Wikipedia’s shrinking army of writers

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Copy of st Wikipedia logo_COUNTRY_E1 . The Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit organisation that runs the free online encyclopaedia, said on Wednesday that it had received notices from search engines affecting more than 50 links to Wikipedia pages.

London - Wikipedia is an indispensable source of knowledge for many internet users – but few people take part in building the interactive encyclopedia.

It has been 11 years since the project was started, but even greater commitment is needed as the number of active authors is sinking.

The Wikimedia Foundation said in its recent annual report that its “most important strategic task is to reverse this trend” and the non-profit organisation is planning to invest heavily to attain this goal.

Set up by internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia today is practically the global reference work. In May alone, 492 million users called up 18.1 billion pages in Wikimedia projects.

But Wikipedia is losing volunteers, a major factor in its success. The number of authors writing at least five times a month has dropped to about 85 000 worldwide. They have a huge task. About 22.3 million articles in the various Wikipedia versions must be updated, expanded, have pictures added and be protected from vandals – and new articles must be written. The goal is to have 200 000 volunteers by 2015, but it seems far off.

Problem number one: the technology. Whoever wants to add or edit an article cannot just click on a button and type away. The texts are written in a syntax that doesn’t need a computer science degree, but which can scare away many users.

That’s why Wikimedia Foundation is working on a so-called visual editor that makes editing easier. The principle is what you see is what you get. Wikimedia has introduced a prototype, but it could be months before it can be widely used.

Problem number two: a lack of diversity. Only 10 percent of volunteers are women, and southern hemisphere volunteers are under-represented. The foundation wants at least 50 percent of training participants to be women. In some developing and emerging countries, Wikimedia is working with cellphone providers in an initiative called Wikipedia Zero to provide free access for smartphone users.

Problem number three: the internet is becoming more mobile while Wikipedia is more designed to be used on a PC. The mobile website has been reworked and there are smartphone apps. One day, it should be easier to upload photos with mobile devices and manage tasks on the smaller screen.

The foundation is increasing its staff from 119 to 174 this year, with expenses rising from $27.2 million (R222m) to $42.1m. The donations-based project also wants to increase its income by a third to $46.1m. The knowledge of the world cannot be collected for nothing. – Sapa-dpa

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