Wikipedia #12 – “Ageing!” or “A German Problem?”

In my last presentation, standing in front of quite an audience, I again asked the question: Who in this room uses Wikipedia? Every finger went up in the air – there was not a single person in the room who does not use it! Wikipedia has grown to be a very important factor. The world can no longer be imagined without Wikipedia.

In Wikipedia, so you would believe, you will find everything. After all, the number of words available in Wikipedia is several times higher than that found in any other encyclopaedia.  Of course, even Wikipedia cannot contain everything. Once in a while, you discover relevant cultural assets that cannot be found in Wikipedia. Basically, it would be our duty as citizens to support the creation of the missing articles.

Wikipedia changes the world. Techniques and terms you cannot find or will only find poorly described will get less and less important. If some innovative concept has not been described in Wikipedia, it will hardly stand a chance of developing into something significant.

Thanks to the democratic structure of Wikipedia, this phenomenon is mostly self-regulative. There is a functioning democratic control mechanism. And, of course, the representatives of all areas of expertise know that their knowledge had better get into Wikipedia if they want to remain relevant. Because technologies and cultures described in Wikipedia, as well as persons and social systems, gain new meaning.

But Wikipedia faces a massive threat!

And the threat is not even a financial one. It is a development particularly well-known in Europe: ageing.

In Germany alone, several hundred thousand persons contribute to Wikipedia on an honorary basis. They are badly needed, too, in order to continue the gigantic work. And the community of all these many people is a gigantic “social knowledge network”! Wikipedia is probably the biggest world-wide social network with a global goal that is explicitly serving the human race – the documentation of human knowledge.

If this community wastes away and disappears, Wikipedia will be on the way down. This would be a huge setback for all of us.

By now, I have met quite a few people who actively contribute to Wikipedia. To be sure, I have never seen any statistics about the average age of “Wikipedians“. But it feels like Wikipedia is ageing. The people I communicate with mostly seem to be older than I. And I am sixty already! To me, it seems like the generation under 60 is sparsely represented in Wikipedia and the generation under 50 not at all. That gives me pause. I would be happy to read, for instance, some statistics or numerous replies telling me I am wrong…

Something should be done about this! Why don’t we, for instance, advertise Wikipedia in our schools?

But what do schools do? They warn the children and adolescents given into their care against Wikipedia. Mind you, the order to give said warning comes from higher above.

So what is actually the duty of our educational and school system?

Our schools should teach our children to treat Wikipedia articles (like everything else) with care and ask sceptical questions. They should motivate young people to correct mistakes therein or at least leave advice on the discussion page. And the teachers should familiarize the students – perhaps in knowledge studies – with the important yet not always easy rules and structures of Wikipedia. Why not describe how, even today, this is a place where democratic processes are already practiced in the internet? What about defining what a discussion page and relevance criteria are? And how Wikipedia is structured? How you can easily find your way by using the glossary?

Even better: schools and places of apprenticeship should actively promote work for Wikipedia!

Taking an active part in an encyclopaedia is probably the very best way to practice learning. You learn to apply a working method that is characterized both by concentration and critical considerations, you have to do prudent research work and balance your results in a responsible way. It is also good practice for formulating precisely what you want to say. Taken together, you get an excellent sense of value for your future, both in your private life and as a citizen or for your future work place.

Unfortunately, the teachers I have met usually know next to nothing about Wikipedia, except the few who work actively in Wikipedia themselves. And this is not only true for the older teacher generation, but regrettably especially for the young ones. It fits with the age structure of teachers, which is similarly problematic to that of Wikipedia.

What will happen if we get no new blood in Wikipedia? If the social network of Wikipedians suffers from drastic loss of participants!

Then we will get a knowledge ruin, serviced by a few high priests. Thinking of a replacement of Wikipedia by a relevant private encyclopaedia is hardly imaginable, not the least reason for which is the enormous amount of human knowledge.

Consequently, the universities and public knowledge organizations must fill the gap. This will, however, not be possible. Both our universities and our educational system get more and more scruffy. Libraries either disappear or must re-define themselves.

Eventually, all our hopes will be on Google and Amazon. Or on the great American billionaire who wants to donate half of his money to charity.
This is not a nice prospect.

(Translated by EG)

On January, 15th, 2001, the wiki of Nupedia was first available under its own address – and therefore this date is considered the birthday of Wikipedia. In other words, Wikipedia will be ten years old next year. Now isn’t that an example for gaining speed and doesn’t it show how fast the internet can be!

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