Wikipedia, which is arguably the most valuable source of information on the Internet, is written and edited almost entirely by volunteers. But what happens when those volunteers stop volunteering?
We’re about to find out. In the first quarter of this year, the Wikipedia lost an incredible 49,000 editors, literally ten times the number lost in the same quarter last year.
Another potential threat to Wikipedia is that its expenses could outpace costs. Currently, the site runs on donations. But if the most die-hard fans are leaving — the writers and editors — they could take their donations with them.
As volunteerism goes down, successful acts of vandalism go up, and the resource becomes increasingly unreliable, which could cause even more people to leave and even fewer people to donate. Crowdsoucing is great — until the crowd goes somewhere else.
Sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but the death of Wikipedia is the least of our problems.
It Has Happened Before
A Web 2.0 site is one that by definition gets its value from the actions of users. But what happens when the best users stop using?
We have a huge precedent: American Democracy. Everybody complains about the power of special interests in politics. But those interests have moved in to fill the vacuum left behind by lower citizen participation. A lower percentage of people engage in politics at all levels than they used to, and even fewer keep themselves informed about political issues. The result is that a smaller percentage of people participate, and the sophistication of those people is lower, too.
That’s what will happen to the Wikipedia if present trends persist. The special interests and the saboteurs will have more power, because they will be controlled, contained and countered by a smaller number of dumber people.
Another example closer to home is what happened to the Digg social bookmarking service. Digg used to be a marvel of useful content. Mostly about tech, the site quickly and reliably surfaced the most important and interesting stories.
But two things wrecked it. First, Digg never fixed glaring flaws, namely the laughably inconsistent categorization of content and the ability of a tiny number of super users to completely dominate the service. Second, Digg introduced social communication, then abandoned it. A great many users invested countless hours and enormous energy building up a social network, only to have all those links erased by Digg. Digg has been experiencing an exodus of its own for the past year.
And look at Digg now. The home page is mostly garbage that falls into one of three categories: 1) sensationalist nonsense (“This is real footage of bears playing hockey, it’s so amazing”), 2) frivolous idiot content (“10 More Drunk Photos You Don’t Want to be Caught in”); and 3) pointless lists (“Top 10 Awesome Movie Ninjas”).
The degradation of Digg is nothing compared to other potential disasters lurking in the cloud.
What Happens When They Die?
We rely on Web 2.0 services like Wikipedia and Digg. But we’ve become dangerously reliant upon some “cloud” and online services. Many of these aren’t profitable, and rely on venture capital. In fact, it’s a near certainty that many of the services we rely on will not survive the next year or two. What happens when they go away?
What happens if they’re wiped out by hack attacks? It happened this year to AVSIM, a popular Microsoft’s Flight Simulator blog and message board site. Hackers destroyed all the user content, plus the backups of user content. Boom! Gone! Just like that.
What if they go out of business? The death of some sites would exact a terrible personal cost on many users. People rely heavily on sites like Evernote and other richly featured user-data sites; Posterous and other blog and lifestreaming sites; online backup sites like Carbonite; photo sites, calendar sites, task and to-do sites. The list goes on and on.
Some sites, such as Jott, reQall, Remember the Milk and others have become memory crutches that people rely on to function every day. If they vanish, a lot of people will be seen wandering around in the streets, forgetting the milk, etc.
Yet another class of web-based services help glue the whole Internet together. Twitter, for example, has triggered an explosion in the popularity of URL shorteners, including TinyURL, Bit.ly and others. People use shortened URLs to link things together. If the companies behind these sites go belly-up, the links vanish. A great many bloggers use photo services to host their pictures. If these crash and burn, the pictures vanish.
If the Great Recession is teaching us anything, it’s that everything can and will change. We need to proceed in our work and in our lives with the understanding that online services evolve and can even become extinct. We should consider every unprofitable startup an endangered species.
Always maintain at least two backups for everything — one online and remote, and one local. That’s old but good advice.
The new advice is be careful about which social networks you invest your time in. Your whole social network could be erased in an instant. And so, too, could URL shorteners, picture hosting sites, blog hosting sites and other services that require the survival of some vulnerable startup in order for your content to function in the future.
As great as the Wikipedia is, we can live without it. But the sites that hold our personal data, that glue the Internet together — we can’t live without those unless we’re prepared.
Optimism is a good quality. But sometimes we should listen to Debbie Downer.