Capstone: Making History, Building the Future Together
Introduction - Wikipedia at 15
Wikipedia turned 15 years old on January 11, 2016. Later that same year, I attended an event focused on the future of the news media in a time of concern about “fake news” and disinformation. Wikipedia isn’t a news organization, so I was a stranger among friends. I seated myself at a small roundtable on the topic of trust with some hesitation: journalists love to ask hard questions about Wikipedia’s reliability. One by one, the attendees went around the room, introducing themselves, their organizations, and the reason they’d joined the session.
When it was my turn, I volunteered: ‘Wikipedia has gone from being a punch-line about the unreliability of people on the internet to becoming one of the most trusted and popular sites online. I’m here to see what we can learn from one another.’ To my surprise, there were nodding heads around the table. It was a moment that would have been difficult to imagine even a few years ago.
As Wikipedia and the Wikimedia movement and projects enter our third decade, I expect that the one certainty we can expect is that we’ll continue to confound expectations. Today, Wikipedia includes 50 million articles across 300 language versions, ranging in size from 5.9 million articles on English Wikipedia to just over 1,000 articles on Tulu Wikipedia. It is joined by a number of other successful “sister” free knowledge projects, including Wikidata, Wikimedia Commons, and Wikisource (as well as some less-successful efforts). Every single month, roughly one billion people read 60,000 years of knowledge on Wikipedia. Together, the Wikimedia projects constitute the fifth most popular digital platform on the planet.
As the first stop for the world’s knowledge for hundreds of millions of people, Wikipedia has transcended its own humble ambitions. Much more than an encyclopedia that anyone can edit, Wikipedia has fundamentally and irrevocably transformed our models for how people and communities can experience and create knowledge online and off, within and far beyond the various Wikimedia projects. It is a resource to people around the globe seeking information about history, politics, and pop culture. It is a project in nation-building through language, a tool for cultural preservation, and a platform for battles over representation and truth. It is a database used by governments, universities, and cultural institutions to share and publicize their data and collections.
It is one of the world’s most widely-used sources for training machine learning applications. It is a trove of insight about humanity: our interests, our predilections, our biases. It is a by-word for collaborative participation, a modifier for other ambitions (“the Wikipedia of XYZ”), a definitive oracle (Has that celebrity really died?), a pop-culture signifier (Pet Shop Boys, “On Social Media,”), and an abbreviated verb for information seeking (“Let me wiki that”). Each year, as Wikipedia has grown article by article and edit by edit, it has become more integral, more important, and more irreplaceable to our shared cultural consciousness.
As this volume of reflections on the first twenty years of Wikipedia goes to press and to readers, the Wikimedia movement has recently completed a global, collaborative process to build a vision for the Wikipedia of 2030. Launched shortly after Wikipedia’s 15th birthday, this “movement strategy process” was an opportunity to consider what the Wikimedia community had accomplished, and what was still to come. It was a chance to look at the distance between “the encyclopedia anyone can edit” and “a world in which every single person can freely share in the sum of all knowledge” -- and ask ourselves how the Wikimedia movement might set about closing that gap. What would it take to reach more people? What would it mean if the whole world really could participate? What does “all knowledge” even mean?
To try and answer these questions, members of the Wikimedia movement spent a year talking to each other and others around the globe. Contributors around the globe worked to re-interpret our vision: “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge,” and to make plans for what we should be doing to realize it. We hosted gatherings and discussions with people from 70 countries and consultations in more than 20 languages. We spoke with current Wikimedia movement members and partners, as well as people learning about Wikimedia for the first time. We commissioned research into the state of the world today, and the state of the world to come (you can’t easily predict the future, but you can count who is being born where). We interviewed 150 experts from the worlds of academia, arts and culture, epistemology, education, open science, and technology.
As a community of collaborators and information enthusiasts, we took the values and practices honed over years of creating Wikipedia, and used them to explore, examine, and propose a direction for our future, together. The global Wikimedia community participated in these conversations with all of their characteristic generosity, curiosity, generativity, and intentionality. If Wikipedia is to be a beacon of knowledge and collaboration for years to come, it will be because of the culture of care and commitment that characterizes the Wikimedia community.
One thing quickly became evident in our conversations about the future -- a recognition that the world that the Wikimedia projects emerged from is no longer the world in which we operate today. Some of these changes are promising and positive, offering us new opportunities to interpret our vision, connect with people, and expand free knowledge in the world. However, just as many are concerning changes, with potential negative implications for the long-term health of Wikipedia and the global Wikimedia community, and our ability to pursue our vision of world of international cooperation, constructive discourse, and collaboration in the service of our global public commons.
We see a world that’s more connected than ever before, with bandwidth costs decreasing and making it easier for everyone to get online. Primary education enrollment rates are rising, as are global literacy rates. We’re seeing a growing population of young, engaged, and online youth eager to effect change in their communities and on a global scale. And we’re seeing poverty decrease as living standards improve globally. But alongside these positive changes, we’re also seeing new challenges and threats to our societies.
The world as a whole is becoming less open, as authoritarian governments close spaces for dissent and debate, and democracies struggle with increased polarization and decreased trust in institutions. The internet, once a relatively open and creative space, has become increasingly consolidated, centralized, and homogenized, perpetuating power and control within a handful of corporations. Data gathering and tracking has enabled a “public-private surveillance” economy that seeks to know everything about everyone. Climate change and mass migration strain systems and norms, often with reactionary consequences.
The Wikimedia 2030 consultation put these changes at the center of the conversation, recognizing the need for our projects and communities to continue to adapt and evolve in order to meet the opportunities and challenges ahead.
“By 2030, Wikimedia will become the essential infrastructure of free knowledge, and anyone who shares our vision will be able to join us.” The final language of the direction acknowledges a world in which free knowledge is potentially plentiful but in need of critical support; it maintains the spirit of openness to all, but recognizes the importance of building communities with shared purpose and good faith. We committed to undertaking this ambition informed by the guiding perspectives of “knowledge equity” and “knowledge as a service,” as we seek to engage and include more perspectives from around the globe, while ensure Wikipedia is as dynamic and useful in the future as it is today.
What does it mean to be the essential infrastructure of free knowledge? While infrastructure conjures up rigid and impersonal features, it is better understood as building the critical social and technical support systems necessary to bear the ambition of a world in which free knowledge is produced and shared not only in the Wikimedia ecosystem, but across many different communities, projects, and institutions. It means supporting the people and institutions that produce free knowledge, and championing the conditions that enable its production and dissemination.
It means that the popular idea of “Wikipedia” should be expansive and inclusive. When people hear “Wikipedia,” it should conjure up endless knowledge, one in which the articles of the encyclopedia are a point of entry into a rich, multilingual ecosystem of discovery, one which integrates images, audio, video, rich annotations, augmented experiences, connections to external resources, complex insights, and robust linked open data structures. Wikipedia should be both a destination for learning and a network of exploration, connecting concepts, collections, and institutions, elevating disparate resources of open knowledge and making them more accessible and discoverable to the world at large.
This is Wikipedia the encyclopedia, of course, but also so much more. It is knowledge as a platform, and also a community of creators, curators, advocates, donors, and allies around the globe. It is a body of knowledge, and also a powerful name that stands for the importance of free and open information, standards, policies, and practices in service of the public interest. It is a website, and a movement of people who believe in the importance of the integrity of information, and the fundamental right to inquire, learn, and seek answers.
Together, the technology, people, and voice of a movement will make up the essential support system to enable the collection, curation, and dissemination of free knowledge across the planet. If this sounds radical, consider how far Wikipedia has already changed our conception of the encyclopedia: no longer a hardbound, finite, alphabetized collection of books, but endless exploration of interconnected discovery and learning. It means embracing encyclopedic in an etymological sense, a circular, looping, endless education.
To realize this future, we will not only need to reconceive the encyclopedia (again) but also be open to the evolution of the Wikimedia projects and communities, perhaps in transformational ways. Our global communities, well-established in wealthy, northern countries, must grow to more fully represent the diversity of the world’s languages, cultures, and contexts. Our underlying technology platform will need to be open and dynamic, able to integrate emerging and augmentative technologies and respond to unpredictable changes in devices, interfaces, and user experiences. The act of writing the encyclopedia will remain core to our identity, but will need to be supplemented by other acts of collaboration, curation, and creation, suited to new forms of representation and learning, as well as new form factors for consuming and sharing knowledge.
Fortunately, the seeds of many of these changes have already taken root in the Wikimedia movement of today. In this sense, the 2030 strategic direction is less a radical re-envisioning of Wikimedia than a codification of emergent trends: growth of new communities in previously underrepresented languages and geographies, successful new projects focused on original sources and structured data, experiments in augmented machine learning experiences, and new partners and allies in the movement for free culture.
Because the next billion people to come online will come to Wikipedia through many devices and channels, we are thinking about what it means to build beyond the desktop or mobile browser, and anticipate a future in which people access information across a host of devices and interfaces. This is not only about the emergent needs of tomorrow, but the changing needs of users today, who have different expectations for form factors, interactions, and user experiences. To stay relevant and relatable, Wikimedia must find a balance between retaining our identity and evolving to meet changing needs.
One of the most identifiable values of Wikimedia is the “read/write” nature of our projects. Anyone can be an editor, and any aspect of the projects is open to change. This has been core to Wikipedia’s model over the years, ensuring that as both knowledge and technology has changed, Wikipedia kept changing too. It allows for topics to be quickly updated, for editors to continuously refine and add nuance to complex concepts, for new ideas and new voices to challenge bias or add fresh perspective. It is the manifestation of a “consent or contest” paradigm, inviting everyone to be a critical reader and active participant in Wikipedia’s knowledge.
This “editability promise” has worked relatively well in the context of desktop and laptop computers. Their mechanical keyboard and screen setups are primarily designed for productive work, with the ability to manage and complete complex tasks. And despite some initial uncertainty about demand, improvements in mobile editing interfaces and the introduction of more powerful mobile editing tools have proven increasingly popular, especially for smaller, discrete “micro-contribution” tasks such as adding citations, or image and data tagging. But what does an editable voice assistant interface sound like? What about navigating a contribution through an augmented reality browser? For Wikipedia’s future to stay true to Wikipedia’s origins, we’ll need to answer these questions.
We’re asking ourselves similar questions about the introduction to Wikipedia of new form factors for knowledge. User searches for video content increasingly rivals text-based searches, as demographics on the web continue to change. Younger users are more video-forward, and newer users of the web are often navigating in second languages. Video can offer immersive and engaging learning experiences that may be more accessible than text, whether for reasons of accessibility, literacy, or practical demonstration. While Wikimedia Commons has seen recent renewed growth as a freely-licensed educational media repository, is usability lags behind other media hosting sites, and it remains primarily a service for images, rather than rich media.
If we are to focus on adding these video, audio, 3-D, and other experiences to Wikimedia’s learning mission, we’ll need to consider how to do so in a way that addresses the needs and tensions of technical and social verifiability and editability, particularly amidst concerns about so-called “deep” and “shallow” fakes, or media manipulations.
While readers (or possible future listeners and viewers) Wikipedia should expect to see changes in user experiences and knowledge formats, we also anticipate that our use of machine learning and artificial intelligence will continue to grow, although in ways that may remain invisible to a casual user.
Wikimedia has relied on machine augmentation since our beginnings -- there are dozens of bots that operate on Wikipedia, performing various routine functions so that humans don’t have to. Machine intelligence already assists editors in evaluating edit and article quality and providing rough translations of articles between various languages. In the future, we expect to be able to use it to identify content gaps and bias, recommend related images and media, assemble contextual article groups for deeper learning, even generate “stubs” or rough drafts of articles from collections of secondary sources. These tools can enable communities to grow the projects even more ambitiously, synthesizing and syncing knowledge across languages, and making rapid gains in under-represented languages and topic areas.
Of course, any use of machine intelligence on Wikipedia will need to be built in ways that enable and advance our values: freedom, accessibility, openness and diversity, transparency, independence, quality, and a commitment to community. They should build on existing efforts, supporting the work and intentions of the people who contribute to Wikipedia. Their functions, development, and deployment should be transparent and accountable. Volunteers and staff working on these efforts today envision a future where Wikipedia offers both tools and a learning environment for contributors to “train the machines,” so that our artificial intelligences are as distributed, accessible, and open as any other part of the Wikimedia ecosystem.
New form factors, new content formats, augmented intelligence - already these represent changes to the experience of Wikipedia today. They’re also essential evolutions to our existing ecosystem, and the result of extensive thinking and discussion by the Wikimedia communities over the years. In this sense, they represent a fairly straightforward series of next steps, a common-sense list of actions that can and should be a part of our planned future development. And they are also opportunities to extend Wikimedia’s values and mission into the future.
Our mission has always been a commitment not only to knowledge, but to modeling how to work with transparency, accountability, and integrity, with independence, and in the public interest. Unlike other organizations that seek profit, build closed technology, or obscure their intentions and biases from their users, we have the opportunity to build the future with fidelity to the interests of humanity at large, setting apart a movement for human knowledge from commercial interest.
As much as the technology and user experiences of the Wikimedia platforms shape our work, the volunteer community is what truly differentiates the Wikimedia movement and mission. In survey after survey, we find that Wikimedians contribute to Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia projects because they are animated by the promise of the mission of open knowledge for the world. The community that sustains Wikipedia today has built something remarkable and unprecedented in the world, and they deserve celebration and thanks. And at the same time, if we believe that the world is better when more people can share in free knowledge and that this can only happen when more people openly collaborate with one another, we must recognize who is still missing from the picture.
We find a stark example of the unevenness of the Wikimedia community in looking at Wikipedia contributions around the globe. Today, more people from the country of the Netherlands, with a population of around 17 million people, edit Wikipedia than residents of the entire continent of Africa, with an estimated population of 1.2 billion people. Another way of looking at this imbalance in representation? Articles about Africa, the cradle of humanity, home to more than fifty countries, thousands of languages, thriving modern cities, deep traditions, and a dazzling array of cultural diversity, represent fewer than 4% of all of the geotagged articles on English Wikipedia.
It is not difficult to infer that the authors of these relatively few articles are statistically unlikely to be from Africa themselves, conjuring up a parallel world in which every article about Europe is written primarily by Latin Americans, and every article about North America written primarily by South Asians. Of course, Wikipedia’s articles should be written by people from all over, with space inclusive of many different perspectives. We should learn about New York not only from New Yorkers, but also from Cairenes and Jakartans and Muscovites. The problem arises when only some people represent all people, and only some perspectives pass for common knowledge.
Across the globe, this problem persists. Wikipedia’s editor populations are stable or growing where real populations are not, while editing communities in regions and countries that are experiencing rapid population growth remain relatively small. Hindi Wikipedia, representing the world’s third-most spoken language, is only the 53rd-largest Wikipedia, behind languages such as Catalan, Finnish, and Esperanto.
If we believe that a better informed world equips people to build the societies in which they want to live and choose the means by which they govern themselves, we must re-organize ourselves to distribute this vision for everyone. If we see that contributors to Wikimedia/WIkipedia and the majority of other open projects are still predominantly male, still predominantly from North America and Europe, and still predominantly white, then we must agree that an open web is incomplete, and in fact a closed web, until it is also inclusive.