Wikipedia founder raises fears over site’s future

Jimmy Wales

The number of volunteers contributing to the online encyclopaedia is falling warns Jimmy Wales

BY Jonathan Harwood LAST UPDATED AT 15:47 ON Fri 5 Aug 2011

Wikipedia may be one of the most popular websites in the world, but its star could be on the wane after founder Jimmy Wales revealed that fewer and fewer people are coming forward to help edit the online encyclopaedia, which relies on the efforts of volunteers for its existence.

"We are not replenishing our ranks," Wales told the website's annual conference in Israel. "It is not a crisis, but I consider it to be important."

Many once-popular websites, like AOL and MySpace, have drifted into relative obscurity after being superseded or losing their core market, and there are concerns that something similar could happen to Wikipedia, even though there is no obvious alternative on the internet.

Wales described the typical Wikipedia contributor as "a 26-year-old geeky male" who would be happy to contribute until they moved on in life, perhaps getting married or finding a new "hobby". He also said that after 10 years the encyclopaedia now has more than 3 million pages, which means there are fewer entries to add.

But despite the slightly pessimistic outlook from Wales, Wikipedia still had 90,000 active contributors in March. Sue Gardner, the executive director of the body that runs the site, said the target is to get another 5,000 volunteers by June of next year.

She revealed that one tactic to increase participation has been to ask university staff to encourage their students to write entries. The scheme has so far proved popular in India, Brazil, Canada, Germany and Britain.

Wales also said that people who look at an entry and approve of it can now send a kind of thank you to the author, he said it was similar to a 'like' on Facebook.

But despite the potential problems, the conference was told that Wikipedia's reputation is far better than it used to be. Although a Wikipedia page turns up at the top of almost any Google search the entries used to be seen as unreliable and biased, while hackers took great delight in defacing entries for their amusement.

That is not the case any more said Gardner. "Making fun of Wikipedia is so 2007," she declared. · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.