Wikimedia's small-screen future

Brian Heater
B. Heater|05.03.13

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Wikimedia's small-screen future

The office is silent when our small film crew arrives at Wikimedia's San Francisco headquarters. There's none of the newsroom buzz one might associate with the operators of one of the world's largest sites. Hell, the day I started at AOL, there was a bulldog skateboarding through the halls. There are a few subtle, telltale internet startup signs, like several bottles of liquor hastily packed in a filing box on the lower floor, sitting next to a small CD mixer. While it's Friday afternoon, the company's resident mixologist is out at the moment. The celebration will have to wait.

Just to the right of the party box is Song Yingxing, a conference room named for the Chinese encyclopedist, which has more recently adopted the "Mushroom Kingdom" name, owing to a slew of gaming consoles and peripherals housed inside. It won't stay that way for long, according to Matthew Roth, the foundation's global communications manager, who's kindly devoted much of his afternoon to chaperoning us around the two floors. "No one really plays the games," he says. The hammock, too, is empty for our visit. It would be easy enough to chalk up such good behavior to the presence of a visiting media outlet, but sometimes the simplest answer is the best: Friday afternoon or not, the folks seated at these desks are hard at work.

In the lower of two levels occupied by the foundation, developers have their heads down, rushing to get the soon-to-be-released in-house Wikipedia app out the door. The project has only been on the drawing board since January, and the foundation only hired its first dedicated iOS developer in the past month. The move is the next step in expanding the site's already massive reach to corners of the world that it hasn't quite penetrated, an attempt to help the organization approach its utopian vision of free information for all. On its face, it's a simple photo uploader -- but it's more than that, really. It's a chance to open up Wikipedia editing to an even larger global audience. It's as good a reason as any to be inside on a beautiful mid-April Friday afternoon in Northern California.

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"Wikipedia looks like a simple thing, but in fact there's an enormous and amazing community working behind the scenes figuring out some of the toughest questions about knowledge," explains Director of Communications, Jay Walsh, seated in front of his desk in a particularly quiet and isolated area of the office. His cube mate is a filing cabinet on top of which someone has set up a tiny dinosaur tea party with a collection of plastic toys and miniature cups. It's Walsh's job to tell the outside world about Wikimedia, what the foundation does and how it functions.

"We're really trying to tell the story of Wikipedia and trying to tell the story of the foundation behind it," Walsh says.

In a sense, it's a simple task. Certainly Walsh isn't exaggerating when he tells us, "Everybody knows what Wikipedia is." In the dozen years since its launch, Jimmy Wales' online encyclopedia has risen to a state of near ubiquity, becoming, for better or worse, the go-to resource for information online. It's been a long fight toward credibility for the crowdsourced site, of course, a dialogue that has shifted a good deal over the last several years.

"I've been working here for about five years now, and when I started, most people knew it was in a negative dark space," says Walsh. "It had a different credibility. It's really been an amazing shift. People adore it; they trust it, but they still have some amazing questions about how it works."

The questions regarding the nature of the site, naturally, turn to the volunteers. For all the hard work happening behind the scenes, it's the unpaid editors, numbering in the tens of thousands and spread across the globe, who form the heart and soul of the operation -- anything you're reading on the site almost certainly comes from the keyboards of the great, unpaid masses.

"The editors are central to everything we do," says Walsh. "[They're] central in that we're trying to build projects for them. We want to build projects that help them with their processes. I can't really imagine any person who doesn't have some level of interaction with the volunteers of the project, and that's where our credibility is based."

DNP Going Mobile Wikimedia's small screen future

What drives someone to offer content for free? That's the great question of the internet at the moment, as operators struggle to monetize the content we've become accustomed to receiving for free.

"I think it's a passion for factuality. It's a passion for the correct fact," Walsh explains. "It's truly indicative of an incredible passion [to] figure out the correctness of something, and if they can't, then to figure out the discussion of the correctness of something."

It's also, no doubt, the feeling one derives from being a part of something larger -- a resource utilized the world over by nearly everyone with an open internet connection, from citizens of developing nations to heads of state in the most powerful countries on Earth.

But those expecting the foundation to make that great, elusive leap into profitability that so defines the struggles of startup culture will have to continue to hold their breath. The funding, like the content, comes from users, trickling in primarily in small $10 to $30 donations, solicited every so often on the front page by a doe-eyed Jimmy Wales.

"Can you imagine Wikipedia with ads?" Walsh asks, not waiting for an answer. "Can you imagine reading an article about Yosemite National Park and getting ads on the side for 'Camping at Yosemite National Park'? It affects it. It affects the reader's ability to believe this is truly neutral, and it's the highest-quality source of information. And I've never met a Wikipedian who didn't share that anxiety about a world where that wouldn't happen. So we fiercely protect it from those kind of potential influences. Advertising would just -- it would deeply harm its ability to be neutral."

The decision to eschew standard internet monetization schemes has, in part, allowed the organization to focus its attention elsewhere, including, notably, the developing world. And while Wikipedia is currently available in 275 active languages by its own count, the foundation won't rest until it's impacted the lives of everyone with an internet connection. The key to unlocking that audience rests firmly in the mobile realm. On the lower floor, the mobile team is plugging away on new methods for translating the Wikipedia experience onto a smaller screen.

We sit down with Maryana Pinchuk, an associate product manager at the foundation, in an open room wallpapered with a number of app diagrams.

"Mobile is growing a lot faster than our desktop sites in terms of page views," explains Pinchuk. "We're getting millions and millions of new readers coming in every day. A lot of them are coming in from places that are just coming online and where mobile is the primary source of internet connectivity. So places like Brazil and India, where people use mobile devices to access the internet. And so all these people are coming online just now, and all of them are coming to Wikipedia, and we are seeing tons and tons of new traffic."

While new readers in new territories can certainly be labeled a victory for the foundation, the true holy grail for Wikimedia's relatively young mobile futures division is adapting the ever-important editing process for the small screen, in order to increase the number of voices and geographies that are shaping content for the site.

"We're really excited about potentially using that time and space that people have on mobile to start kind of nudging them towards contributing as well," says Pinchuk. "If you take a look at some of the third-party Wikipedia apps, they're all geared towards nice reading experiences. What we're primarily focused on is making sure people understand that this is a living site. Everything that you see is being created basically in front of you by other human beings, and you too can participate in this process if you so desire."

DNP Going Mobile Wikimedia's small screen future

It's a lot easier said than done, however. Third-party app developers and Wikimedia itself have already offered up reasonably compelling methods for consuming the encyclopedia's content on smartphones, apps that essentially reformat the free encyclopedia's content for the small screen. The foundation is also working on a service to let users with dumbphones order and receive articles via text messages, according to Pinchuk, "You text us a request, and then we text you back the long article in just plain text." But as Wikimedia will likely tell you, even the desktop version of the editor is far from perfect, a clunky thing due to the fairly involved tasks that are required of it in order to not only input and format text, but to also create the ever-important citations that serve as the basis for all of Wikipedia's content.

"Really imagining that on a mobile space was kind of daunting and scary, and for a while, I think we were all just too afraid and too intimidated by the problem," Pinchuk says with a laugh. "So it took up a little bit of courage to start thinking about other ways that people can contribute that don't involve manipulating long-form text or writing out things in a long, long way."

The answer, at least for now, is to start with images. It's a way to, at the very lest, make users without desktop machines play some role in the editorial process, while helping to fill in the gaps for the large number of articles without associated images.

"A lot of these [articles] are things that are very easy to take a photo of using your smartphone camera," Pinchuk adds, "So we've made it fairly simple. With just the push of a button, upload an image from your phone or your gallery and just add it right in to the top of the article. So that's the kind of thing that we want to do more of; kind of taking away the interface aspect of it and making it very, very simple to kind of -- in the moment -- contribute in a serendipitous way to Wikipedia."

Pinchuk gives us a brief demo of a beta version of the app, and it really is as simple as advertised -- click to upload and choose an existing photo from your library or take a new one. Really, if you've ever posted a photo to Twitter or Facebook on your handset, you know the drill here.

DNP Going Mobile Wikimedia's small screen future

It's a good start, and there's certainly a clear appeal in offering such a low barrier of entry for the world of Wikipedia editing, but for the moment, at least, the prospect of a fully mobile editing suite remains elusive for Pinchuk and the rest of the team.

"It's hard to imagine how creating an article would work given the quality of the encyclopedia is pretty high," Pinchuk says. "So you'd have to come at it with a textbook full of references and really, really scholarly writing, and it's hard to see that being an activity someone does on their phone on a bus in the half an hour that they have."

And while the smartphone / tablet space is growing at a much faster rate than the desktop, mobile users only make up around 13 percent of Wikipedia traffic.

"I think our editors will always be desktop people," says Pinchuk. "They need a big, clunky machine to sit down in front of and really get into the editing with a keyboard."

Wikimedia, meanwhile, is working to improve that side, as well, with a new WYSIWYG editor that promises to further lower the bar of entry for desktop editing.

DNP Going Mobile Wikimedia's small screen future

Ultimately, all of these initiatives point toward the same thing: the utopian vision of making Wikimedia's trove of crowdsourced information available to everyone, all the time, through as many avenues as possible.

"We're moving towards an environment where a Wikipedian may also be traveling and may see something amazing that needs to have an article about it," says Walsh. "So we want to support both [desktop and mobile]. It's like supporting 18 different versions of an operating system -- I think we actually do that for a lot of different reasons -- or every browser imaginable because that's where our volunteers are. We want to be there with them."

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Wikimedia's small-screen future