Thursday, September 08, 2005

A Swamped Wikipedia?

Reuters reports that Wikipedia is quickly becoming not only the most-used reference site on the Web, it also is becoming the place where people swarm for context on breaking events.

Based on Hitwise information that traffic has grown 154 percent in a year, Reuters says, "At current growth rates, it is set to overtake The New York Times on the Web, the Drudge Report and other news sites."

As a result, the news service says, Wikipedia's volunteer culture of monitoring threatens to become swamped.

"We are growing from a cheerful small town where everyone waves off their front porch to the subway of New York City where everyone rushes by," said Jimmy Wales, the founder of the volunteer encyclopedia. "How do you preserve the culture that has worked so well?"

And in that quote is a lot to think about. First, the fact that people are turning to Wikipedia for context says volumes about what mainstream media needs to do if it is to hold on to its audience. If we are not giving them the context -- or, more important, the avenues to reach that context -- they will go elsewhere. It's not about being a gatekeeper, but a guide.

Second, for all those of us involved in various "citizen journalism" initiatives, it's critical that we give thought to how we preserve that sense of online community. It's clear people seek community and will come to it, but it's also clear it can be easily lost if not nurtured. In many respects, I think that's what these first rounds of Cit-J sites are trying to find -- a way to foster and preserve community. It's why we're agonizing over such small details as the wording in the terms of service as we put together the HartsvilleToday site. One of the things I'm pushing for there is a community Wiki (along with the usual story posting, etc). I'm theorizing that if you tell every civic group, arts organization, etc., that it can have its own Wiki entry, it not only draws people to the site, but eventually blossoms to much more than that -- a true community resource.

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