When the disruptors become the disrupted

At what point will Wikipedia no longer matter? I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I predict a competitor will emerge to steal the majority of both mindshare and eyeballs from Wikipedia within the next ten years.

No, I’m not saying this because they don’t have a sustainable business model, and no, it’s not because the information on Wikipedia is not credible. Rather, they, like the encyclopedias they helped put out of business, will be upended by a company with better ways of aggregating information. They too will become irrelevant.

This may seem rather ironic to predict the demise of the world’s best known crowd sourced encyclopedia at the same time most people are finally recognizing the value and utility of its content. Yet it is their overarching pursuit of perfection and internal drive for credibility that will be their undoing over the coming years.

At the DaVinci Institute, with the help of our CU student intern David Baur-Ray, we began a series of Wikipedia research projects to uncover “what’s missing,” and the results are very telling. Two of the tests showed well over 50% of important content entries either missing or incomplete, and by another measure, over 95% missing.

Missing content is in direct correlation to the relevancy Wikipedia will hold in the minds of people in the future. It is also a clear signal to startup entrepreneurs that a new opportunity awaits. Here’s how I came to this conclusion.

Wikipedia Goes Main Stream

Started in 2001 by Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia is now in its 10th year of operation with the number of articles in its 10 primary language versions approaching 10 million entries. They represent the 4th largest web property on the Internet attracting 150 million unique visitors a month.

Recent headlines would seem to indicate the exact opposite trend to what I am predicting. Here are a few recent ones:

  • BBC – “Hundreds of Medical GPs admit to using the website Wikipedia as a medical research tool”
  • Washington Post – “National Archives hires 1st ‘Wikipedian in Residence’ to connect with Internet encyclopedia”
  • New York Times – “Worthy Online Resource, but Global Cultural Treasure?”
  • Times of India – “Wikipedia seeks UNESCO recognition”
  • Chronicle of Higher Education – “Academics, in New Move, Begin to Work With Wikipedia‎”

With doctors, educators and the UN staffers listing themselves as avid users, it’s as if the world has finally woken up to the inherent value of Wikipedia as a solid source of information.

But perhaps the most telling sign that the end is near comes from the last one. When the perennial late-adopters in academia start to recognize its importance, it’s a clear sign that Wikipedia has lost its ability to continue as a disruptive enterprise.

In the constantly changing tombs of Wikipedia, now boasting over 1 billion individual edits to the entries, the question we were confronted with was, “How can we apply relevancy metrics to this type of business model?”

So we devised a series of unique tests to see how well Wikipedia is able to keep up with the times. Here is what we found.

DaVinci Institute – Test #1

We began with the question – “Who is the most famous person in the world who is not listed in Wikipedia.”

Naturally there are many ways to rate fame, but we decided to look at the most avid Twitter users on and listed the top 400 ranked according to their number of followers.

Using this as our criteria, the most famous person not listed in Wikipedia is Noah Everett (@noaheverett), founder of Twit Pic, ranked number 66 on Twitaholic with 2,448,297 followers on Twitter. (NOTE: Since these rankings and numbers are constantly changing, this was a one-day snapshot.)

Out of the top 400 people on Twitaholic, 18 were left out completely and another 9 only had brief mentions. This means 6.5% of the entries were missing.

DaVinci Institute – Test #2

As another measure of important people with missing entries, we made a list of the last 200 people who appeared as speakers at TEDx events around the world. This was a random selection that included of all the people in sequential events until we reached 200. This group is important because people chosen to speak at these events have achieved sufficient notoriety to warrant their selection by an event committee.

The results showed that 41% of the entries were missing, 15% were incomplete, and 44% had full entries.

DaVinci Institute – Test #3

As a 3rd test, we checked the list of Fast Company Magazine’s “100 Most Creative People in Business” to see if they had entries in Wikipedia. Once again this was an important list because the people selected have achieved a certain level of significance in the minds of editors at Fast Company Magazine.

The results showed that 54% of the entries were missing, 13% were incomplete, and 33% had full entries.

DaVinci Institute – Test #4

The fourth test was a simple comparison we did with LinkedIn and Facebook. Wikipedia is now nearing 10 million entries and we are estimating less than half are entries for people, so less than 5 million. By comparison, LinkedIn has over 100 million entries for its members, and Facebook is now closing in on 700 million members. (NOTE: We were not able to find a reliable source for the number of “people entries” in Wikipedia)

Using this rough estimate, entries in Wikipedia represent less than 0.07% of the world’s population, less than 0.7% of Facebook’s members, and less than 5% of LinkedIn’s base. This means that only a relatively small percentage are worthy of being listed on Wikipedia.

Gatekeepers Alive and Well at Wikipedia

Early on people were very skeptical of whether they could trust the information they read on Wikipedia. Educators and editors on every level harbored a strong distrust of information that anyone could post.

For this reason Wikipedia set out to become credible and they implemented a number of procedures to add rigor and validation to every entry. They removed any entries that seemed frivolous or self-serving, and in doing so, they created an invisible league of gatekeepers, not unlike what you’d find at top newspapers, to determine the worthiness of every post.

During the early years, volunteers who found writing and editing for Wikipedia to be the worthy cause missing from their life showed up in droves. But once too many rules and restrictions came into play, the fun had vanished and it started feeling like work again.

According to a 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal, “More than 49,000 editors left Wikipedia’s English-language edition during the first three months of 2009, compared with only 4,900 for the same quarter a year earlier.”

The article went on describe how arguments over various articles have also taken their toll. “Many people are getting burnt out when they have to debate about the contents of certain articles again and again,” and “the rules often trip up new contributors who find their content removed without understanding why.”

Wikipedia by the Numbers

According to comScore Media Metrix for the month of April 2011, Wikipedia served up slightly over 2 billion pageviews to 149 million unique visitors, and each stayed on average of 11.8 minutes per visit.

In terms of content, Wikipedia worldwide has a combined total of more than 1.74 billion words in 9.25 million articles in approximately 250 languages. That said, growth is beginning to decline.

According to Wikipedia’s own statistics, growth has been slowing since 2006.

As growth continues to slow, it becomes easy to see a point where content begins to stagnate and the company as a whole begins to lose relevance. This will be especially true if and when a viable startup model emerges and begins to steal mindshare from its current user base.

Additional Observations

Entries in Wikipedia are still very U.S. oriented. While they boast articles in 250 different languages, the majority are still in English. And with 6,500 known languages in the world, the 250 current languages still leaves vast populations, regions, and cultures untapped.

However, that wasn’t the only omission.

As our researcher David Bauer-Ray worked his way through the lists he commented, “It seemed like I could always find an entertainer (e.g. musician, filmmaker, actor, singer, author, or artist) but it was less consistent to find an entrepreneur, founder, CEO, or educator. This concerns me because it suggests the priorities of Wikipedia are rather backwards when assessing pragmatic importance to society.”

Another trend in the lists was the number of Brazilian personalities that Wikipedia doesn’t recognize. As we were able to glean for other comments, they haven’t done a good job of establishing themselves in South America.

What Comes Next

If everyone had their own page on Wikipedia, would it become more relevant or less?

Like so many of the king-maker information sources of the past, Wikipedia has decided on a rather high bar for entry. With legions of invisible editors poised as gatekeepers in the background, getting a new post published today is little different than getting an article in the New York Times or Washington Post.

A business model with these kinds of restrictions works well for premium products or exclusive clubs charging top dollar for admission. But it seems like a confusing strategy for a free information site with no tangible benefit to be gained from “culling the herd.”

We live in a world full of information objects that can theoretically be written about. The competitor that replaces Wikipedia will likely have a far more expansive offering in the form of a fully unrestricted encyclopedia.

Using a more expansive view of the information world, the ultimate encyclopedia may include:

  • Every person on earth, either living or dead
  • Every business in the world including founders, history, products, and other details
  • Every house, building, and piece of land complete with description and photos
  • Every movie, film, book, and song could have a separate listing
  • Every comic book superhero, every cartoon character, along with every character in a movie, book, or legend
  • Every law in every country including rules, ordinances, regulations, policy, and other guidelines.

The posting of this information will naturally have to be contingent upon the consent of the individual or owner of the content. Undoubtedly new rules will come into play as conflicts arise.

My sense is that Wikipedia is run as a very sparsely staffed organization managing legions of undisciplined volunteers. They have finally gotten a handle on running the operation they currently have, but expanding it exponentially to include everything described above is not something that they could even consider.

For this reason I deem it highly likely that a competitor will emerge over the coming years to steal their market.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything


14 Responses to “When Wikipedia No Longer Matters”

Comments List

  1. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Imelda McGrattan</a>

    Very interesting and very true. We are all now through the utilization of technology little pieces of integral information in a great big puzzle complimenting each other and yet not knowing entirely how or why ......
  2. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Spherical Phil</a>

    Tom, Interesting premise well thought out and presented as always. You make a good case. I find that have been sitting here for nearly 5 minutes looking at your six bullet points about what the ultimate encyclopedia would include. The list both fascinates and terrifies me. Spherical, Phil
  3. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Gary Lundquist</a>

    Tom, You fascinate me. So many times you are on target. This isn't one. Your research only shows the complexity of delivering quality information on astronomic ranges of topics and languages. The alternative you offer is chaos. >> Oh, and the people you mention. I wouldn't post their resume on Wikipedia. We have FaceBook for that and it delivers. Six Hundred Million people and businesses. >> Wikipedia has its niche in durable knowledge base. Personalities belong elsewhere. Best, Gary
    • admin

      Gary, Good comments, but I disagree. Factual listings and the activities associated with those listings are two separate items. They don't need to be included on the same site. Wikipedia already has hundreds of thousands of people listed on the site. It more a mater of who gets to decide on who's worthy for what you describe as "durable information." Thanks, Tom
  4. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Scott Ewing</a>

    "Missing content is in direct correlation to the relevancy Wikipedia will hold in the minds of people in the future." Well put.
  5. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Daryl Oster</a>

    Good observations. To me, the glaring flaw of Wikipedia is that the rules eliminate the top experts in new fields from making significant contributions to Wiki pages about the fields they have created. Wikipeida chooses to be ignorant of the main source of a new field in favor of secondary references to that source. Only secondary main stream sources are deemed credible. This flaw guarantees that the information on Wikipedia will not be as accurate, relevant, or up to date as it could be if it included a weighting for peer review (not main stream review) in the process. Simplification of the rules, and a rating system for the relevant expertise of the reviewers could result in a big improvement, and encourage top experts to participate in the representation of the fields they know the most about. The "% growth per month" graph trend lines do not appear accurate to me. the growth is declining, but not at the increasing rate indicated by the crash lines. In fact it appears to me that the rate of decline is decreasing (linear would be better, but laying in a power function with a long tail appears to me to fit even better.
  6. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Daryl Oster</a>

    append my comment: -- especially since the vertical axis is presented on a log scale --
  7. Ergon

    My children's high school teachers no longer accept Wikipedia references for their projects. Newspaper editors also watch out for obvious cut and paste jobs from Wikipedia. Quite a few pages have been taken over activist partisans who conduct editing wars in the background. In the end, it reflects the age old battle between quality and quantity. In a debate between the editor of Britannica and Jimmy Wales, it was said that "Wikipedia is to Brittanica as American Idol is to Julliard" I look forward to the next model.
  8. MarcP

    I agree with T. Frey that Wikipedia has it's issues. On a topic I am expert on, only non-American and poorer quality sources are used. An American author who writes on that topic beyond what anyone else has done (in my opinion), goes un-mentioned. To read the squabbling and petty bickering in the wiki-comments is to not want to participate as some of these bickerers are the assigned overseers of that topic. Seeing this particular topic become so intentionally controlled and limited reveals the rest of Wikipedia's level of quality, or lack there-of. I hope you'll all respect my choice to leave the topic out of this comment. Observing contributors who evidently have no personal experience with the topic discussing and choosing which contents may or may not be important for inclusion from the referenced source materials destroys Wikipedia's credibility for me. Still, I use WP often as a starting point for sciences, trivial topics, grammar, some history and definitions. I've also seen the beginnings of industry propaganda and the inclusion of ninny-science insinuate it's way into some topics. It's not a good trend.
  9. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Peter J</a>

    I completely agree with Mr. Frey. Having a powerful and unique new financial technology that I've trademarked and that I have attempted to write about on W-Pedia in the most factual, non-sales-y manner possible (multiple times) and getting it deleted every time, I find the reasoning of their editing policies incomprehensible. And frustrating. But they're not completely useless...yet. Tests #3 and #4 are vital information that a lot of people (like me) want to not only have available, but be a part of.
    • admin

      Peter, You are voicing the same complaint I've heard dozens of times. They apparently have some sort of test to determine the underlying motivations of the person who posts the information. If there is even a hint that the post is self-serving, it gets deleted. If you post something about yourself or your company, it gets deleted. If you post something about a new concept or business idea, it gets deleted. Everything new gets the third degree regardless of the competence or expertise of the person doing the posting. As wikipedia stands today, their delete key is far more active than their accept key. This is just the opposite of where it started, so most of those who were the original volunteers who built the company have now left. It's no longer a fun place to work, and it is no longer meaningful work. Something new will emerge. Tom
  10. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Rachel Berry</a>

    Fascinating article. Everything you've said about Wikipedia's procedural flaws rings true. However, I find it hard to believe that a serious competitor will emerge. Wikipedia is simply too dominant in the free information business. And the reason English/US entries dominate is that English is the most widely spoken language in the uncensored world. It's hard to see true competition to Wikipedia emerging from another culture. There's also the "Amazon effect" at work - Wikipedia is so massive that exceeding its size/depth would take enormous resources. I think it's more likely that a 'wiki-revolution' will occur and Wikipedia's administration will change their approach to improve on their weaknesses. No management team worth its salt ignores the departure of a huge part of their workforce, whether its volunteer or paid.
  11. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Zero</a>

    I find it interesting that you put an allowance of 10 years that someone will steal wikipedia's market. The probability always adds up if you add more years. There are a lot of wiki sites out there besides wikipedia. I'm a doctor and I too check the content and the references for each article. I use wikipedia as a summary/shortcut to medical articles since most of my books are too thick it can kill a person. I found most of the reference links are irrelevant, not credible and some are actually dead links. I report them, I add comments of my own, I join the wiki community in improving the site. Its the wiki experience that is important. If there was or is going to be a competitor to wiki's market it is already online TODAY. The answer to your problem as to when Wikipedia will not matter is the time when it ceases to exist. Free sites like Wikipedia are under attack from US legislations already. When Wikipedia's funding is frozen and she gets sued from all fronts or when people starts seeing advertisements on the site or when wikipedia's noble cause is damaged one way or the other, that's the only time you'll see it falter. Wikipedia's competitor will emerge and it will probably won't be as good. As for now, I'm just glad that google search results shows wikipedia articles first on their search listings.
  12. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Sekar Vedaraman</a>

    We are living in a world where it is increasingly possible for a person to create content (Information, Audio and Video content) and upload the same thanks to Social Networking Site. I suspect a time will come fairly soo in the internet of things when people will have to incentiviize visitors to their sites with tangible rewards for the visit. Under such a scenario if Wikipedia cannot provide such tangible benefits for the visitor with useful and accurate information, there is a good chance that it will be replaced by something else which can.

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