Wikipedia, launched in 2001, quickly became the encyclopedia of the online world. The free-content online encyclopedia is now the 7th most visited website according to Alexa Internet’s traffic rank (as of August 2015), and its crowd-knowledge model has shown that together humans can build a knowledge platform of impressive scale online, unrivalled by any other knowledge-gathering effort.
Wikipedia is a portmanteau of the words “wiki” – a website that allows collaborative modification of its content and structure directly from the web browser, and “encyclopedia”. Through its collaborative nature (Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia/database where a large amount of volunteers produce the content for free and can edit existing posts), the website is able to leverage the power of the crowds to cover a vast amount of topics. With ~27 million editors, the English version alone quickly became larger than the Yongle encyclopedia, which was the largest for more than 600 years.
Wikipedia is perhaps the purest form of collective intelligence: Value is created by having the users create the articles, making them available for free to other users. Contributors to Wikipedia seek to collaboratively identify and publish true facts about the world. This ongoing mission differs from a traditional encyclopedia – Wikipedia is updated shortly after an event (performing a Wikipedia search after a major global event is quite interesting – key facts are often updated within minutes by a volunteer). Even though a traditional encyclopedia in theory could do the same online, it would never be able to employ the necessary human resources to make all the updates on a continuous basis. On Wikipedia, it appears to be at least “one nerd per topic”.
Wikpedia is changed to a “.org” from a “.com” address to denote its non-commercial nature. Its co-founder Jimmy Wales’ net worth is ~1musd, and he is very clear that he does not want to commercial the site through advertisements and other monetization efforts. However, this idealistic policy makes the website dependent on donations from its many users to continue its operations. Furthermore, donations are given only if the website manages to stay relevant and Wikipedia faces a number of challenges to stay relevant in a changing online world:
- Increased competition is a major challenge – Google’s “Knowledge Graphs”, showing a definition below your search (e.g. if you Google-search “Deepwater drilling”, a definition will appear before relevant links), is in many ways a “Wikipedia within Google search”. Google is able to leverage its knowledge of the online world to pull out a definition, making it unnecessary to visit Wikipedia (however many of the definitions are pulled from Wikipedia)
- Q&A pages such as “Yahoo Answers” create communities where users can get answers to very specific questions without having to do the homework themselves on Wikipedia
- Furthermore, 85% of Wikipedia’s editors are male, making it hard to believe that the site accomplishes its mission to become “the sum of all human knowledge”. Mr. Wales acknowledges that this is a huge problem
Despite not being perfect by all measures, Wikipedia has shown the power of the crowd in gathering knowledge and spreading knowledge to all corners of the world. Where the future takes it will depend on whether they community is able to engage a wider number of editors, and whether the tech giants push for their own knowledge platforms going forward.