Dirk Franke is a long-time Wikipedia editor who shared his perspective on where he thinks Wikipedia will be in 2022 at the annual Wikimania conference in Hong Kong. This essay was originally published on his website. You can get more context about his motivation for writing it here. Und für noch mehr Kontext. (German)
Imagine Wikipedia in 2022: Let’s take a guess.
Sometimes when talking to Wikipedians, I try to sound very old and wise. I start to talk about those days when Wikipedia was written by essentially nobody and the databases were running on one server powered by a hamster wheel. To meet someone on IRC you had to plan days in advance. And all the written rules of all the Wikipedias could be printed out on less than ten pages.
Those were the days when you told somebody, “I’m at Wikipedia,” and the answer was, “Ah, yeah, sure, whatever.” I would say, “Someday it will be a free online encyclopedia.” “Ah, yeah, sure, whatever.” “And everybody can edit.” “Ah, yeah. sure, whatever.” Even today, this is the default reaction I expect, and I’m always surprised when people react differently.
So much has changed since 2003. I’m sitting in Hong Kong right now, the world press cares what Jimbo says at a keynote and, most notably, Wikipedia is actually useful to look things up. When talking to strangers on the street on different continents, these people know what I’m talking about. And many, many people care about what is written inside, people who have never edited Wikipedia themselves. Actually, I’m amazed by this Wikipedia story of success every day of my life.
But of course it would be presumptuous to assume that Wikipedia will stop at this place and time. It is pretentious to assume Wikipedia won’t change anymore. It will change. What direction will it take? What will happen in, hm, 2022? Why don’t we just take a guess?
The good thing: Wikipedia will still exist in 2022. The bad news: nobody will know.
The good thing: Wikipedia still exists now in 2022. The bad news: nobody knows. Due to new semantic Wikis, Wikidata, mobile apps, etc. almost nobody ever visits the website anymore, this huge lump of text illustrated by an eccentric image database some hobby photographers created with their own pictures.
Through a host of apps, information comes custom tailored for different people at different times. This information is read to them, transformed into videos or given to them in small bits on mobile. There are a lot of shiny surfaces, where one can get Wikipedia information without having to bother about the encyclopedia and all the boring stuff surrounding it.
Many people contribute in many different ways. Most of Wikipedia’s content is delivered by partners. Bots plunder archives of many institutions and upload all their content to Wikipedia and Commons. A diverse set of people from all over the world tags this content, assesses it, gives it point-values and likes or dislikes. Other bots aggregate these interactions. These aggregation bots produce content specifically aimed at different readers. Beneath and around Wikipedia is a huge archive of material that gets aggregated in several ways. Wikipedia – aggregation by text writing – is just one way one can access the information. This way is still the way preferred by the “young (and not so young) and educated.”
To actually edit Wikipedia itself, one has to have master access. Editing Wikipedia is the only way in which people can actually break something and do harm to the project. So access is limited. The right to edit Wikipedia has to be earned through successful work in the wider Wikipedia ecosphere. Only some freaks — nerdy graduate students, former graduate students and would be graduate students of older age — edit the Wiki. Everybody else is happy just consuming content.