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Success may be Wikipedia’s biggest challenge

By Noam Cohen
New York Times / July 12, 2010

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GDANSK, Poland — After years of spectacular growth, frequent derision, and bitter controversy, Wikipedia may have found its ultimate challenge: success and public acceptance.

Hundreds of contributors and supporters gathered in this port city over the weekend to meet and greet, talk and listen, and think about the future of Wikipedia, the user-edited online encyclopedia that many remember from its earliest days.

It started with an improbable mission to share knowledge with the world, and the utopianism is still present: The setting for this year’s Wikimania conference is a philharmonic hall on an island in the Motlawa River with the bent, largely idle cranes of the Gdansk shipyards, birthplace of the Solidarity movement, close on the horizon. The T-shirts say “Free Knowledge in the City of Freedom.’’

After six Wikimanias, there were more practical questions hanging over the proceedings: Who took our mojo? And how can we get it back? Should we get it back?

“It is growing less quickly,’’ said Liam Wyatt, a longtime Wikipedia contributor and advocate from Australia. “By definition, as it gets bigger, people don’t have as many places to start. It is a good problem to have, but it is a problem.’’

Wyatt arrived by way of London, where he completed a five-week term as the British Museum’s first Wikipedian in residence. His talk yesterday about how Wikipedia contributors and curators worked together to improve the coverage of museum materials was cheered by an audience heartened that Wikipedia users’ efforts were appreciated by one of the bastions of Western culture.

It would certainly be an upside-down world if Wikipedia — mocked as the symbol of the triumph of amateurism — was saved by experts like those at the museum.

But as the encyclopedia grows, with well over 3 million articles in English, experts remain a largely untapped resource.

In the United States, the Wikimedia Foundation has sponsored an academy to teach experts at the National Institutes of Health how to contribute to the site and monitor what appears there. And Wyatt said that other institutions, including the Smithsonian, had written to inquire about getting their own Wikipedian in residence to facilitate their staff members’ contributions to the site.

One talk here by a Polish professor, Dariusz Jemielniak, took a jab at the idea of experts as contributors. He said he had noticed that students often remained contributors to Wikipedia but that professors left quickly. His explanation was that Wikipedia was really just a game for people to gain status. A teenager offering the definitive account of the Thirty Years’ War gets a huge audience and respect from his peers. But, Jemielniak asked, why would a professor stoop to edit Wikipedia?

“Professors already get published and can lecture and force people to listen to their ideas,’’ he said.

Rather than look to experts to get its mojo working, the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that operates the Wikipedias in more than 250 languages, is aiming at the underserved populations of the globe to meet its ambitious goals for growth.

In a speech on Friday at the start of Wikimania, in the restored home of the Polish Baltic Philharmonic, the foundation’s executive director, Sue Gardner, said the foundation planned to double in size in the next year by adding 44 employees and hoped to raise more than $20 million in donations.

Her focus, however, was on the area she called the Global South — India, South America, the Middle East — where the goal is to have 12 percent annual growth in unique visitors, compared with 4 percent in the Global North.

A new board member from Mumbai, Bishakha Datta, a documentary maker and advocate for women’s issues, was appointed, despite having little familiarity with Wikipedia, because of her experience in running a nonprofit in India.

Her inclusion also signals the foundation’s vision of an encyclopedia that is truly comprehensive because its contributors are much more diverse in sex, age and region — as opposed to the heavily male, young and Western group that edits it now.

Asked if she wondered whether the foundation could influence the nature of Wikipedia’s contributors, Gardner said, “I think about it all the time,’’ but added she is confident “Wikipedians are very much influenceable.’’