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What Would Happen If Wikipedia Died?

Anyone whos ever been to has probably seen their message in bright yellow across the top: "We are the small non-profit that runs the #5 website in the world. We have only 150 staff but serve 450 million users, and have costs like any other top site: servers, power, rent, programs, staff and legal help. Wikipedia is something special. It is like a library or a public park. It is like a temple for the mind. It is a place we can all go to think and learn. To protect our independence, we'll never run ads. We take no government funds. We run on donations averaging about $30. If everyone reading this gave the price of a cup of coffee, our fundraiser would be done within an hour. If Wikipedia is useful to you, take one minute to keep it online another year by making a tax-deductible donation. Please help us forget fundraising and get back to Wikipedia. Thank you."

I for one don’t believe for a second that if Wikipedia shut down tomorrow, anything in the world would be much different than it was yesterday. That’s just my opinion though. I got some insightful input from a few different people who have spent time editing Wikipedia, as well as  respected academics working in the ‘real’ world of academic institutions.

The boring but truthful answer is that we'd just get along with other sources. I suspect a few clones would probably pop up here and there. Britannica and World Book would see an upsurge in web traffic and paid subscriptions. A lot of us would talk about the "early days of the Internet" when information was free like Wikipedia.

The question to ask yourself, despite the amazing convenience of Wikipedia, is how much of the content you seek is only available at Wikipedia? Almost nothing on Wikipedia is exclusive content. The ability to change content with relatively little vetting of facts, has always been off-putting to academics. Jonathan Lyons, Lyons Digital Media

Additionally, another company formed by Jimmy Wales, Wikia, announced the news of its raise of over $10.8 million in Series C funding  led by Institutional Venture Partners with a follow on from existing investors Bessemer Ventures Partners and [SEC filing here.] It would seem the viable market for UGC from a non profit standpoint isn’t the only thing Jimmy Wales concerns himself with.

If the company - Wikimedia Foundation - goes away, it doesn't mean Wikipedia is no more. It means Wikipedia is dead, just as any old encyclopedia sitting on the shelf is dead, growing ever more out of date with every day that passes. The existing files will still be readable, as they've been distributed to a multitude of other sites that mirror the content, and will still be there to give the world access to knowledge, but the value of that knowledge will fade, due both to lack of new information and due to the reference footnotes being linked to other online sources which may disappear. Others would have the right to alter and expand the information in these various repositories, but lacking the central organization and the momentum of editorial involvement that Wikipedia has, it seems unlikely that they will do as good a job of keeping on top of things. I suspect it would be a long time before we would see a centralized effort that achieves the scale that Wikipedia has. Nat Gertler, experienced Wikipedia editor,

And let’s not forget all the SEO’s in the world who continually try and edit Wiki pages for the benefit of themselves or their clients to take advantage of the huge amount of search results pages Wikipedia hogs up everywhere in Google. Will Marlow, freelance SEO, says: “If Wikipedia disappeared tomorrow, it would turn the world of search engine optimization on its head. Right now, there are 4.1 million articles in the English language, and most of them rank first on Google for the terms they
include. This means that Wikipedia gobbles up more SEO value than just about any website. If it were to disappear, you would have companies scrambling to fill the void on Google.”

For another point of view, there are a couple 100 people in the world who make a living editing Wikipedia in some form or another. David King, of EthicalWiki, has this to say: “I work for an independent consultancy helping companies improve their own Wikipedia pages ethically. There are also jobs helping museums and libraries improve Wikipedia and in some countries the foundation hires editors to make sure health articles are accurate. A lot of us are pretty excited at the prospect of creating a real job market writing content for Wikipedia in various roles. Wikipedia vanishing would be a quick way to crush our dreams.”

Margaret Miller, Web Editor, The Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation, uses Wikipedia regularly as a teacher as well as contributing to the editing of content there. She says: Even teachers, like me, who know that the information is provided by "editors at large" (of which I am one) and is fact checked by volunteers, rely on Wikipedia as a general resource. Without it, we would be back to the printed page which, while lovely in its own right, cannot be updated at a moment's notice, is not as portable as a mobile device, and could not possibly include the amount of information available on Wikipedia.”

And finally, a study conducted by SGI  and professor Kalev Leetaru from U of Illinois, which included an analysis of the full text contents of the English-language edition of Wikipedia. The result was a historical mapping over the past two centuries, showing sentiment and geo location. This application of Wikipedia shows how important the encyclopedia is as a tool not only to historically track events and global movements, but also to reflect the feelings and attitudes toward these, through content written by the people. Without Wikipedia, the global voices of everyday people could not be archived in one of the most extensive history records that we have.

What are your feelings and opinions? Are you going to donate? Do you edit Wikipedia? Do you rely on Wikipedia?

Join The Conversation

  • jonbarilone's picture
    Dec 5 Posted 4 years ago jonbarilone

    I've heard it said that "Wikipedia is a great place to start, but a horrible place to end" when it comes to research and fact-checking. Wikipedia is, like you've mentioned, a curation of available knowledge. We'd be able to get along without it, but it would likely take us more time/energy to locate reliable material.

    People knock Wikipedia for not being 100% accurate, but the editable nature of the content is--in my opinion--a strength, considering the large majority of editors are genuinely helping improve accuracy. Wikipedia editors have a very strong, dedicated community that is largely unseen.

    I think you're right that mirror or clone sites would take up the burden, considering Wikipedia's Creative Commons license on all its text content. On a related note, did you know that you can download all of the content on Wikipedia?

  • Dec 5 Posted 4 years ago Jillian Cadet

    Hi Adam, Thanks for your post. I really couldn't imagine the world without Wikipedia. Traditional encyclopedias only give you basic information. I did not find them very useful in the past. How else would students do reports? Do you mean they would actually have to go to the library and take out those things called books? I'm joking here. But Wikipedia has definitely changed the world of online research. I don't see Wiki going away anytime soon. I envision the day when Wikipedia replaces textbooks.

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