Wikipedia's future hinges on adapting its structure

It is impossible to imagine the Internet without Wikipedia, one of the most important institutions of daily life on the Web. But, it is also much different from online giants such as Google or Facebook.

It is impossible to imagine the Internet without Wikipedia, one of the most important institutions of daily life on the Web. But, it is also much different from online giants such as Google or Facebook.

Wikipedia is not a billion-dollar company, but rather the passion project of a volunteer community dedicated to creating a universal knowledge base. This is a fantastic achievement, but Wikipedia's continued viability has been called into question. In October, MIT Technology Review reported what Wikipedia's core community has known for some time: the site's volunteer editor base is no longer growing and, in fact, has slowly declined since early 2007.

To some extent, Wikipedia is a victim of its own success. On the English-language site, which has more than 4.4 million articles, most topic entries that can exist, already do. But even ardent Wikipedia supporters will concede that the quality of these articles is wildly uneven. While the site is an incomparable resource for subjects such as news, math, and even video games, its entries about less newsworthy topics such as the social sciences and company profiles often leave much to be desired. The problem will only deepen as Wikipedia loses contributors while attracting fewer new ones.

One possible solution is to look at how other online volunteer communities have adapted as they reach maturity. Specifically Linux, the open-source computer operating system. Like Wikipedia, Linux was released free on the Web without fanfare, caught on quickly, and within a decade was known around the world. While anyone can join the Linux community, you will not be much help if you cannot write code.

Wikipedia requires less specialized skills, but its many rules and peculiarities present a similarly daunting task for newcomers.

Linux's evolution from a small open-source experiment to a key part of today's Internet was driven in part by upstart companies such as Red Hat and behemoths including IBM. In 2001, IBM invested $1 billion in the development of Linux, taking the company in a new direction, while giving Linux a substantial credibility boost.

Wikipedia's volunteers and its nonprofit parent group, the Wikimedia Foundation, should seriously consider this example.

In its early years, Wikipedia's distributed community was the right way to build a vast amount of articles on a wide range of topics. But as the site enters its second decade, this model is less suited to the task of turning existing entries into high-quality articles.

To ensure its own future success, Wikipedia needs to think about how it can benefit from the development of professional communities around its freely distributed central resource. It's tempting to look for its IBM, but there would be huge challenges to such an arrangement. For one, Wikimedia's charter prevents it from playing any editorial role. Google has given the foundation millions of dollars in recent years, but none of it has directly supported the development of the site's content.

More challenging still, Wikipedia prizes the volunteer nature of its community and is suspicious of paid contributors. The concern that editors with outside interests will tilt articles toward their benefactors is understandable, though it also means Wikipedia's description as the "encyclopedia anyone can edit" comes with asterisks.

Yet, Linux made the transition successfully. It grew to maturity and was improved by organizations that advanced the community's goals while pursuing their own.

Wikipedia has taken steps in this direction, thanks to the emergence of a professional community of editors - called Wikipedians in Residence - working for libraries and museums and supported by the Wikimedia Foundation.

This model should be expanded to include other types of organizations beyond the institutional sector - perhaps even for-profit ones. Legal, financial, medical, and scientific companies have much to contribute. And the PR sector, which feels its discouragement more than most, could also be useful if given clearer rules of engagement.

To reverse the decline in participation, Wikipedia needs to find new ways to adapt and work with those outside its traditional community. If it can do this, Wikipedia will not just get better, but it will also ensure it can deliver on its noble ideas in the future.

William Beutler is president and founder of Beutler Ink.

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