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Is Wikipedia dying?

And should we care?

Today's Times reports that the future of Wikipedia is in doubt as the website haemorrhages volunteers and fails to attract new contributors.

According to new research, the fifth most popular site in the world lost 49,000 volunteers in the first three months of 2009 alone. They included 23,000 of its 100,000 English-language editors.

Felipe Ortege, who carried out the research, warns: "If you don't have enough people to take care of the project it could vanish quickly. We're not in that situation yet. But eventually, if the negative trends follow, we could be in that situation."

The downturn in contributors is largely due to new restrictions placed on editing articles. These are designed to deter vandals from using the site.

It's now likely that Wikipedia will come to resemble something far closer to a conventional encyclopedia, one maintained by an elite band of time-rich editors.

Should it fade away, there are some who won't miss it. The Times piece is accompanied by an extraordinary assault on the site from Oliver Kamm, who denounces it as an "anti-intellectual venture" and accuses it of "vainglorious amateurism".

I share Kamm's concern that the site too often falls prey to the tyranny of consensus, but I struggle to see how a freely available, volunteer-produced encyclopedia can be accused of anti-intellectualism. What's remarkable is not how many articles are inaccurate, but how few.

The truth remains, to paraphrase Voltaire, that if Wikipedia did not exist we would have to invent something like it.

 

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