I don’t remember when I first used Wikipedia, but it was a consistent presence throughout my university days from 2005-2009. In the past 19 years, Wikipedia has become consistently better, more comprehensive and ubiquitous in Western society at a slow yet steady pace that means it almost never hits the headlines for any huge advance or change. It’s just there, a reliable background presence that most people don’t spend too long thinking about as long as it works the way you expect it to.
Working for Wikimedia UK for the past 4 years, I’ve come to see how Western-oriented this worldview is. Many people take Wikipedia for granted in the West, yet this perception is fundamentally one of an educated, middle class social group who take access to information and basic knowledge for granted. Billions of people around the world do not share this view, and over 40% of the world’s population still has no access to the internet at all.
At Mozfest, the Mozilla conference a couple of years ago, I talked to a couple of Italian Wikimedians who were teaching African refugees in Italy digital skills using Wikipedia. I asked what the biggest issues they faced were, and they told me that many refugees did not understand how the internet worked, since the only experience of it many had was using Whatsapp or Facebook on a mobile phone. Many people who are coming online for the first time will share this experience of a commercial internet platform where a service is exchanged for user data and advertising.
This new culture of the internet is far away from the libertarian ideology that gave birth to Wikipedia, and animated much of the early internet utopianism, such as John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Rights of Cyberspace. Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, who co-founded Wikipedia, met on an internet forum about libertarianism. Yes, perhaps the idea that the internet would radically alter the asymmetry of power between individuals, states and corporations was naive, but arguably those states and corporations have been fighting and winning a counterrevolution since the late 90s which has reasserted their authority in digital spaces, and allowed them to use digital technology to exert even greater authority in physical spaces.
Shoshana Zuboff’s 2018 book ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ is partly a history of this counterrevolution by corporate giants like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple to bring the power of the internet under their control. Google in particular saw the potential of the data produced by users of its search engine to create new products, and as problematic as Google has now become as a company, it should be acknowledged that Wikipedia would not be what it is today without Google. Google privileges Wikipedia results in its search rankings because it thinks that Wikipedia articles are a good way to answer search queries.
Zuboff says that, with services like Google and Facebook, “users are not products, but rather we are the sources of raw-material supply.” Our searches and likes and thoughts and friendship networks are turned into products which the company sells to other companies who then advertise their products to us. Not only do they try to guess what we want to buy, but they also nudge us to buy things we didn’t know we even wanted or needed, and probably don’t.
It’s an interesting comparison to compare Wikipedia’s model to these commercial sites. Only a tiny fraction of Wikipedia’s total users (around 1.5 billion a month) are editors, and research has shown that of all those editors, most of Wikipedia is written by 1% of them. Whereas all of Facebook and Google’s users become the raw materials for their product, most of Wikipedia’s users give nothing in exchange for the service they benefit from.
However, the narrow demographic of the volunteer editors who do contribute to Wikipedia creates a different problem. The interests, views and biases of this demographic play an outsized role in the content of Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s well known ‘gender gap’ results in fewer articles about women, a culture that can be hostile to female editors, and a lack of content about things that women may be more interested in than men. These problems also affect other underrepresented communities, such as people of colour, people who live outside Europe, and people with disabilities.
The Wikimedia community is acutely aware of these issues, and part of the 2030 strategy consultation which has been ongoing for a few years now is about trying to find solutions to these problems. Understanding how to incentivise contributions from underrepresented groups of people on Wikipedia is going to be a long term challenge for Wikipedia, but it’s a problem that is not impossible to fix. This ability to understand its weaknesses and respond to them is another aspect of Wikipedia which hopefully makes it more resilient in the long term compared to companies whose business models are based on extracting surplus value from their users.
In 1998, Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin presented a paper on their search engine at the World Wide Web Conference in which they said “We expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.” Wikipedia’s donation-based revenue model means that it has avoided the moral problems that Google’s founders got themselves into when they decided to base their business on advertising revenue. It means that Wikipedia can concentrate on providing a valuable and non-exploitative service to its users which would be impossible if it was a commercial company.
Of course, it also means that the Wikimedia Foundation has a much smaller pool of resources to put into improving Wikipedia and its sister projects. The number of software developers working on products like the Wikipedia mobile app is tiny compared to even Mozilla, let alone Google. As millions of people come online on mobile devices, Wikimedia products need to be accessible and offer editing possibilities on mobile devices so that smaller language Wikipedias can grow. This is going to be one of the biggest challenges for Wikimedia over the next decade.
We also need to be cautious that Wikipedia does not become a site for information warfare, as various governments attempt to exert control, especially over local language versions of Wikipedia. There have been reports of the Russian and Chinese governments attempting to remove or insert information into Russian and Mandarin Wikipedia versions, and this is also an area where the Wikimedia community needs to pay attention to ensure that the problem doesn’t get out of hand.
There is every reason to be optimistic about the future of Wikipedia. It is so enmeshed into the way that even the commercial companies like Google work that it is in their interest for Wikipedia to continue to succeed. Services like Google’s Knowledge Graph, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa use information from Wikipedia and Wikidata to answer users’ questions. The English Wikipedia is about to pass 6 million articles, and on a technical level, Wikipedia is getting better at reducing vandalism and encouraging positive contributions to the site.
The better Wikipedia has become, the more painfully aware we are of how far away from Wikipedia’s ambitious goal of giving everyone access to the sum of all knowledge we are. By staying true to its non-commercial ethos, Wikipedia has built up a large store of good will from the general public that should not be wasted. The challenge now is to capitalise on this goodwill by making Wikipedia even better and more representative of the world’s diversity.