What is Wikipedia going to look like 20 years from now? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
In 2016, the Wikipedia turned 15. We were still teenagers, but fairly respectable in internet years.
This got us thinking, “What could Wikipedia look like when we turn 30?” After all, we started as this impossible idea to build a free encyclopedia for the world, and fifteen years later, we’ve made some serious progress: it’s in nearly 300 languages, contains more than 40 million articles, has hundreds of millions of monthly readers, with millions of contributors over the years. So, if this improbable idea turned out to be feasible, what impossible idea should we set our sights on next?
Today, our vision statement is even more ambitious: “Imagine a world in which every single human can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.” At the beginning of 2017, we asked ourselves, what should we do between now and 2030 to make that vision a reality? We launched Wikimedia 2030, a project with Wikipedia readers, editors, and experts around the world about what our future might look like.
From March - September 2017, we spent six months in an exhaustive, messy, and fascinating process of discussions and research. We invited everyone in the global Wikimedia editing community to join the discussion - in 20 languages, across six continents, in thousands of comments on-wiki and in dozens of meetups in person. We spoke with hundreds of experts in education, science, technology, media, policy, and the arts, and we did user and market research around the globe.
Together, we hashed out a broad, shared vision for the future of Wikipedia. There were two big themes: the future of the sites, how they would evolve and change, and the future of the volunteer community, its health and breadth.
First, the tech — “Knowledge as a service”
We interviewed users and talked to experts and technologists about how the way information consumption habits are changing.
For one thing, people are much less trusting of information. They rely less on “institutions” such as the media and academia, and more on “influencers” - people they trust. That has implications for how people are seeking and sharing knowledge - instead of searching on the web, many people around the world ask their networks or their friends. Today, Wikipedia isn’t really a part of social communities.
We also know that video and other multimedia content is already a huge part of learning and content consumption, which is very different from when we got started. The browser as the primary interface is changing too, joined by other interfaces (such as voice and augmented reality), with their own gestural and experiential norms. So while people still primarily find us on their mobile or web browsers, that may not always be the case, especially with the next generation of users.
A clear theme was around the rise of augmentation. Whether basic machine learning or advanced artificial intelligence, many of our human experiences, are or will be enriched or enhanced by technology.
At Wikipedia, we’re already using automation to amplify the work of Wikipedia editors, helping them improve quality and coverage at larger scales. We use complex algorithms to detect plagiarism, machine translation to bring knowledge to more languages, and machine learning to evaluate article quality, content gaps, and toxic comments. As its use spreads across our sites, our responsibility is to ensure it supports human creation, enhances learning, reduces bias, and is legible and transparent to our users.
With all of this, we’re thinking about how we move Wikipedia from being knowledge as a product—that is, an article or image you consume on the sites—to knowledge as a service. This means thinking about new forms and experiences and interfaces, as well as ways our underlying platform architectures could support the broader free knowledge ecosystem more effectively.
This doesn’t tell us exactly what Wikipedia will look like, but it does point us in direction we’ll go to get there. We’re going to need to continue to evolve our underlying platform architecture, as well as our user experiences, to adapt to people’s evolving preferences and ability to access the site.
Second, the community — “Knowledge equity”
Wikipedia is fundamentally about people. We’re built and supported by millions of volunteers and donors all over the world. While we use technology to reach people, our vision statement says nothing about tech. It’s all about ensuring everyone can share in allknowledge. But to have all knowledge, and to reach all people, we need to do more. We need more knowledge from more editors, we need a healthy, diverse community, and we need to be active about understanding the needs of people not currently contributing to or using Wikipedia.
What does “all knowledge” mean? Well, right now only 16% of the 1.3 million biographies on English Wikipedia are about women. Only 2.5% of the geotagged content is about the entire continent of Africa - the world’s second largest continent, the cradle of humanity, and home to a billion people. That’s definitely not representative of the history, heritage, or contributions of women or Africans (or African women!) in our world.
One compelling argument for these imbalances in that our current articles reflect the interests and experiences of our existing editing communities. We have lots of articles about European philosophers and American sitcoms because our editors are mostly folks from Europe and the United States - and often mostly male. So, if we want to know more about the history, politics, and cultures of Nigeria, a country with a population almost as large as the United States, it would be a good move to engage more Nigerian contributors to Wikipedia.
Another thing we’re thinking about is what does “all knowledge” actually mean? Today, information on Wikipedia must be cited back to a reliable source. The Wikipedia editing community has invested in developing clear standards for reliability, such as peer review, fact checking, and corrections. This is good, and has made Wikipedia a trusted source today.
But what about the wealth of knowledge that isn’t in an academic journal? What about knowledge from indigenous cultures, or knowledge held in community oral traditions? There is plenty of knowledge in the world that is important but not documented in accordance with traditional Western standards of scholarship. How do we bring that knowledge into the Wikimedia ecosystem?
For those who live in a world of cheap high bandwidth, endless information streams, great libraries and universities, and strong laws protecting freedom of information and expression, it is easy to forget how powerful and challenging free knowledge can be in many places in the world. That is why it is so critical to consider these issues as we reflect on Wikipedia’s future.
Now we have to start editing, building, engineering, and sharing! Did I say start? I mean continue. Wikipedians have already planted the seeds of much of this work — after all, they’re the ones we consulted in figuring out what to do next.
Going forward, we don’t know exactly what will change, but we know that some things will. We need to be more accessible, more ubiquitous, more equitable. How will we achieve this? In the Wikipedia way. We’ll discuss, debate, and disagree—and then we’ll eventually find common ground. Together, we’ll work out practices that will allow us to embrace many forms of knowledge and serve even more people, while adhering to our rigorous standards for trusted, verifiable information.
And what will stay the same? Quite a lot. Although our shape and form may evolve, we’ll still be true to the core of our values. We’ll be proudly free and open, and committed to participation. We’ll remain a non-commercial public good. We’ll be transparent in how we make decisions, work, and steward donor dollars. We’ll continue to fight for freedom of expression and information. And as always, we’ll be by the people, for the people.
This is who we are. This is what makes Wikipedia unique. This is what has made us strong and beloved for 16 years, and will keep us going for many more to come.
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