Wikipedia: Six hopes for the next 15 years

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Wikipedia is an unheralded crown jewel of the Internet. And today, it turns 15!

Founded before current titans like Facebook and YouTube (and even before predecessors like MySpace and Friendster), Wikipedia has shown remarkable staying power. It is the most extensive compendium of knowledge ever, and the most widely read. But it’s more than a big, popular encyclopedia — it’s also the biggest collaborative project in history. Every month, more than 100,000 people pitch in, contributing to its ever-evolving, ever-expanding collection of knowledge. What are the important things we, as Wikipedians, should focus on as we look to the future? Here are some ideas:

  1. Form a strategy. The five year strategic plan 1,000 of its volunteers created in 2010 expired last year. There is currently no plan to build a new one. A strategic plan can help hundreds of thousands of individuals, as well as a growing stable of organizations, stay organized and aligned. It’s the best way to maximize our impact on the big issues. We need a new strategic plan, drawing from broad and deep input from our enormous and talented community. The items below could be part of such a strategy.
  2. Embrace our connections with age-old institutions. In many ways, Wikipedia’s goals and values overlap with what museums, universities, libraries, news organizations, non-profits, government, and other institutions have done for centuries or millennia. In our first 15 years, we shook those institutions up. In our next 15, we should help them evolve their practices to better serve an increasingly online world. We should also allow ourselves to grow and evolve with their input, as Wikipedia is not the first institution to try to change the world for the better. Wikipedia should be the nexus of how a grassroots movement can interact with structured institutions, to make the world a better place.
  3. Broadly invite the world to engage. Although we Wikipedians say the right words consistently, we have not attracted participation at the level we should. We count our volunteer base in the tens or hundreds of thousands, while those who give money number in the millions. But money isn’t what Wikipedia needs to thrive. When we invite people to contribute, we should focus on their time and good will, not just their bank accounts.
  4. Be better at collaboration. When people engage with Wikipedia, they should come away proud and inspired. We should strive to truly become the “encyclopedia anyone can edit.” If you look closely at the dynamics among Wikipedia editors, you’ll find great inspiration in some places — and utterly intractable, nasty debates in others. The problems have both external and internal causes: the inherent controversies in the topics we cover; nasty dynamics all over the Internet and society; and, notably, Wikipedia’s own policies and processes. We shouldn’t blame ourselves for what’s outside our control. But we should always seek ways to improve the collegiality of our policies and processes.
  5. Instill our values in the organization that represents us. The Wikimedia Foundation does much good for Wikipedia, but in many ways it has lost track of Wikipedia’s founding principles. Its board has grown increasingly secretive; its deliberations and objectives are often opaque. But the results are sometimes shocking: in just the last month, the Wikimedia Foundation has made not one, but two shocking decisions about its own membership. It has largely forgotten that its volunteers aim to serve the world’s readers, and claims exclusive ownership of that passion in many ways. There is a glimmer of hope for one value (financial transparency), but still much work to be done regarding values like operational transparency, inclusion, good governance, and healthy communication.
  6. Define and share our expertise. Wikipedians know a great deal about collaboration (big and small, online and offline), encyclopedia creation, copyright freedom, free content/open source values, and how to run a massive web site without a massive corporate sponsor. We should make the wisdom and knowledge we have accumulated more accessible, so it can inform other great new ideas — both within the Wikimedia movement and beyond. When somebody thinks, “who can help me think about massive collaboration?” the obvious — and fruitful — answer should be, “Wikipedians.”

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here:
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