Over 1,000 self-proclaimed Wikipedians from 87 countries descended on George Washington University’s campus to an annual meeting on all things Wikipedia. It was as if one of the site’s Talk pages — where people argue over the finer points of online articles — had come to life. Attendees in every presentation shot up their hands in the middle of speeches, eager to add their input.
Yet beyond the enthusiasm of these movers and shakers, the 11-year-old site is facing an identity crisis of sorts.
The community, once a tight-knit set of enthusiasts who wanted nothing more than to write the definitive online encyclopedia, has become less connected as it has grown, contributors say. Wikipedia is also struggling to draw new editors, especially women. And, some leaders worry, the Web site is beginning to show its age.
“It’s time for us to update,” said Jimmy Wales, the site’s founder, said in an interview. “One thing we always want to look at carefully is the tone and the health of the community to make sure we continue to be welcoming and that people aren’t put off when they make their first edit.”
The concern is palpable among some editors at the conference, which wrapped up on Sunday .
“On Wikipedia, it’s more ‘you have to get it right’ instead of ‘it’s okay if you get it wrong,’ ” said Michael Soh, an Arlington resident, adding that he keeps his Wikipedia edits these days to grammar and spelling mistakes. “It’s not as inviting as it once was.”
The bottom-up culture is critical to Wikipedia, which still dominates search results but has remained true to its nonprofit roots. The site runs on donations, and collected $22 million from supporters in its latest drive.
Wikipedia has been losing active editors over the past year, said Sue Gardner, president of the Wikimedia Foundation. Part of the problem may be that Wikipedia is “homely, awkward and hand-crafted,” she said, which has made it difficult to attract new blood who want to add to the site’s collection of at least 4 million entries.
As the site makes a push to draw in more editors, it’s focusing heavily on diversity. It’s evident from a quick scan of Wikimania attendees that most of the editors are young men. Only around 10 percent to 15 percent of Wikipedia’s editors are women, something Wales said hurts the diversity of Wikipedia’s content.
To address some of those issues, Wikipedia has launched easier editing software and partnered with groups such as the Ada Initiative, which works to support women in the open-source technology community. The moves may help Wikipedia’s overall “friendliness,” Gardner said, but she knows changing the editing process won’t solve the site’s problems by itself.
Jay Walsh, the head of communications for the Wikimedia Foundation, said that the community has also added some tools to make it easier for contributors to recognize each other’s work, and to bring them together.
“We hear those users who are claiming things might be a bit cold. Increased communications capacity, better recognition tools, and a focus on civility and functional conversations is part of our roadmap,” he said.
Some of the shift in Wikipedia’s culture could be due to the fact that it is evolving into something more than an online encyclopedia. The site and foundation have become a strange mix of an Internet company, advocacy group and online library, Gardner said.
The site made a splash in January when it led a larger Internet blackout in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act, pulling its English-language content off-line for 24 hours.
The move was copied by the Russian-language version of Wikipedia in protest over an Internet blacklist law. The Wikipedia community there voted 200 to 80 to pull the site down for 24 hours on July 10.
.That got a lot of attention in Russia and around the world. The bill was ultimately approved and only needs the signature of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but Anastasia Lvova, a key organizer in Russia, said she was encouraged by the energy around the protest.
“It happened very fast,” said Lvova, a Wikipedia contributor. “This may help in the future, to have so many people saying they wanted to make changes.”
Yet some Wikipedians don’t want the site to step too far into the advocacy business. In a speech to the crowd on Thursday, Wales said that he doesn’t want the site to ever have to go dark again, but that it “may have to” if Internet freedom is threatened. The site should, however, shy away from using those drastic measures too often.
“I don’t want us to become a site that goes on strike every six months over something,” he told attendees.
Wherever the site goes, Wales said, it will be the product of community discussion.
“We’re a community brought together for a particular mission,” he said at a news conference last week. “One of the things that makes us so successful is that we are a community where ideas are respected and we listen to each other.”