Siri, are you trying to kill Wikipedia?
Happy birthday to a true wonder of the internet age
As Wikipedia turns 20 on January 15 it is in splendid health. Usage is high, donations are strong. Its 55 million articles in hundreds of languages are a magnificent source of illumination. Still, clouds are gathering. Can the free encyclopedia sustain its position as tech behemoths piggyback on the work of its volunteers?
No one predicted the success of Wikipedia when it launched in 2001. Certainly not its founders, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, who viewed Wikipedia as a sideshow to Nupedia, their more traditional digital encyclopedia.
While Nupedia was written by experts, anyone could contribute to Wikipedia, with new content or with edits. Change logs ensured that you could always revert to an earlier version in case of vandalism, and you could discuss changes with other editors to get as close as possible to consensus.
As it turns out, this arrangement works spectacularly well – as long as those who share evidence-based knowledge outnumber those who sow confusion. Sure, Wikipedia was questioned, mocked and regarded as a source of fake facts through the early years. Fast forward to 2021, however, and it appears as one of few nonprofit projects on the web with lasting impact. As for fake facts, we have bigger fish to fry these days.
Wikipedia started to catch on for real in 2005. Google Trends shows a sharp incline in interest at this time, culminating in 2006. 2005 was the year the term “crowdsourcing” was coined, and that same year Nature published a comparison between Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica, showing that Wikipedia was almost as reliable as the venerated EB.
In 2006, Time Magazine’s person of the year was “You”, in recognition of the millions of people creating content for services like Wikipedia, Youtube, Myspace, Facebook and various blog portals. Time editor Lev Grossman’s motivation is typical of the enthusiasm around the new, collaborative web at the time:
“It's about the many wrestling power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.”
If the strengths of Wikipedia’s mass aggregation of knowledge are apparent to anyone who actively uses it, Wikipedia’s weaknesses, too, are plain to see. With no ads or subscriptions, the Wikimedia Foundation relies on donations to finance its operation. Due to a lack of authorities and peer review, errors can easily find their way onto the site before they are corrected.
Temporary errors are part and parcel of the concept, but any user who understands the open nature of Wikipedia learns to use it reliably. Facts are (in well-written articles) backed by citations, and anyone who wants to corroborate an assertion can typically find alternative sources online. Wikipedia is not a trove of objective fact, much like science it is a process generating information about the world that may come to be falsified and reinterpreted.
Some people have a hard time wrapping their head around the fact that people use their precious time to write or edit an encyclopedia for no obvious gains. But studies show that Wikipedians are not primarily driven by status or extrinsical rewards. Rather, they are motivated by the satisfaction of sharing knowledge and expertise, the conviction that information should be free, an appreciation for the Wikipedia philosophy and, simply, having fun. No surprises really, but it is sad that we are so enthralled by the idea of homo economicus that we question why somebody would voluntarily contribute to the most amazing encyclopedia in the history of mankind.
To be fair, profit-driven enterprises have been vastly more successful than coöperative ones in shaping the internet. At the time of Wikipedia’s birth, wikis, peer-to-peer sharing and open source code were trends that seemed to point a future of distributed services, run by users for users. But during Wikipedia’s lifetime, the internet has been successfully colonized by a few powerful corporations operating out of USA and China.
One of these companies once created a Wikipedia competitor. Google’s Knol project launched in 2008, billed as an ad-supported way to share knowledge. It was generally considered to be a head-on competitor with Wikipedia, but in a rare triumph of idealism over commerce Knol never went anywhere and was shut down in 2012. Since then, Big Tech has largely left Wikipedia alone. Primarily for these two reasons:
1: Wikipedia doesn’t compete for precious ad money.
2: Wikipedia is tremendously useful to the big tech companies. They train their machine learning algorithms on content from Wikipedia and Wikimedia, and they use Wikipedia entries to improve their search results. If you use Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant, you will also notice that the digital helpers rely heavily on Wikipedia’s knowledge base to answer your questions.
For their industrial use of Wikipedia, the tech companies don’t pay a dime (unless you count miniscule donations to the Wikimedia Foundation). Thus, the unpaid labor of Wikipedians, as well as the donations from its supporters, feed into the digital empires. Wikipedia is free, even for trillion dollar companies, so large-scale exploitation of the encyclopedia does not infringe on any copyrights. But the mass scraping of data certainly belies the collaborative ethos of Wikipedia.
As Apple, Google and Amazon scrape Wikipedia content to serve it up in their own voice services, they convert it to an easily digestable format with no citations and no opportunity to contribute with knowledge or funds. Users are separated from creators, relegated to the passive role of consumers – exactly the role that suits the business model of tech capitalists, and hurts collaborative efforts.
No need to panic just yet, though. At 20 years of age Wikipedia is looking as strong as ever (raking in almost $116 million in donations in 2019), but if the big tech companies get people to increasingly access Wikipedia without visiting the site, it is bound to slowly wither.
Wikipedia’s birthday is not only a splendid opportunity to donate to the project and to create an article about something you care about. It is also a reminder of what we once thought the internet would be, and what we could still make it: a space for massive, distributed, collaborative projects. A space where we, as Lev Grossman envisioned, help each other for nothing. A space where digital services are fueled not by ad money, but by the satisfaction of sharing.