Wikipedia's Slow Decline

The NYTimes recently posted an article asking, "can Wikipedia survive?" The article discusses the issues plaguing Wikipedia, including the rise of mobile computing.

Wikipedia has come a long way since it started in 2001. With around 70,000 volunteers editing in over 100 languages, it is by far the world’s most popular reference site. Its future is also uncertain. One of the biggest threats it faces is the rise of smartphones as the dominant personal computing device. A recent Pew Research Center report found that 39 of the top 50 news sites received more traffic from mobile devices than from desktop and laptop computers, sales of which have declined for years. This is a challenge for Wikipedia, which has always depended on contributors hunched over keyboards searching references, discussing changes and writing articles using a special markup code. Even before smartphones were widespread, studies consistently showed that these are daunting tasks for newcomers. 'Not even our youngest and most computer-savvy participants accomplished these tasks with ease,' a 2009 user test concluded. The difficulty of bringing on new volunteers has resulted in seven straight years of declining editor participation.

I, for one, can attest at the complexity of editing. I recently started a project to promote faculty scholarship by citing to the scholarship on pertinent posts in Wikipedia's further reading section. It's not easy to perform editing via PC -- let alone on a smartphone.

The NYTimes articles goes on to highlight some of the solutions to the decline in participation. The nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, which oversees Wikipedia’s operations but is not directly involved in content, is investigating solutions. Some ideas include touch-screen tools that would let Wikipedia editors sift through information and share content from their phones.

What is clear is that Wikimedia has options because fund-raising has not suffered. The foundation, based in San Francisco, has a budget of roughly $60 million.

If Wikimedia can steer the encyclopedia in the right direction, it is worth it. No effort in history has gotten so much information at so little cost into the hands of so many — a feat made all the more remarkable by the absence of profit and owners. In an age of Internet giants, this most selfless of websites is worth saving.


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