on December 23.  We immediately had a huge spike in donations, with more than 50,000 coming in over the next eight days — pushing us past our goal for the year, and enabling us to end the campaign early.

It was fantastic, and really exceeded our expectations. Last winter the global economic outlook was really bad – Lehman Brothers had declared bankruptcy, AIG was getting bailed out, and housing prices were collapsing.  For us to push past our goal in that really difficult and uncertain economy was thrilling.

WPN: How has this compared to previous years? Do you expect a similar situation in 2010?

SG: Every year, the number of people donating to the Wikimedia Foundation has increased, and the total dollar amount has increased too. In 2005-06, we brought in about 1.5 million dollars. In 2006-07, we brought in about 2.7 million.  In 2007-08, we brought in 5.1 million, and last year we brought in 7.4 million.  This year, we plan to raise a total of 10.6 million.  We think that’s realistic.

WPN: A recent Wall Street Journal article  pointed out that the number of editors for Wikipedia is dropping drastically. What do you attribute this to?

Sue Gardner SG: Well first, and importantly, the data don’t actually show that the number of editors is dropping dramatically.  What the data show are that the growth of editing on Wikipedia, which had been increasing exponentially, has slowed.  Wikipedia’s readership continues to grow, the number of articles continues to grow, and the growth in number of active editors started to slow down several years ago.  The number of active editors, which we define as people who make five or more edits in a given month, is now pretty flat: it is neither growing nor shrinking.  So, upshot: I think quite a bit of the media coverage has been overly alarmist.

Having said that, it is true that the number of active editors is flat, and that concerns me.  Nobody knows what number of active editors is necessary for Wikipedia to stay current and well-maintained.  We do know that the easy work is now more-or-less complete: there are good, rich articles on most obvious topics like Barack Obama and the human brain and the House of Commons and COBOL. So it may be that a smaller number of editors is all that is required for the work that remains to us now, which is more related to polishing and updating and improving existing articles, rather than generating lots of new ones.  We don’t know.  Nobody knows, because nothing like Wikipedia has ever existed before.

Regardless, I am interested in broadening the pool of people who edit Wikipedia.  Currently, our core editing community is 87% male – mostly European and North American men in their twenties, many of whom are in graduate school.  It makes sense to me for plenty of reasons, why that is our core editing demographic.  But I know from my many years in journalism that you need a broad and diverse group of people making an editorial product, in order for that product to be relevant and interesting to a broad and diverse group of readers.  In many ways, Wikipedia editors are a much more diverse group than any newsroom ever assembled – for example, Wikipedia editors span across the political spectrum, and exist in every country.  Having said that, I think Wikipedia itself would be better able to serve its readership, if its editing community was more fully reflective  of readers.  So I would like to expand our pool of editors, to include a wider range of people.

WPN: Not that it will ever truly be complete, but is Wikipedia getting closer to covering every topic? In other words, is a lack of topics to cover a big factor in the diminishing number of new editors?

SG: Yes, definitely.  Our editors say themselves that there is less to write than there used to be.  We sometimes use the phrase “the gold rush is over.”  The article about the sun has been written, the article about Africa has been written.  It is definitely harder today to make a useful contribution than it was in 2003, when Wikipedia was more of a green field.

Wikipedia forever

WPN: Some have criticized the hurdles one has to go through to make an edit to a Wikipedia entry, and suggest that the site is becoming more like a traditional encyclopedia than the truly open format that it has been known for over the years. What is your response to such commentary?

SG: Anyone can edit Wikipedia, in theory.  In practice, editing Wikipedia is unnecessarily hard for many people. We’re working to make it easier.

Last year, we launched our first project ever designed to make the Wikipedia editing interface more user-friendly.  We were finding that the unnecessary complexity of the editing interface was acting as a significant barrier to new people who would otherwise have been terrific editors: they just weren’t as tech-centric or tech-positive as our current core editing community.  They did not want to learn wiki syntax.  So, we’re currently on I believe the third release of our usability project.  That’s an important step in reducing one barrier to participation.

Another barrier is just getting oriented.  There are thousands of pages on Wikipedia of instructional materials telling people how to edit: these are editorial policies and practices and procedures, like you would find in any newsroom or in the offices of any educational publisher.  But we want anyone to be able to edit usefully, not just people who have managed to read thousands of pages of instruction. So, our head of public outreach, Frank Schulenburg, has launched a project designed to create a set of simple, high-level instructional materials, designed to make orientation easier for new people.

We also run what are called Wikipedia Academies — basically, these are one or two day workshops designed to coach people, face-to-face, in how to edit Wikipedia.  We run Wikipedia Academies mainly for university or institutional audiences – for example, we had one a few months ago in the DC area, in which we coached more than a hundred National Institute of Health employees, in how –and why– to edit Wikipedia.

WPN: What are the main goals/points of focus for the Wikimedia Foundation in 2010?

SG: We are doing a lot of work on usability and outreach.  And we’re also engaged in a big, year-long collaborative strategy development project.  Because we’re Wikipedia, the strategy development is all happening publicly, on a wiki, and it’s open to anyone to participate in.  I am pretty sure it’s the first time strategy has ever been developed this way: it’s incredibly interesting watching it take shape.  I’m expecting the strategy project will result in a new focus on increasing reach and participation in developing countries, where we generally underperform relative to richer countries.  And it will also deepen our focus on growing the editing community, and making Wikipedia more user-friendly and enjoyable to edit.

WebProNews would like to thank Gardner for answering our questions, and sharing her responses with our readers.

Having read Gardner’s responses, how do you view the future of Wikipedia. Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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