Twenty years after its creation, the online encyclopedia seeks contributions from more people outside the US and Europe – and more women.
Wikipedia has much to celebrate.
21 years after it was founded by the American-British internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales, it is now the 13th most visited site on the web.
55 million articles in more than 300 languages are read more than 15 billion times every month.
Anyone can contribute to an article (or ‘edit’, in Wikipedia’s terms) and access to the site is free to all. In practice, around 280,000 volunteer editors work on the site every month.
The online encyclopedia might have earned billions for its founders over the last two decages but crucially, they decided that its mission was not to make profit but to allow everyone to share and have access to knowledge.
So the largest collaborative collection of free knowledge in human history is funded by around 7 million enthusiastic donors and operated by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation.
Run by real people
The organisation has no shareholders or advertisers to satisfy or appease, and the site deals in facts rather than opinions – in contrast to social media networks.
And it is run not by algorithms and machines but by human beings all over the world who choose to contribute to the commonwealth of knowledge – for no payment.
Lucy Crompton-Reid, Chief Executive of Wikimedia UK hopes the site, “which sees itself as a work in progress,” will continue to grow.
Although it’s widely read in the United States and Europe as well as Russia and Japan, it has fewer users in African countries or India.
And as a result of its somewhat organic development, most of the site’s editors are men, and they live in North America or Europe. Content is therefore inevitably skewed, if unintentionally.
Wikimedia is examining ways to address the problem.
The search for equity
Better “knowledge equity” is an aim for the next decade, says Crompton-Reid, acknowledging that the website would benefit from more contributions and users from both African countries and the African diaspora around the world.
She mentions AfroCrowd, a New York City-based project set up in 2015 with the aim of creating more information about black culture and history on Wikipedia. Its impact so far has been limited.
The Wikimedia executive also acknowledges that there is “a clear gender gap” in the number of editors and also the type of subjects covered. Wikimedia UK is running training programmes, she says, that focus on encouraging women’s contributions to the site.
There is also a drive to attract more young contributors. The encyclopedia was set up when most people accessed internet through desktop computers. Younger people as well as potential editors in poorer countries are now more likely to use mobile phones. New tools are in development to make editing from a phone easier.
Combating conspiracy theories
Despite such challenges, there is no doubt that in just 20 years, Wikipedia has established itself around the world as a reliable reference website, even though every article still carries a disclaimer.
The “vast majority” of disinformation contributions, described by wikipedians as “vandalism edits” are cut out within 5 minutes, says Lucy Crompton-Reid.
She declares she is confident that the site is “an antidote to misinformation and disinformation,” and says the operators work hard to keep it that way, so that Wikipedia will continue to be respected as “an extraordinary achievement of human endeavour”.