The Future of Wikipedia (my take), part 1

The future of Wikipedia is a perennial topic of discussion among Wikipedians and Wikipedia critics. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while (see my prognostications from early 2007). I apologize in advance for a long post.

It seems like Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation are finally turning the corner in several long-anticipated respects. The two long-heralded software projects, Unified Login and Stable Versions, are functional and moving toward implementation. The professionalization of the Foundation is starting to pay dividends: in the last few days, Executive Director Sue Gardner announced a $3 million, 3-year grant from the Sloan Foundation, followed a few days later by a $500,000 grant from philanthropists Vinod and Neeru Khosla.

Financial stability, and even financial flexibility, may be on the horizon, and the harshest critiques that could potentially derail the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia (in particular, those of Larry Sanger and the recent, ongoing accusations by Danny Wool and Kelly Martin) seem to have spent most of their energy without much effect. That’s not to say that these critiques are entirely unfounded, but it’s becoming clear that the worst of them are either in the past or not of project-killing significance. So it’s a good time to reassess the big issues that will shape the project’s future.

The title and main topic of the newest Wikipedia Weekly podcast is The Future of Wikipedia. The discussion (the “feeback” and “Wii moment” sections, from 21:47 to about 52:52) is primarily about the future growth of Wikipedia; Andrew Lih and Liam Wyatt disagreed in the last podcast about how big we can expect Wikipedia to be in the years to come.

Andrew forcefully states an idea that parallels my own thoughts on Wikipedia’s future: to come anywhere close to “the sum of all human knowledge”, the project needs a “Wii moment”, a reformulation of what it means to contribute to Wikipedia (along the lines of what the Wii did for gaming) that opens things up to huge numbers of people who never would have participated so before. The podcast discusses some of the basic things that will make editing more accessible: what-you-see-is-what-you-get editing, and a gentler culture that is more appealing to people with little patience for revert wars and wikilawyering.

I have a more expansive vision of what Wikipedia and its sister projects ought to become. In this and some follow-up posts, I’ll lay out some of my ideas for major changes.

One of the most promising avenues for expanding the scope of the Wiki(p/m)edia community is news. Right now, Wikipedia has a troubled relationship to the news. One recent example: Obama’s race speech, “A More Perfect Union“, was undergoing a deletion discussion from the evening of March 18 (the day the speech was made and the article was written) until yesterday. In the meantime, the article got 4000 hits the first day, and after the initial news burst has been holding steady around 1000 hits per day. For news topics, people want the kind of synthetic, continually updated neutral view that Wikipedia (at its best) provides. But neither mainstream media nor the new media of partisan blogs and social news sites provide this, Wikipedia avoids this except for “notable” stories, and Wikinews operates no differently from traditional news, calling a story “done” once it’s published.

In my view, most of Wikinews ought to be merged with Wikipedia, leaving only Original Reporting for Wikinews. For big topics that have both ongoing news and a long, broad history, Wikipedia ought to have separate subpages for more detailed explanation of specific news events (a la Wikinews articles, but continually open to update). This will encourage the participation of the thousands of news junkies who, at present, are not particularly welcome on Wikipedia (and don’t want to waste their time writing Wikinews articles no one will read, if they even know about Wikinews).

Wikimedia could do even more with news. News is the subject of continual, massive interest, and the there is a large–and mostly unmet–demand for internet discussion of news. Most internet news sources do not have even rudimentary forums for discussion, and even for the ones that do, much more discussion happens offsite than on. For example, the top link on social news site reddit right now is this article on Time‘s politics blog, which does not allow comments. The reddit discussion is 140 comments long and counting. Even traditional news sites that do allow comments rarely have anywhere near that level of participation, even for articles that are heavily discussed at Digg, Reddit, slashdot, and the blogosphere.

The top social news sites are only modestly popular, and there is still plenty of room for new players. If Wikimedia started a social news site, and melded it on to Wikipedia along with other features that give users more of an outlet for interaction that is not centered on article improvement, Wikipedia could probably go from the #9 site on the internet (down from #8 last year) to the #1 site. That’s not an end it itself, but it would have a huge impact on content in terms of turning readers into discussants, and discussants into contributors. Every article and news story would have a sleek discussion thread (maybe dynamic ones based on users’ Wikimedia social networks, or imported social network data from Facebook, MySpace, and the others).

I realize that bits and pieces of this are being done elsewhere (including Wikia, e.g., with their politics site), but Wikipedia has the userbase and reputation to actually make it work.

Along with social networking and free discussion, article policies would have to be liberalized; at the very least, the notability concept should be retired, although a more integrated system of sorting articles based on the level of reliable sourcing could be put in place instead, so that readers always have a clear idea of whether they are reading a biography of a significant figure based on the work of professional historians, or the biography of somebody’s grandfather pieced together from newspaper clippings and family records.

In my next post, I’ll discuss my ideas about Original Reporting for Wikinews; although my above proposals would gut the current core of Wikinews, I envision a future for Wikinews even brighter than Wikipedia’s, based primarily on citizen journalism.

129 thoughts on “The Future of Wikipedia (my take), part 1”

  1. Ridicullous. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. Not a news site. If Wikipedia would acknowledge the existence of Wikinews then the people who want to write news can go to Wikinews. Its up to Wikipedia to do their part and realize that they are not the only Wiki on the planet.

  2. Jason,

    Wikinews only has one thing that sets it apart from any other news site: original reporting by the community. (NPOV sets it apart from some news outlets, but frankly I have a lot more faith in the neutrality of a New York Times article or an AP article than a Wikinews article culled from coverage elsewhere.)

    One of the reasons Wikipedia has a reputation for its news coverage (while Wikinews has little reputation at all) is because Wikipedia’s news-centered articles are continually-updated, synoptic articles. This blurs the line between encyclopedia and news, but there is also clearly a market for this hybrid genre.

    Wikinews, in my view, should be retooled to focus exclusively on original reporting. I have some ideas, which I’ll blog up soon, about how we could really get high-volume original reporting off the ground.

  3. Its comments like that which make people stay on Wikipedia. regardless of OR or not, Wikipedia is NOT news and the quicker they realize that the better. We are here to work together not against each other. Wikipedia is NOT the only wiki and if you want to have Wikinews with more OR then send those who want to write NEWS to Wikinews. Don’t publicize something about Wikipedia that WP is not.

  4. Ross,

    Of course community reporting is not something that sets Wikinews apart: look at Indymedia, OhMyNews, NowPublic, … Wikinews can bring NPOV and collaborative editing to grassroots journalism.

    You correctly notice that Wikipedia only covers major stories; one of the things newcomers at Wikinews like is the fact that even their local city council meeting can get an article. That’s unthinkable for Wikipedia, and it would lose out on a huge market -local news is becoming more important than ever, because world news and interest from the general public in news in general is declining.

    You’re also right when you realise that news comments are important: we allow and welcome comments on Wikinews (via the comments tab), but a specific MediaWiki extension would be welcome.

    But I agree that we need to redefine our goals to change the current twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome ( into a symbiosis. Where Wikipedia is completely overlapping Wikinews is in Portal:Current events. Wikinews linker bot is a first and important step ahead in cross-project collaboration.

    Most importantly, I would ask all Wikipedians and other Wikimedians to stop bashing Wikinews: of course it cannot compare to Wikipedia, but compared to some other Citizen Journalism sites, it’s not half bad. We should combine a positive attitude with fresh ideas about our futures.

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