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Defying Skeptics, Wikipedia Thrives

Rather than being overwhelmed by vandalism, Wikipedia has managed to remain one of the more vital, if not always 100% accurate, sources of information online.
Five years ago, Eric Goldman, an associate professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law and widely read tech law blogger, predicted that Wikipedia would fail within five years.

"[T]he very architecture of Wikipedia contains the seeds of its own destruction," he wrote when he revisited his argument in 2006. "Without fame or fortune, I don't think Wikipedia's incentive system is sustainable."

Goldman expanded on this argument in a 2009 academic paper, "Wikipedia's Labor Squeeze and its Consequences." In it, he argued that Wikipedia will not be able to sustain credible content while simultaneously allowing anyone to freely edit it. Despite the site's efforts to combat vandalism, he said, limited incentives to participate would force the site to limit public editing rights.

Yet Wikipedia is set to celebrate its tenth anniversary on Saturday, January 15. The site went live on Monday, January 15, 2001. It's difficult to gauge whether the community edited encyclopedia has achieved sufficient fame to survive. If fame can me measured by Web site visits, Wikipedia appears to have more than enough: The site, together with its sister sites, receives some 400 million visitors every month, making it the fifth most popular Web site in the world.

Wikipedia has also done pretty well in terms of fortune. In 2009, it raised about $8 million from over 240,000 donors. In 2010, it raised about $16 million and received a $2 million grant from Google.

Wikipedia has addressed some of the concerns raised by Goldman. For example, last May, it announced a project to improve the quality of its public policy articles, supported by a $1.2 million grant from the Stanton Foundation. And its antispam tools have been improved.

On Friday, Goldman conceded that the future had not gone as he had anticipated. "I've written a few notorious posts in my 6 years of blogging, but none more so than my December 2005 prediction that Wikipedia would fail in 5 years," he wrote. "Those 5 years are up, and this post admits that my prediction is wrong."

At the same time, his argument bears ongoing consideration. Wikipedia is not out of the woods and may never be. Its very nature seems to require constant attention.

Goldman isn't entirely ready to pronounce Wikipedia out of harm's way. "I may not have gotten the timing right, but I wonder if [diminished editing freedom] remains inevitable," he muses.

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