Wikipedia turns 15, its operator The Wikimedia Foundation is hoping to secure its long-term future with a new endowment fund that aims to raise $100m over the next 10 years.
The Wikimedia Endowment has been set up as a “permanent safekeeping fund” managed by the charity Tides Foundation, and could reduce Wikipedia’s reliance on annual donation drives to keep its service running.
The news came on the online encyclopedia’s 15th birthday as the Foundation announced that it now has more than 36m articles and 80,000 volunteers making 15k edits and creating 7k new articles an hour.
“Wikipedia seemed like an impossible idea at the time – an online encyclopedia that everyone can edit. However, it has surpassed everyone’s expectations over the past 15 years,” said co-founder Jimmy Wales.
The service has weathered questions about its funding, its neutrality and its accuracy over those first 15 years, with Wales and the Foundation regularly involved in wider debates about censorship, trolling and online identity.
“Wikipedia has shown how crowd sourcing and open collaboration models can be successful. It was initially derided as largely selective and inaccurate, but with millions of contributions and editorial input it, has become the single most comprehensive online repository of knowledge,” said Mark Brill, senior lecturer in digital communication and future media at Birmingham City University.
“Wikipedia still has its challenges. There are some widely inaccurate articles, a lot of trolling – especially on religious subjects – and a handful of grammar pedants. Yet these challenges are essentially a reflection of what the internet has become: a place for everyone.”
One of the service’s biggest challenges for its next 15 years and beyond is how it evolves in a world where many people’s internet use is happening on mobile devices rather than computers – particularly in continents like Africa and Latin America.
“One of the things we’re focused on is the rise of the internet in the developing world, and mainly on mobile. That has its own set of challenges,” Wales said.
He added that Wikipedia is determined not to patronise people in these developing countries by assuming their online needs are completely different to those of people in the developed world.
The Foundation is keen to ensure that it has plenty of local contributors to ensure that articles are not just a western view of these countries. In 2015, a study by researchers at the University of Oxford found that five countries – the UK, US, France, Germany and Italy – were the source of 45% of edits to articles about places on Wikipedia.
“A lot of people are completely missing the point that as people come online in the developing world, they’re doing a lot of the same things we do: they’re getting on Facebook, going on Google, reading and editing Wikipedia,” said Wales.
“This inherent idea that these are the ‘other’ – alien and mysterious people who live in a very strange way – that evaporates when you realise the tens of millions of people coming online are just normal people.”
Mobile presents another challenge for Wikipedia, both on a writing level – its editing features were not designed for phones – and a reading level. It remains mainly text and images, in a world where younger internet users increasingly expect to get their information from other kinds of content.
“The encylopedia is platform-designed for the desktop internet, yet the world has become mobile. With it, we have seen a move into shorter, more visual content,” said Brill.
“The challenge for Wikipedia is how to engage this audience in long form, largely text-based material. Emerging territories, in particular, are ‘mobile first’ and with no history of widespread desktop usage.”
“Wikipedia is the ideal format to reach a global audience – being predominantly text-based it is easy to transmit over even the narrowest bandwidth,” agreed Ronan Gruenbaum, dean, undergraduate London at Hult International Business School.
“But millennials increasingly need their information delivered via small video-clips and other multimedia. Wikipedia has a huge challenge if it wants to connect with users in the long-term, to keep up with changing needs and making content engaging, open and inclusive.”
At a time when embedded Ggifs, tweets and video are increasingly common on news sites that sometimes compete with Wikipedia for prime positions on search engines like Google, Wales said the Foundation is considering its evolution carefully.
“We’re not attempting to follow the latest online trends for getting clicks and things like that: ‘This many things that will make you cry!’ That would be very alien to our community,” he said.
“You will see more multimedia in Wikipedia. Not that we’re going to become a video site or anything. It’s still very much predominantly text and photos, and that’s good for us.”
A Google search for “death of Wikipedia” yields more than 72k results, with articles from 2006 onwards predicting that the online encyclopedia was on its way out for various reasons.
“It’s more fun looking back at those stories than seeing them at the time,” said Wales. “As a charity, we’ve always been focused on our community and our mission. We’re not subject to a lot of the external metrics – we don’t have debt, we don’t have investors – that high-flying dotcoms are.”
It is that funding model that has raised most questions over the years, right up to the anniversary.
“While people like me are happy to make donations, one wonders if the internet’s love of free will mean it’s always having the pass the cap around,” said Simon Gill, chief creative officer at marketing and technology agency DigitasLBi.
“How can it better raise funding to help its continued survival whilst remaining ad free, and free from corporate and/or government manipulation?”
“Its ability to remain independent and ad-free is impressive and one can only hope it manages this in the long term, but short of finding a billionaire benefactor it seems somewhat precarious to rely on donations for its survival,” said Gruenbaum.
Both were talking before the announcement of the new endowment fund, which aims to tackle that challenge. “Financially, we have been very prudent and careful, and very deliberate,” said Wales.
According to the Times of India, the endowment will start with less than $1m donated by the estate of software engineer Jim Pacha, which hints at potential to raise its $100m from similar bequests. The annual donation drive from users will continue alongside the endowment.
“We have a great fundraising model right now, but things on the Internet change so it’s not something we can count on forever,” said The Wikimedia Foundation’s chief advancement officer Lisa Gruwell.
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