The Wikipedia Blackout started Wednesday as a show of solidarity with Internet companies, such as Reddit, that are protesting the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The blackout should have been a bigger deal than it is.
The Blackout of Wikipedia — one of the most popular destinations on the Internet — had the potential to disrupt ten million U.S. Internet users, according to online research company, ComScore. Wikipedia also encourages millions more from outside the technology and Internet community to find out more about the potential impact of SOPA on free speech and innovation. Yet, coming as it does nearly a month after other leading entities have taken a very public stance against SOPA and days after President Obama indicated that passage of the House bill, SOPA, and its Senate counterpart, the Protect IP Act, would be unlikely. In light of this, Wikipedia’s decision to launch the blackout seems like a case of too little, too late.
At one time, Wikipedia was the poster child for the freewheeling, open-source mentality of the Web. Ten years ago, Wikipedia would have been leading the charge against any legislation, such as SOPA, that was perceived to be anti-Internet. Wikipedia is one of the greatest collective knowledge-gathering experiments in the history of the Internet. Yet, when it came to SOPA, which poses a very real threat to everything that it stands for, Wikipedia blinked. Only when pro-SOPA sentiment became fashionable, with sites such as Tumblr and Reddit leading the way, did Wikipedia join the war on SOPA.
While there has been some hue and cry across the Internet about the potential impact of a Wikipedia Blackout, the response to Wikipedia’s move has been lukewarm at best. In fact, much of the response to the Blackout has not been on how it will impact the war on SOPA — it has focused on how students and other researchers can manage a Wikipedia work-around for 24 hours. When Jimmy Wales announced the Wikipedia Blackout on Twitter, his first concern was for students, not businesses.
Internet companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter — companies that are essential to today’s businesses and society — are not going dark for SOPA. Google posted a link to a note about SOPA on its already sparse home page and the Google Doodle Wednesday was a simple, black censorship bar over the company’s logo, while Twitter and Facebook have not committed to changing much of anything. Facebook, in fact, is using the day to unveil its new Open Graph applications, while Twitter’s Dick Costolo has commented that the Wikipedia Blackout is all a bit of misguided foolishness.
Could it be the case that, after a decade of driving innovation on the Web, Wikipedia is no longer relevant?
Perhaps the first place to look for an answer is Wikipedia itself, which has, in several ways, failed to keep pace with the rapid evolution of the Internet. With all due respect to the site’s ability to capture intelligence and knowledge from the Web on nearly every topic under the sun, the site no longer has the rock-star appeal it had ten years ago. While other sites have been integrating social elements — even simple things such as the Facebook Like button — and updating themselves for the visual Web, Wikipedia still looks like something out of the text-heavy 1990s. The social interaction on Wikipedia, such as it is, actually takes place behind the scenes, out of reach of the social Web.
Wikipedia, unlike Google or Twitter or Facebook, is the product of a nonprofit organization, Wikimedia Foundation, and is largely subject to the whims of volunteer contributors with their own views of what Wikipedia should represent to the world. In other words, if Wikipedia goes dark, it does not have accountability to shareholders or markets. Twitter and Facebook have future IPOs to worry about, Wikipedia does not. The Wikipedia Blackout is a statement, and a noble one at that, but not something that has immediate relevance to many people beyond the tech digerati.
Over the past few years, dissension over the mission of Wikipedia has become public, as some of the project’s most passionate supporters have left for other initiatives, jaded by the realization that most of the important work of Wikipedia has already been done. Most notably, there has been a failure to bring in fresh talent to replenish the ranks of aging Wikipedians. Jimmy Wales acknowledged as much after the most recent Wikipedia Conference. Wikipedia, like any nonprofit initiative, must compete for funding with other important causes and projects, forcing the site to rely essentially on tips and goodwill contributions for survival.
There is a nagging sense that Wikipedia is no longer one of the cool Web kids anymore. This is not to say that it will be easy to replace Wikipedia as the “free encyclopedia” of the Web anytime soon. January 18 is an important date not just for the Web, but also for Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales has said that the response to the Wikipedia Blackout "is going to be wow," that it will "melt phone systems in Washington." That could be the case, or it could be the case that a Wikipedia Blackout has all the force of a Twitter Fail Whale appearing on your screen after a full day of tweeting — a fleeting frustration, an annoyed tweet, and then off to the next Web site.
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