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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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.