Early last month, the San Francisco-based non-profit entity that operates Wikipedia.org announced that it was teaming up with the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups to sue the National Security Agency. The suit claimed that the NSA’s mass surveillance program, largely exposed by the 2013 Edward Snowden leaks, violates U.S. constitutional protections. “The NSA is threatening the intellectual freedom that is central to people’s ability to create and understand knowledge,” Lila Tretikov, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, declared at the time.
Even before bringing the lawsuit, Wikipedia had positioned itself at the forefront of a push for the free exchange of information. Tretikov, 37, sits at the helm of the world’s largest source of free knowledge, and the world’s autocrats don’t seem to like it much: Last November, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that it would create an alternative to the site to portray Russia more “objectively and accurately.” In China, hundreds of the site’s 800,000 Chinese language articles are censored. And Iran routinely blocks access to Farsi-language pages on topics like the 1979 Revolution and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
It’s not hard to see why. As the general Internet population has grown—from 500 million in 2001 to nearly 3 billion today—Wikipedia is becoming the platform most responsible for shaping our general knowledge. Fourteen years after its inception, the crowd-sourced encyclopedia is the web’s sixth most-visited site, with about 500 million unique readers a month and 36 million articles, including 4.9 million in English. It is available in 288 languages. And its database allows search engines such as Microsoft’s Bing and personal digital assistants like Google Now to answer common-language queries such as “Who is Putin?” or “How do you make a Moscow Mule?” (Studies of the site’s accuracy over the years have yielded surprisingly good results.)
In many ways, Wikipedia represents the utopian ideals of the early Internet as conceived by the researchers and academics who created it: a vast database of knowledge, available to all humanity, for free, forever. For millennia, encyclopedias have been a hallmark of civilization, from the enormous Four Great Books of Song of 11th-century China to the crowning intellectual achievement of the Enlightenment Era, the humanist Encyclopédie banned by monarchs across Europe. It is the original cloud. Or as Wikimedia’s “vision statement” puts it: “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment.” But as the Web has spread around the globe, becoming an engine of commerce more than an academic or literary paradise, the place of a free website run by a nonprofit and largely curated by a handful of volunteers is far from certain.
Indeed, the future of Wikipedia has increasingly come into doubt over the past few years. Some observers question how long the website can stay relevant. Behemoths like Google and Facebook—the first and second largest websites, respectively—have billions of dollars at their disposal to pursue lofty goals like cataloguing the sum of knowledge or connecting every human being to the Internet. By contrast, Tretikov heads a non-profit with a relatively meager annual budget of $59 million that comes almost entirely from donations. A team of about 215 full-time employees headquartered in San Francisco oversees the work of roughly 85,000 active volunteer editors who seem to have divergent views about almost everything, from proper punctuation to the role that the Foundation should play in the operation of the site. “I do not envy Lila Tretikov’s position,” says William Beutler, a Wikipedia editor since 2006 and author of The Wikipedian, a blog that reports on the goings-on of the website and its army of editors.
Lack of resources is not Wikipedia’s only challenge. It also struggles from demographics that undermine its central mission. The makeup of its editing community is largely white and male. Women comprise an estimated 10% of editors. That has led to critical gaps in coverage about topics ranging from women’s health to the history of Botswana (compared to, say, the history of Montana). Meanwhile, the total number of people regularly making edits has shrunk: active English-language editors have fallen by 35% since 2007, though the figure ticked up slightly last year. Tretikov says the growing numbers of Internet users around the world will provide new editors to help fill subject gaps. But if that doesn’t happen, one of the Web’s greatest institutions could start to crumble.
Tretikov, who describes herself as a “classic geek,” was born in 1978 in Moscow. She grew up in the waning days of the Soviet Union, when free and open information was in short supply. She recalls her father, then a professor at Moscow State, and her mother, a filmmaker, cautioning her not to repeat their kitchen conversations in grade school. Tretikov palpably remembers the liberating effect of the government’s Glasnost policy in the late 1980s, like when her mother burst into tears hearing the previously proscribed music of Vladimir Vysotsky on TV. “I grew up with these ideals of freedom of speech and the sense of how precious and incredibly vulnerable that is,” she says in her accented but fluent English.
Three years after the Soviet Union collapsed, at age 16, she left for the United States by herself to live with an uncle who had fled years earlier. She attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied a subcategory of artificial intelligence. She left in her final months without a degree to join Sun Microsystems in 1999 before eventually becoming a major figure in the open-sourced software movement of the 2000s.
Around the same time, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger co-founded Wikipedia as a side project to Nupedia, an online encyclopedia they planned to fill with peer-reviewed content written by experts. The Wiki version—“wiki” means “quick” in Hawaiian and was an early term used to describe collaborative online content—allowed for anyone, regardless of background, to create a new page or make an edit to existing articles. It took off, and by the end of the year had nearly 20,000 articles in 18 languages. In 2003, Wales, or “Jimbo” as he’s known in the community, created the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation to fund and operate the servers behind Wikipedia while leaving control over content in the hands of the growing editing community. Today, there are roughly 10 edits a second on Wikipedia and sister projects like Wikimedia Commons, a database of free media like photos.
Tretikov, with a mix of technical experience and a track record in the open-source software community, was recruited by Sue Gardner, a former journalist who had overseen the Foundation’s rapid growth since 2007. When she joined the Wikimedia Foundation in May, she found it had ballooned but its technological efforts had been lackluster. And a 2013 attempt to create a new, simplified interface for editing articles had prompted a backlash from members who found it buggy and oversimplified. Ultimately the “upgrade” was reversed by an editor. “It’s definitely a very long thought-about and long-desired shift in the focus of the organization towards product and tech,” says Wales, now a member of the board of trustees that works with the Foundation and helped select Tretikov. “We’re a funny organization because in some ways you can think of us as a cultural institution and a non-profit organization. But at the same time we run this massive website.”
The tensions can sometimes resemble those that roil political parties in transition. It can be an inhospitable place for new editors. A neophyte editor who hits “edit” on an article will be presented with text that looks more like code than prose. If she still manages to make her edit, she then faces the high likelihood that her change will be reverted back by a cadre of veteran editors policing for so-called “vandalism” but also for edits that don’t align with the community’s extensive set of norms.
Finally, if she continues to edit and even participates in discussions, she will often encounter raucous, male-dominated debates. Jerome Hergueux, an affiliate researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who studies collaborative production models like Wikipedia, says that in 2011 only about 2% of the 200,000 accounts created on English Wikipedia each month made more than 10 edits in their first month. Of that 2%, roughly a tenth were still editing the following year. “It’s a social engineering problem,” Hergueux says.
These problems may be symptomatic of Wikipedia’s quasi-public state of being. But new ones have arisen. Search engines that pull content from Wikipedia pages to post with search results highlight Wikipedia’s value, for example, but they also divert users from actually going to Wikipedia. That harms the site because while people consume the information, they’re less likely to become part of the community and start editing. The global shift toward mobile Internet traffic has also made it more difficult to add new edits to the site because potential editors have so far been reluctant to make changes from their phones or tablets.
For now, it’s not clear that the decline in editors has reduced the quality of its content. But observers say Wikipedia could still see a sudden drop off, like when the Italian-language version saw its number of active editors fall by nearly 25% over 10 months in 2013. That’s one scenario. “The other one, which is scarier, is the prospect of a slow, long drawn-out decline that is almost imperceptible,” says Andrew Lih, a professor of journalism at American University and the author of the 2009 book The Wikipedia Revolution. “It’s kind of like the boiling frogs scenario,” he adds.
To fight back, Tretikov is focusing the Foundation’s limited resources on how readers and editors use the site. She prioritized efforts to gather data on what users like and don’t and plans to add some 35 new engineers. The moves have brought the organization more in line with how its private sector peers in Silicon Valley operate. “I’m focusing a lot on our product direction, on our technical capacity to do things, and how we establish what we need to be doing next,” she says. The team has rolled out and updated sleek new iOS and Android apps and streamlined the editing process on mobile. Since last July, a fifth of first-time edits on Wikimedia sites have been on mobile.
Tretikov is also moving to fill in gaps in content. Last month, the Foundation launched the “Inspire Campaign” to elicit proposals for boosting gender diversity, pledging $250,000 to fund some of the ideas. Since she joined, it has expanded its Wikipedia Zero program, which partners with wireless carriers to provide free mobile access to Wikipedia, to an additional 38 countries, including Burma, Ghana and Morocco. Tretikov hopes this will lead to an influx of new, more diverse readers and ultimately editors. The foundation is working on an automatic translation tool to let users to create new articles based on existing pages in other languages
Then there are the legions of editors who are necessary for the site’s continued vitality, but also can be a bane for the Foundation to deal with. In one particularly caustic case in August, she drew the wrath of some editors when her team rolled out the Media Viewer, which displays thumbnail images in larger size without providing full details about the image. Critics of the change, particularly vocal editors of the German Wikipedia, were incensed when the Foundation blocked any editor from turning back the change. “I want victory over the WMF,” said one commentator on German Wikipedia, using the Foundation’s acronym. “I want the WMF to shudder when they remember this case.” The Foundation lifted the restriction on changes, but the Media Viewer is still the default image viewer on Wikipedia.
“It’s not realistic to have everybody always in the boat with you,” Tretikov says. Beutler puts the issue less diplomatically: “The Wikipedia community is full of old timers who are used to getting their way and don’t like things changing, and I think it’s important that the community always be forced to rethink, is Wikipedia everything that it can be right now?”
Tretikov says she is committed to trying to get it there. “Wikipedia was revolutionary because it just changed how an Encyclopedia is created and shared,” she says. “It was fantastic and we’ve done an incredible job. But for the next roughly half of the population, the story is going to be very different.”