Wikipedia’s Growth Stalling?

Yesterday’s Time magazine has an intriguing question: Is Wikipedia a Victim of Its Own Success?

Up until about two years ago, Wikipedians were adding, on average, some 2,200 new articles to the project every day. The English version hit the 2 million — article mark in September 2007 and then the 3 million mark in August 2009 — surpassing the 600-year-old Chinese Yongle Encyclopedia as the largest collection of general knowledge ever compiled (well, at least according to Wikipedia’s entry on itself).

But Wikipedia peaked in March 2007 at about 820,000 contributors; the site hasn’t seen as many editors since.

The article suggests many reasons: ‘natural limit of knowledge expansion,’ bureaucratic processes put in place to prevent defamatory edits, and maybe even an online ecosystem collapse. One reason would resonate with those of us working/interested in women’s rights and international development fields:

Not only is Wikipedia slowing, but also new stats suggest that hard-core participants are a pretty homogeneous set — the opposite of the ecumenical wiki ideal. Women, for instance, make up only 13% of contributors.

the encyclopedia is missing the voices of people in developing countries, women and experts in various specialties that have traditionally been divorced from tech.

Complex Memetics (cc) PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE

Complex Memetics (cc) PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE

I remember a blog post from 2007 (ages ago in internet time) pointing out that Louise Bethune, an architect with a string of firsts (First woman in Western Association of Architects, in American Institute of Architects…), is missing from Wikipedia. I figured it was time to check out Wikipedia’s coverage of women again. Louise Bethune now has an entry.

Make the test harder – how about women from India? Wikipedia (mostly) passed that one also.

Women from Indian history marched through Wikipedia’s pages, leaders (Bhikaiji Cama, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and Rani Gaidinliu), warriors (Kittur Chennamma and Rani Avantibai), rulers (Ahilyabai Holkar and Rani Rashmoni), saints (Meera Bai), and so on. Only one profile was missing, that of freedom fighter and social reformer Rukmini Laxmipathi. Not bad. Actually, quite good in light of the fact that some of these are not very familiar names.

Wikipedia may have successfully covered the entire encyclopedic knowledge in English (though I doubt that very much). But, where it has fallen way behind is in its multi-lingual reach. There are 3 million+ articles and 5 million+ files in English. Other languages don’t fare as well. German, the second largest has 900,000+ articles. Only 7 other languages have 500,000+ articles and 19 have 100,00+. All other languages fall below that mark (from List of Wikipedias as of Sep 29, 2009). Statistics about direct translations of English materials vs original articles in source language are hard to come by. However, we can safely assume that most articles fall in the former category.

Finding an answer to that question may also provide a solution to Wikipedia’s stagnation. There is so much knowledge buried in the thousands of languages around the world, some of which (knowledge and languages) are fast becoming extinct. If Wikipedia can amass the same amount of energy and enthusiasm to accumulate information in all languages, then that can be next frontier of growth.

Update (Oct 30): In an attempt to stay true to Wikipedia’s tradition, I have already added a new article on Rukmini Laxmipathi.

This entry was posted in Asia, Technology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.