As the world's largest encyclopedia turns 15, Madhumita Murgia looks at how it transformed human knowledge
On its 15th birthday, Wikipedia, the free-access web encyclopedia with over 38 million articles in 250 different languages, is the world's largest single repository of human knowledge.
English Wikipedia alone crossed five million articles at the end of 2015, and it is the seventh most-visited website in the world. 24 pc of all education-related web traffic goes to Wikipedia.Before Wikipedia was created, the largest record of knowledge was reportedly the Yongle Encyclopedia of 1408, which contained 22,937 manuscript rolls.
Usually, when one says something “changed the world,” it tends to be hyperbole. In the case of Wikipedia, it’s just fact.
When Jimmy Wales started the site in 2001, his original vision was for a world in which every single person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge – apparently, an achievable goal. Today, on its 15th birthday, Wikipedia has at least half a million people visiting its site every month, and 80,000 volunteers editing its pages regularly. 28pc of its users have never known a world without Wikipedia.
More than 85pc of Wikipedia articles are in languages other than English. It is the most linked-to website on the planet. Referenced by teachers, academics, journalists and students, it reflects the collective expertise of the vast web particularly on obscure topics such as the geospatial summary of the High Peaks or, Jimmy Wales’ favourite page, “inherently funny words.”
Researchers have used its data to predict everything from box office hits, to stock market changes.
While at times some who write or edit its pages have done so for reasons other than knowledge - politicians and civil servants tend to like to amend the truth at times - on the whole those who get involved in its domain do so rather selflessly. Take the former IBM employee who has made more than 47,000 edits of the phrase 'comprised of,’ as it’s gramatically incorrect.
What’s rare about Wikipedia is that it isn’t a profitable internet giant like the likes of Google, Facebook or Apple which have won the loyalty of global consumers through sleek, refined products and services that are heavily monetised. Apple, for example, recently recorded the biggest annual profit in corporate history with £35bn last year. Instead, Wikipedia has always been a sparse, no-frills text-based site that has left its design almost untouched since its inception.
Adapting to mobile technology needs to be a priority for the organisation if Wikipedia wants to achieve its original goal of information access for every single person in the world.
The purely volunteer-driven site operates as a non-profit organisation. It is primarily sustained through donations from its vast global community.
The bulk of their revenue is small donations from the general public, rather than large endowments from high net-worth individuals like Google co-founder Sergey Brin or charitable foundations. In the early days, while Wales was still trying to make the economics work, the donations drive included pushy banner ads adorned with his face, begging for money, but the process has been refined to be less intrusive and annoying.
The organisation has always been dead set against the idea of advertising or sponsored pages or links on the site, even though this could easily keep it afloat based on the number of visitors to the site. But going forward, Wikipedia will keep the donor model, despite being a hard slog because it as part of its identity.
At its core Wikipedia is a simple concept: knowledge.
Although Wikipedia itself is not raking in profits, it has disrupted an array of social and business models during its meteoric rise, ranging from encyclopedia publishing, to secondary school education.
When Encyclopedia Britannica closed its print operation in 2012, its President Jorge Cauzu told media: “Britannica is insignificant compared to the size of Wikipedia. We cannot post an article on every cartoon character, celebrity, or sports figure.” Anecdotally, the impact of Wikipedia on encyclopedias has been dramatic.
Of course, it wasn’t just Wikipedia that decimated the print business of encyclopedias – it was computers themselves.
Digital encyclopedias like Microsoft’s Encarta caused Britannica to go bankrupt in 1996, before Wikipedia was on the scene. But Wikipedia did prove that the crowdsourced, open-source ideal that it was conceived with can add value to the lives of millions more than pay-walled gardens of traditional encyclopedias.
Although the free-to-use internet is often accused of destroying economic models, it is perhaps guilty of simply replacing outdated ones. In formal education, teachers, professors and students from 70 countries worldwide have contributed more than 88,000 new articles to Wikipedia; many students have edited or created new Wikipedia articles instead of actual homework reports.
So what’s next for the internet’s knowledge storehouse? First, it has to focus on being accurateIy has to stay relevant in an age where our use of the web is quickly transforming, thanks to mobile devices. The way we discover, search and learn has moved from PCs to mobile phones. No longer do we simply sit at a desk searching for information – we want it at our fingertips, and on the go.
This is not just a trend amongst the western internet population. The next billion people who come online for the first time from the developing world will do so on mobile first.
Wikipedia needs to reach this segment of the population, many of whom speak foreign languages and could benefit greatly from its educational material. Adapting to mobile technology needs to be a priority for the organisation if Wikipedia wants to achieve its original goal of information access for every single person in the world.
Similarly there could be product extensions - such as integrating a button into music or news apps, so you can instantly query David Bowie’s discography or the history of quantum dot technology when it strikes you, without having to actually load up the site.
If that were to be a success, it could disrupt the booming 'app’ economy, becoming an instant annotation tool for the internet itself.
In just 15 years, Wikipedia has become arguably the largest collaborative effort in the history of mankind. Its real-time, dynamic record of history means nothing gets washed away.
When the terror attacks hit Paris on November 13 last year, a Londoner wrote a quick Wikipedia stub outlining the facts. Within two hours, the article had been edited hundreds of times, with references to ten different sources. That’s the power of open, crowdsourced knowledge. And one that should be celebrated.