Ten Predictions for Wikipedia in 2016


Less than a month from this writing, Wikipedia will celebrate the 15th anniversary of its founding. And the little encyclopedia that could has much to celebrate: it recently passed its 5 millionth article and its 2.5 billionth edit, and Wikipedia's goal of providing free access to "the sum of all human knowledge" has never been better realized. (In a post at The Wikipedian blog, published simultaneously with this, I review the past year: "The Top 10 Wikipedia Stories of 2015”.) But Wikipedia never stands still, and the coming year will be a momentous one for the online encyclopedia, the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) that oversees it, and the many projects like Wikidata and Wikimedia Commons that give us a unique and necessary context for the complex and ever-changing world around us.

So what will happen in the year ahead? Here are my predictions for Wikipedia in 2016, which is to say, here are my best guesses about how Wikipedia will change in a meaningful way that I hope will not bring personal embarrassment upon myself, at least until you forget to look up what I got wrong:

10. Someone is going to get in big trouble editing their own Wikipedia entry

Okay, this prediction is partly a joke and entirely a gimme: of course this will happen. Nary a six-week period has gone by in the past ten years where some clueless PR flak, irritable company VP, or self-regarding minor celebrity has not gotten themselves into trouble for editing a Wikipedia entry about themselves in the dead of night, or whenever it is that COI violations are most likely to occur. This is a "starting Dez Bryant at WR on your fantasy team" safe bet: I have no doubt I'll be reading about yet another conflict of interest edit in the next few weeks—possibly before 2016 even begins.


9. Wikipedia's editor base will continue to professionalize...

Wikipedia has been a volunteer-based project since its very beginning. Fifteen years into its development, however, the limitations of this model are more apparent than ever. Wikipedia's editors excel at topics its volunteers are passionate about (e.g. Leonard Nimoy, Belle and Sebastian's 1996 album Tigermilk, List of guest stars on Sesame Street), but subject matter they care less about remain stagnant (finance and economics, social sciences, African topics). It's all well and good to prize Wikipedia's volunteer ethos, but for Wikipedia to fulfill its promise of being the best encyclopedia in the world, new contribution models must be realized.

A few initiatives point the way forward: the Wiki Education Foundation has built bridges between Wikipedia and educational institutions, and the GLAM-Wiki movement has created a handful jobs for Wikipedia editors at galleries, libraries, archives and museums (hence the name).

The next step is the creation of new organizations, perhaps including new non-profit companies that will facilitate the continued development of Wikipedia by individuals who started out as volunteers but stayed on because of an opportunity to align Wikipedia with their professional careers. In 2016, I expect to see new moves toward creating organizations of this type.

8. ...while the Foundation prepares for a future with fewer editors

Wikipedia's base of volunteer editors has been in a state of decline since 2007. This year the numbers ticked modestly upward, but the point remains that Wikipedia must adapt itself to a likely future with fewer editors still. In fact, Wikipedia has been trending toward greater automation for years. Most vandalism is caught by software filters, and tools such as Huggle make it easier for humans to sort through the rest. Just this month, the Wikimedia Foundation announced the Objective Revision Evaluation Service (ORES), an artificial intelligence editing tool to help editors make better decisions. There's something magical about "how a bunch of nobodies created the world's greatest encyclopedia", to borrow the subtitle of Andrew Lih's 2009 history of the Wikimedia movement, but the future of Wikipedia is in learning to do more with less: how best to apportion responsibilities between the humans who pass judgments and the "bots" who carry them out. In 2016, we'll see more efforts to find the right balance.

7. We're all going to agonize about the trends in editors, and traffic

As explored in more detail in my year-in-review post at The Wikipedian, Wikipedia's ever-growing web traffic finally fell off in 2015, while Wikipedia's declining editor base bounced back, at least a little bit. We don't know where either of these are going: for the first time in several years, a couple of dominant storylines about the direction of Wikipedia are in flux. But I feel confident saying that both will be the focus of much apprehension and scrutiny over the next twelve months, as we hold our breaths to see whether these are real trends, or just a blip.

6. "Conflict of interest" and Wikipedia's self-interest will become clearer

Wikipedia's self-description as the "encyclopedia anyone can edit" contains a big caveat: contributors are discouraged from editing articles about themselves or their organizations. But of course it happens all the time. Meanwhile, Wikipedia does a poor job of accurately covering business topics on Wikipedia, but the many competing views about how to cover them has led both sides to stay away from the issue. The next step will have to come from the Wikipedia community itself, and a consensus about the proper role of interested outsiders will only come from an evolved understanding of Wikipedia's own self-interest. That won't happen overnight.

It's an issue close to Beutler Ink—after all, one of our core services is helping communications professionals and Wikipedia volunteers find ways to see past their differences and collaborate on topics that wouldn't be improved otherwise. And in 2014, we helped to lead an "open letter" signed by the largest global PR agencies pledging to respect Wikipedia's rules and learn to give clients good advice. So call this less of a prediction and more of a hint—in 2016, I'll be working toward a new initiative that builds on this earlier project.

5. Wikipedia will become a proxy in the "right to be forgotten" debate


The European Union's promotion of the "right to be forgotten" is frightening to anyone who believes in an accurate recounting of history. Already, this kind of thinking has begun to impact Wikipedia: in November, the Wikimedia Foundation prevailed in a lawsuit brought by a German filmmaker who sued to have her birth date removed from her Wikipedia entry, a fact which had entered the public record against her consent. While the decision here did not hinge on the so-called "right to be forgotten", it's not hard to see how Wikipedia could become the focus of a lawsuit that does. It's a good thing that Wikipedia's servers are based in the U.S., with its strong First Amendment protections—it means Wikipedia will continue to prevail. But WMF legal should get ready.

Wikipedia is all about remembering. Any legal precedent based on assuring public figures that past events in their careers may be removed from view is inherently threatening to Wikipedia, and I will be very surprised if 2016 does not include a lawsuit demanding that Wikipedia remove information about a non-U.S. public figure.

4. Wikipedia's global conference will foretell the movement's future


In recent years Wikimania, Wikipedia's annual global conference, has been held in major metropolises like Washington D.C., London, and Mexico City. In 2016, it will be held in Esino Lario—and if you find yourself asking "where is that?" you are in good company, because Wikipedians wondered the same upon its announcement.

Esino Lario is nestled in the hills above Lake Como in Italy, and it is indeed breathtaking. But with a population of fewer than 800, it's hard to imagine a conference sometimes drawing more than 1,000 people running smoothly here. Esino Lario has very little in the way of accommodations, so other infrastructure—including wifi—will have to be improved for the conference itself. Despite assurances from organizers that everything will work out, many questions remain.

Regardless the outcome of this year's conference, changes in how Wikimania host cities are decided are already in progress. This means more major cities in North America and Europe, and fewer in locations far from Wikipedia's geographic base. Past Wikimanias have been held in Gdansk (Danzig), and Haifa, Israel. How has there not been one in Wikipedia's hometown, San Francisco? In 2016, we might start planning for it. Doing so will raise significant questions about the balance of power between the Wikimedia Foundation and the community it serves, but these questions aren't new. The answers can't be avoided indefinitely.

3. The Visual Editor will find its user base

One of the most challenging issues of the past few years has been the disagreement between Wikipedia's volunteer community and its non-profit parent about the implementation of new software initiatives. The first strike was in the public debut, and rapid rejection, of the Visual Editor. This long-in-development software promised an editing system that felt more like writing Google Docs than programming a computer. It would be great for newcomers, but many veterans were ornery. Making matters worse, it wasn't truly ready when it was first introduced in 2013. But having returned to it in 2015, I can say for a fact that the Visual Editor has come a long way—it's truly a joy to use. In 2016 I think we'll see even veteran users come around, and begin using it for simple edits and maintenance. No, you can't do everything in it that you can by editing wikicode, but you can do most things better.

2. Google will take a bigger role in Wikipedia's development

Google depends on Wikipedia for a lot: in the beginning, Wikipedia gave Google's users a familiar information repository so their searches would end up somewhere useful. Later, Google began integrating Wikipedia's content into its own services. This year, Google shut down its own open knowledge database in favor of Wikidata, a sister site of Wikipedia. Considering all this, it's a little surprising that Google hasn't taken a greater interest in Wikipedia's activities.

Is Google happy with what it's getting? Perhaps it is now, but one can imagine why Google might become restless with an information resource that can be maddeningly unreliable (on some subjects more than others). Google has donated money to the Wikimedia Foundation in the past, so might they create a new initiative to shore up Wikipedia's weaknesses? They might! I'm going out on a limb with this one, yes, but if any outside entity has a strong self-interest in Wikipedia's success, it is Google. It's worth thinking about.

1. The Wikimedia Foundation will make a big decision about its future


As of today, Wikipedia is more popular than it ever has been. This popularity has translated into annual fundraising efforts that are phenomenally successful, rivaling that of NPR and outdistancing many others. But nothing lasts forever, even cold November cash. Wikipedia will have to start thinking about its long-term financial future, rather than raising all the money it has already allocated for next year. A strong move in this direction would include taking steps to establish an endowment, something private universities have long made a top priority. This might not happen in 2016, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did. Eventually, it must.

Finally, we are definitely going to hear more about trouble at the Wikimedia Foundation. Staff turnover in 2015 was one of the least-discussed but most-impactful developments, and WMF executive director Lila Tretikov had kind of a rocky year. 2016 could be when she finally finds her footing, and builds toward a long tenure like her predecessor, Sue Gardner, enjoyed. But if she doesn't, this is the year where the Board of Trustees might start thinking about who should lead Wikipedia next.

If you liked this post, don't forget to check out its companion piece at The Wikipedian: "The Top 10 Wikipedia Storis of 2015”.

All images via Wikimedia Commons; Tigermilk cover by Belle and Sebastian; Esino Lario photo by Carlo Maria Pensa.