A recent report on Wikipedia losing volunteers has generated much debate, starting from many even speculating on the sustainability of Wikipedia in the near term itself. In Twitter, Tim O’Reilly, originator of the term Web 2.0 (and the necessary debate – relevant or irrelevant, whether Web 2.0 is something different at all), asked a question: ‘Does anyone else wonder whether Wikipedia ought to reverse their more stringent rules for editors?’

Sometime back Encarta of Microsoft closed down as Encarta was the victim of a vastly popular non-profit Wikipedia. True, Google Knol made its debut in 2007, however its popularity is yet to be anywhere near Wikipedia.

As an academician, as a passive volunteer to the Wikipedia volunteer community, and as a researcher on Internet; I find that the recent trend to be something in quite expected lines, when viewed from well-established theories of adoption of new technologies/systems – be it by a business organization or any society at large. And therefore I find nothing severely alarming about it.

Having stated above, it no way implies that Wikipedia will be as it’s been over the last few years – synonymous with finding facts and truths fast about almost anything without the clutter, and thereby getting the crux of something without the short-sightedness of media, jargons of academics or hyped marketing of corporations. However, as others change, as newer sites emerge competing with segments of Wikipedia, or as Internet itself matures; Wikipedia will find newer challenges. And the decision on its editing policies, along with newer technological adoptions Wikipedia needs to make for integrating in a network era would determine its success and relevance in the WWW in the future.

Gibson and Nolan, in their 1974 work on Stages of Growth (‘Managing the four stages of EDP growth’ HBR 1974) highlighted how IT usage typically moves in four stages. Stage 1, as termed as ‘adoption’ is where early successes lead to increased interest and experimentation to same and other user groups. Stage 2 is the rapid progress of the typical ‘S’ curve, termed as ‘contagion’ when proliferation of the technology takes place. This stage also yields valuable feedbacks and learning on what worked and what didn’t work (and analysis of that to provide much needed insights). This is a stage which somehow may be similar to the ideas of Mao Tse-Tung  when he stated ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom’. So people from different background and capabilities and sincerity and understanding played with Wikipedia as volunteers, and indeed a thousand flowers bloomed, creating islands of standards in terms of quality, credibility and standards.

Naturally the next stage needed ‘control’ to bring some much needed standardization – be it in format of content of articles in Wikipedia, referencing style, etc. I believe though the media sort of suddenly witnessed this reduction in volunteer-base in Wikipedia, the trend has been there for some time. So the control has been in place for some time now. The low hanging fruits have all been entered, now comes more complex, profound and current developments; and one needs different talent in managing future entries. True, editing existing millions of entries is another gigantic task as otherwise they all may become irrelevant soon (more so about facts and numbers).

IT is one such area where a lot of literature is available highlighting why projects fail. There exist sort of brief universal checklists (Andrew McAfee: ‘When too much IT knowledge is a dangerous thing’. MIT SMR, 2003). But the funny thing is, in-spite of such universal checklists, projects still fail. Wikipedia achieved tremendous success so far; however it does not deter Wikipedia to fail going forward. We have seen hundreds of similar stories in past where great successes at some point of time vanished in thin air at incredibly fast rate with upcoming challenges, be it external or internal ones.

I believe Wikipedia is now in the stage where it should move forward from control and enter the integration stage. These two final stages – which naturally overlap – play a crucial role in determining the future of Wikipedia. The current control stage (3rd in stages of growth model) as suggested by Gibson and Nolan (and where problems may lie for Wikipedia, as most analysts agreed about control being the cause of the reducing volunteer base) and the next stage, the integration stage (most important as I see), would determine how relevant Wikipedia remains years down the line. I would put utmost focus on the integration stage, as I feel happy that the control stage has so far moved quite well.

We have been living in a ‘Network era’, where the biggest network of network is the Internet (and WWW) itself. Within Internet (and WWW), there operates thousands of other networks – be it CIA Factbook, Economist Factsheets, UN/World Bank publications, reputed media (NYT, WSJ, etc.), credible academic publications, etc. Managing all the 14 million entries in 266 languages without a high-degree of automation, in terms of real time integration with other credible networks with full time manpower of less than 35, is indeed a complex task (or even with that shoestring budget!). Probably Wikipedia already has some of these integrating networking technologies already!

True Wikipedia has already made possible a task which so long looked impossible. As the challenges grow, the primary focus would shift from build (number of articles) to maintain and build (articles again).

I myself have tried editing Wikipedia since 2005-6 onwards and even tried submitting new entries lately (or correcting others). True, the stringent norms of control did beat my enthusiasm at times and I retreated. As a faculty of management school, very lately I asked my students to enter/edit Wikipedia to (1) learn the process (and comment on it), and (2) contribute to the pool of knowledge as we seek from it at the same time. Lately I often realized that many of us (from countries like India) are not contributing to this great mission, and waiting for others (citizens from developed countries) to contribute/edit in platforms like Wikipedia (or even to free web).

Wikipedia, with its own pluses and minuses, has helped me getting truth in many occasions (whenever I needed it!) when nationalism and other forms of biases suppress facts and thereby truth. It’s for the overall interest of the society that Wikipedia remains where it is with its present mission and strengthens further, maintaining due quality and credibility (at least as much as it owns now). In terms of analyzing content in other regional languages, more so for backward regions of the world, Wikipedia has always maintained a better ratio of non-English language content than overall web. If used properly, this can act as a developmental tool in educating/informing the underprivileged sections of people from linguistically diverse nations from South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The bigger challenge, however for Wikipedia now is, to explore how it integrates with other networks (of online content). It has managed the control phase well so far; problem is Wikipedia has outgrown itself, and without systematic integration; the control phase may frustrate the increasingly smaller number of volunteers.  

I am also encouraged to interpret this news of dwindling volunteer base of Wikipedia as an early sign that Internet finally is entering the maturity phase (Remember Bill Keller when he stated in 2007: The internet is a fox medium, that’s fox with a lower case ‘f’. It is perilous to get locked too firmly into one big idea’). And if that’s true, it will lead to lot more interesting developments (content for free or for a price).

In the end, one more appeal to certain quarters to donate generously for Wikipedia. In India, we often come across debates on quality of students (and faculty) that hamper the growth of various local industries. Employers of those students therefore have to spend extra effort in making them ‘employable’. Companies, more so IT companies have adopted various worthwhile strategies to overcome this problem. Internet, Google and Wikipedia increasingly play a very important cost-effective role in educating students (or even employees) anywhere, however students’ dependence on these are more where good faculty is lacking. These companies can definitely help students better when platforms like Wikipedia (rest all has a commercial business model) sustain itself. Therefore firms across the world that employs knowledge workers should come forward and help the cause of Wikipedia. As many Indian companies are most vociferous about poor employable-student quality, they too shouldn’t miss this chance. It must also be followed by multilateral agencies starting with the World Bank, UN, etc. Most of us believe that spending money with Wikipedia and foundations like it help the causes of various UN agencies better, and that too more cost-effectively.

Prof. Ranjit Goswami is with Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, Kolkata; and is the author of the book Wondering Man, Money & Go(l)d. He can be followed on Twitter.

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