Recent coverage of Wikipedia has pointed out that the collaborative online encyclopedia is in trouble. What’s up?
It’s all about production. When Wikipedia was launched in 2001, it attracted many people who found the idea of a user-generated Web resource akin to The Encyclopedia Britannica highly appealing. Since then, multitudes of people have contributed to more than 19 million articles in nearly 300 languages, including almost 4 million items in English. And many more people have taken it upon themselves to continuously refine Wikipedia.
That’s one of its greatest strengths: Unlike print encyclopedias, which must wait until the release of a new edition to offer new entries and updates to existing ones, Wikipedia’s massive trove of information is being increased and improved constantly.
But as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales recently admitted, the pace of progress is slowing. The problem, it seems, is that many contributors are timing out.
Wikipedia, operated by the not-for-profit Wikimedia Foundation, is a volunteer enterprise. Writers and editors are not paid for their time. And now, ten years after Wikipedia’s launch, many of those contributors have moved on with their lives. (Another reason many Wikipedia writers have given for bailing out is that some of the site’s volunteer editors, displaying the all-too-common combination of ignorance and arrogance, clumsily compromise the quality of their work.)
An additional challenge is that the longtime contributors who remain, and the newcomers who have logged on more recently, are running out of things to write about.
Some late-nineteenth-century scientists have earned everlasting opprobrium for their unimaginative declarations that thanks to their manifold discoveries and those of their contemporaries, no new science of any significance would be done in the future. Just as we’ve learned a thing or two about the universe since the late 1800s, however, there will always be new material for Wikipedia, but the momentum is waning, and the number of contributors is declining.
Wikipedia has its weaknesses: Both because of and despite its open collaborative nature, factual errors occur (though they’re often caught quickly) and opinions intrude (again, usually not for long). And it doesn’t take too much time on the site to determine that the writing quality varies tremendously. Though Wikipedia claims that studies show its accuracy to be comparable to that of venerable print resources like The Encyclopedia Britannica, it cannot deny that the overall writing quality is much inferior.
It’s still a brilliant idea triumphantly realized, and I resort to it often in my work, but it’s something else as well, something that earns it a mention on this Web site: It’s an object lesson in how not to run an editorial enterprise.
Call me old-fashioned, but I’d have a great deal more respect for Wikipedia if it rested securely on the foundation of professional writers and editors who are subject-matter experts (or at least highly skilled generalist writers whose expert editors catch any problems with the accuracy of the content). That was the idea behind its predecessor, the professionally developed free encyclopedia Nupedia, of which Wikipedia was originally merely an offshoot.
Why has hardly anyone heard of Nupedia? Because it tanked. Why? As the result of a rigorous review process that, partly because only the editor in chief, Larry Sanger, was salaried, proceeded at a glacial pace.
Good writing and editing takes time and effort — and expense. Great editorial work requires even more expenditure. Nupedia died, and Wikipedia lives, but even many of those who champion the latter acknowledge that its value is as a starting point for locating authoritative information — as a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself.
If you want high-quality content — well written, impartial, and authoritative — you almost invariably have to pay for it. As Wikipedia has learned, there’s no such thing as a free launch.