Since its January 2001 inception by Dr. Larry Sanger (with some software and server help from Jimmy Wales), Wikipedia has grown from just a handful of crowdsourced encyclopedia articles to over 4.3 million articles in the English-language version alone. Hundreds of millions of Internet users have visited Wikipedia, despite critics arguing that you simply cannot trust the information found there.
Whatever your perspective on Wikipedia, there’s one recurring theme that you’ll hear about the biggest reference site on the web — that it’s always improving.
Or is it?
Let’s take a look at the five biggest failed opportunities for Wikipedia to improve — policies or upgrades that should have been implemented, but weren’t. Click to “view the photos”, which will take you through the list of failures.
Credential Verification (The Essjay scandal)
In March 2007, it became widely known to the public that Wikipedia had an administrator and Arbitration Committee member going by the name “Essjay”, who had been lying all along about his academic credentials. Essjay told fellow Wikipedians and even told a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist that he was a graduate school professor, with doctorates in Theology and Canon Law. In reality, Essjay was Ryan Jordan, a man in his early 20’s who hadn’t even finished community college.
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales initially held fast behind Essjay; after all, Wales had hired Jordan to work at his for-profit commercial spin-off of Wikipedia, a company called Wikia, Inc. When it became clear that Jordan had been lying for years to the Wikipedia community, Wales’ reaction was to snootily say, “I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it.”
Then the media and the Wikipedia community made it clear to Wales that Jordan’s persona of deceit really was a problem. So, Wales announced that he would think about vetting all persons who adjudicate on factual disputes, and he proposed a system whereby editors who claim certain credentials could have them verified. That is, Wikipedia readers could trust that if someone said they were an expert in a field, they had proved it.
But, like so many other good ideas that would help make Wikipedia better, the community slammed the door shut on a credential verification system.
Flagged Revisions (the John Seigenthaler incident)
In May 2005, an anonymous Wikipedia editor authored a hoax about well-known journalist John Seigenthaler, falsely saying that he had been a suspect in the assassinations of U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
While years would go by, with countless other libelous falsehoods passing through Wikipedia’s leaky, human-powered content filters, Jimmy Wales would finally emphatically call upon his creation, the Wikimedia Foundation, to deploy a “flagged revisions” software tool, which by one estimate would have cut down on at least 90% of falsehoods appearing in Wikipedia.
But the Wikipedia “community” raised enough of a stink in opposition to the improvement, that the idea was tabled indefinitely. This has left Wikipedia in a constant, openly vulnerable state, where vandalism and libel continues unfettered.
Advertising could pay for Wikipedia
Every year, the Wikimedia Foundation takes over Wikipedia for about a month, slapping up annoying banner advertising that begs every reader to stop what they are doing and donate money to the Foundation. The intrusive and deliberately gaudy ads seem an odd way to treat what co-founder Jimmy Wales has called a “temple of the mind”. The Foundation doesn’t seem to know how to spend the donations, either — for years, less than half of the funds given by donors were spent on the actual program services that support the charitable mission of the Wikimedia Foundation.
Internet entrepreneur Jason Calacanis had a compelling idea. If Wikipedia would just post one advertising leaderboard on its site, Calacanis estimated that it could raise $100 million per year. That would not only be far more than enough to operate Wikipedia and its Wikimedia Foundation, but it would leave tens of millions of dollars left over to fund truly charitable social and educational programs.
But Jimmy Wales rejected the simple and easily-implemented idea of helping mankind with commercially-raised contributions. And Jason Calacanis probably figured out why. “Jimbo is doing a highly profitable, advertising-based Wiki project for personal gain while pitching that Wikipedia not have advertising. Hmmmm…. perhaps Jimbo doesn’t want advertising on the Wikipedia because he knows that his for-profit Wikia would suffer if it did,” surmised Calacanis.
Optional porn filter
Wikipedia and its sister project for photographs, Wikimedia Commons, have a problem. The problem is pornography, and heaps of it. The issue wouldn’t be quite so stark, if Wikipedia were pitched as an “adults-only” learning resource. But it’s not. Children are not only encouraged to use Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons, there have been instances where children have been welcomed to manage and curate the pornographic content of the site!
Conservative media such as Fox News have repeatedly embarrassed Wikipedia and Wales over the porn problem. But even liberal and progressive activists have agreed that it would be awfully nice if the Wikimedia Foundation would at least offer an optional filter that would screen out potentially objectionable material — just for the readers who would prefer to switch on that filter. The Foundation board of directors agreed, and they voted unanimously to ask director Sue Gardner to implement a personal image hiding feature.
But Gardner couldn’t get done what Google and Bing and Flickr seem to have little trouble doing, so the board of trustees chickened out and unanimously voted to undo what they had unanimously voted to do a year earlier. Talk about conviction to principles — every man and woman on that Foundation board voted together in 2012 to say the opposite of what they all said in 2011.
Visual Editor (a software disaster)
Anyone who has ever attempted to edit Wikipedia knows that the wikitext markup language is not the easiest interface to work with. In fact, the Wikimedia Foundation postulates that a general decline in active editors since 2007 has been in part because of the difficult source-code editing platform.
So, the Foundation spent millions of dollars hiring developers, renting office space (after a suspiciously-handled bid) from board member Jimmy Wales’ private company Wikia, and rolling out a new WYSIWYG system for editing, called VisualEditor.
The only problem? VisualEditor didn’t work to resolve the most urgent needs of editors frustrated with wikitext mark-up: the creation of tables, adding and adjusting illustrations, and creating reference citations. In fact, VisualEditor not only didn’t accommodate these functions well, it actually broke other aspects of Wikipedia content inadvertently. It was a classic case of one step forward, two steps back.
And so the Wikipedia community revolted against the Wikimedia Foundation software developer team, and after a technology stand-off, the Wikimedia Foundation blinked first and reluctantly mothballed the VisualEditor.
And so, another failure of Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation coincidentally finds WMF executive director Sue Gardner departing the organization.