This article is available in: English 中文עברית

This is an opinion piece by Amos Meron of Wikimedia Israel. All views are the author’s own; discussion is welcome in the comment section of this blog post.

What should Wikipedia (also) be?

Wikipedia prides itself of being the encyclopedia of the 21st century. Except that in the 21st century there are no encyclopedias. Wikipedia has amazingly removed this category from the face of the earth. Since we already are the biggest, most updated, shared and common encyclopedia in the world – and mostly since we are virtually the only one left – this is the time to understand what our future holds. If we settle for the status quo and only try to preserve what we have, we will soon be left behind. If we really want to fulfill our vision and provide every single human being free access to the sum of all knowledge, we should ask ourselves – where is this knowledge?

The knowledge is in books. We should move towards a future where as many of the world’s books as possible are freely licensed and are accessible in a way that allows easy reading, sharing and referencing. We could build a library of an infinite number of shelves with a community to maintain it and even provide reference desk services to the public.

The knowledge is in museums. Today’s museums contain most of the items of humanity and natural history. However, only a fraction of those items are displayed at any given time, the remainder of them stored behind closed doors for a majority of the time. We could create virtual museums with an infinite number of exhibition halls and provide access to every collection in its entirety in new and varied forms. The search capabilities, indexing and interface of the Wikimedia projects must be improved to allow this.

The knowledge is in the academy. The Open Access movement brought a significant change in the amount of academic materials that are freely accessible online. We should take the idea of free academy a few steps further and create an infrastructure not only for free publishing of papers, but also for sharing and crowdsourcing the process of research and peer review. Researchers could publish their results at various stages and receive real-time feedback from others, the entire process being open and accessible to everyone. The platform would support collaborative research where each contribution is documented and appreciated, just like in Wikipedia.

How to get new editors?

It seems that Wikipedia’s major problem in recent years is the decline in the number of new editors. So far, the discussion is focused on removing barriers and obstacles that may stand in the way of someone trying to edit: socially (closed and inflexible community) and technically (visual editor). I completely agree with this discussion and with most of the proposed and implemented solutions. However, I would like to argue something different: our main problem is not with those who tried to edit and were somehow deterred, but with those who have the potential to be great editors but never chose to try. We put our trust to provide “the sum of all knowledge” solely in the hands of the ones who are content with their satisfaction of writing and contributing, and by doing so we neglect many others. I am not suggesting, of course, to pay for editing – this would ruin the voluntary model of the community and may bring content of varied quality. But I do suggest we rethink the incentives of editing Wikipedia.

I would like to focus on the main incentive which I believe is not given adequate attention. I also believe it is the key to a real solution to the editor decline problem. This incentive is the most classic incentive of any creative – credit. Technically, it can be argued that each editor gets full credit for each and every contribution in a completely transparent way. In practice, however, the credit is “behind the scenes” since most readers are not exposed to it or even aware of its existence completely. For media files it is practical to properly present credit and the Foundation’s development teams are implementing measures which help to increase the visibility of this credit – starting with the new media viewer and later further directions for measuring the use of media files, new possibilities to express appreciation and improved views of the credit. For text, however, there is a practical problem in adequate presentation of credit in a way that does not interfere with the continuous reading of the text. Even with the most sophisticated tools (Google Docs, for example) it is impossible to give clear credit for a variety of corrections and small edits.

A possible solution to the credit problem is shifting the emphasis from recognition of individual edits to recognition of the editing activity in general. As Wikipedia grows and its quality improves, the expertise required from an active editor is expanding. Even today, veteran editors who have proven their proficiency in certain subjects are appreciated by other editors and their opinions on these issues weigh more than others’. What I suggest is to formalize this recognition in a way that would transcend the internal community of Wikipedia and would be used to glorify the resumes of its members. Just as academics define titles and grant them to each other based on academic activity, so can Wikipedians define their own hierarchy of knowledge which will be based entirely on editing activity in the Wikimedia projects. As the credibility of Wikipedia grows, so will the public’s esteem to the Wikipedian titles, and vice versa – people will understand that Wikipedia is written (also) by experts.

What are the roles of the movement entities (the Foundation and the chapters)?

Wikipedia is not only a phenomenal knowledge project, it is also a very successful social experiment that implements so many principles – sharing of knowledge, free content, volunteering, crowdsourcing, democracy, long tail and more. Above all, it is something that works in practice despite our instincts telling us it would probably fail. This is the beating heart of the project, or in one word – community. Despite the community’s obstinacy and exclusivity, we cannot and do not want to see a Wikipedia where the community is not its central and dominant ingredient. Therefore, the Foundation is correct to focus on being, first of all, a technical and legal back for the project’s activity and second, the source of improvements and innovation in software and design. This is the professional added value of the Foundation that a volunteer community often cannot provide.

But the Foundation should not stop there. Just as it is leading Wikipedia’s vital design renovation and the initiatives for more advanced software, so too should it be building strategic foundations that go beyond its comfort zone and challenge the entire movement. Thus, it should be implementing ideas like the ones mentioned above – infrastructure for Wikipedia museums or a program for community hierarchy of knowledge. There is no need for a top-down implementations. It is sufficient for the Foundation to introduce the possibilities, and the tools to implement them to the community – and the necessary changes, in the end, will happen by themselves. When the community is growing more closed and stagnant, it is in the hands of the Foundation to challenge the status quo, or the entire project will be left behind.

While the Foundation operates to fulfill the community’s professional needs, the chapters are the earthly representatives of the movement around the world. When strictly online communication is not enough, a chapter’s role is to provide the bridge. In practice, besides arranging community meetings, advocating for changes in legislation, raise awareness for free content and other necessary activities, the chapters should focus on three types of content projects that aim to expand the scope of knowledge in Wikipedia and/or bring new editors:

First, projects with organizations that own the information or collection – these are, among others, galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM). In recent years there has been major progress in promoting collaborations and projects with these institutions, but sometimes through the flux of activity the long-term goal might be forgotten: to bring all the information or collection to Wikipedia (or: “give us everything you have”) and by doing so, focus in our most important added value – providing access to all of it, freely, to the whole world, in every language and at any time. The means to achieve this vision is a technological solution in the form of the above mentioned virtual museums with the chapters’ role being to direct collaborations with the institutions. Possible tools to gain cooperation with the institutions are: providing them with services or solutions for digitization of their content, acting to release it under free license by giving counsel and guidance on these issues, creating tools for measurement and statistics and teaching their staff how to share their content themselves on Wikimedia projects. All of these should be done on a large scale using apt volunteers recruited not necessarily from the Wikipedians. The fulfillment of this goal would obviously benefit the institutions, increasing their importance in the eyes of the public. Our activities in these projects are in the right direction, but we need to start thinking bigger to achieve real impact.

Second, projects with organizations whose members include experts in their field – Many organizations – such as a football club, the Ministry of Agriculture, or the ornithology department of a university – unite people around a certain field of knowledge, whether formally or recreationally. The chapters should identify these organizations and encourage their members to contribute to Wikipedia, whether by editing directly or in other ways (such as joint content ventures). People engaging in a certain field are usually interested in promoting public knowledge of their field, which is another unique incentive for writing. Therefore, the main effort here (except practical guidance) is advocacy about the importance of free knowledge and Wikipedia’s role in providing access to knowledge (or: “Wikipedia is where the people are”). These projects present a tremendous growth opportunity for the chapters.

And finally, projects that are based on people and communities – The chapters should be creative and innovative in different ways to create communities and activities around free knowledge and contribution to Wikimedia projects. Located at the heart of the people in the various countries, the chapters can appeal to new audiences and communities with common denominators, such as a community of common origin, interest, workplace and so on. Such projects hold the greatest potential for the chapters because the social gathering will form around Wikimedia projects and because with these projects the general population may be approached. Many examples of such projects can be found today in various chapters: from content creation competitions such as editing contest or “Wiki Loves Monuments”, to editathons on different topics, all the way to innovative projects for creation and accessibility of content such as WikiAir or MPs voice recording. These types of projects make the most exciting and discussed initiatives in the movement and in order to engage more people we need more innovation!

Amos Meron

Wikimedia Israel