This weekend, everyone's favorite massively-collaborative online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, will celebrate its 10th anniversary. Wednesday morning, we got on the phone with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner to find out about the site's past and, more importantly, its future.
While the site's meager origins are retold with anecdotes of entries like "Astronomer," which first read "Scientist whose area of Research is Astronomy," we expect a lot more from the online destination that now enjoys in excess of 400 million unique visits every month.
Wales recalls getting the site going with a common tradition among programmers - the "hello world".
"It's hard to imagine that it's been 10 years since I first edited Wikipedia," said Wales. "I remember that first day. I clicked on 'Edit' and I wrote 'Hello World', and that was the beginning of Wikipedia and all the things that have come since then."
Since its humble beginnings, Wikipedia has become a dominant force on the Web. With 17 million articles in 270 languages, Wikipedia has grown to be the fifth most popular website in the world and almost half a billion people visiting it each month. But where will it go next?
My Advice? Diversify
"The most important thing," Wales told us on a press call today, "is the increased diversity in languages." According to Wales, around 30% of Wikipedia articles had been in English and already that number has dropped to 20%. "We're going to see very very large projects in languages where we've never seen such things before," he explained.
To that end, of course, Wikipedia has plans to move from its rather homogenous editor user base (which it staunchly defends as a group of dedicated and loyal users) to one not quite so young and male. It also wants to become more global, says spokesman Jay Walsh.
"We all see a Wikipedia in 10 years where the imbalance of global north/global south representation is equalized. We expect to see avid and active use of Wikipedia in southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and South America," said Walsh.
Beyond user diversity, Walsh explained that Wikipedia hopes to expand in a number of ways.
"We aim for more global chapters, more robust global partnerships with major academic centers, libraries, galleries and museums, and hopefully much more presence in the emerging mobile space, and availability of off-line formats of Wikipedia for those parts of the world where, even in 10 years perhaps, regular internet access is difficult to achieve," he said.
Use It Or Lose It
In terms of usability and how the site looks, Wales said they hope to improve usability to make it much more intuitive, something that should also help to lure in a more diverse set of users and editors.
On the same hand, he said, "we're not going to become Facebook, we're not going to become MySpace or YouTube. The core of what we do is already quite usable."
Walsh agreed that, while social features would become increasingly important, it wouldn't be in the same context as most other sites.
"We do want to explore better social functionality inside of the project, but more so to help editors collaborate - target articles that need attention, meet in real-time on Wikipedia instead of using third party systems like IRC," said Walsh. "Those tools are more about work than general social sharing amongst users - but I anticipate the readers will also see a rise in the availability of tools that let them share knowledge more powerfully amongst their groups - and repurpose for off-line reading."
Overall, usability and interface were definitely on the list of upcoming improvements said Walsh, with a goal of having simpler editing options.
"I think we'll see significant user interface enhancements, though I won't go too far into the crystal ball. Wikipedians like to keep things functional, simple, and very adjustable and configurable," he said. "I anticipate the readers will also see a rise in the availability of tools that let them share knowledge more powerfully amongst their groups - and repurpose for off-line reading."
What do you think? Will we continue to see an ad-free, donation-supported Wikipedia well into 2020, or will it grow too big to support itself this way? Will social voting schemes come to Wikipedia or will it continue to simply be run in long, winding debates in virtual backrooms?