“Knowledge philanthropist.” This is how Jack Herrick characterizes people who contribute to Wikipedia. The title is apt.

Herrick was speaking at last week’s equally aptly named international Wikimania. That’s the enthusiastic and passionate annual tribal gathering of people around Wikipedia, let loose this year on Washington DC.

Odds are, whether you’re a big fan or not, you benefit from the Wikipedia, at least sometimes. There are close to 500 million unique users a year.

Odds are, too, that you’ve seen gaps or problematic content in areas where you are knowledgeable. You may well have complained about it to others who share your expertise. But there are only around 80,000 people who go that next step and actually do something about it. I had never been one of them.*

Herrick estimates that these knowledge philanthropists collectively spend about 74 million hours this way every year. But while usage and quantity is increasing, the number of editors - people actually putting finger to keyboard to improve Wikipedia - is declining.

According to the Wikimedia Foundation’s Executive Director, Sue Gardiner, only about 10% of editors are women. And only about 30% of the readers are female (gulp!).

Active and diverse contribution matters a lot, because of the critical nature – and potential - of this resource. Young people grow up with it now. Most junior doctors appear to be using it every week for medical information, and possibly half of all doctors use it at least sometimes.

Recently, evaluations of the quality of pages in cancer, mental health, and otolaryngology concluded that medical accuracy was on a par with medical textbooks (and as hard to read). That’s impressive.

On the other hand, textbooks and encyclopedias are the easiest place to find information - but not necessarily the best. Aiming for a higher standard would be good! The Wikipedia is also weaker in some subject areas than others.

The worst entries can be quite catastrophic – an article has to be truly egregious to be deleted. Those really bad entries are marked “stubs”, and they’re kind of begging for someone to come and do something. To see what this means, go to the WikiProjects page, pick one of the 2,000 topic areas you’ve got expertise in, and find the list of “stubs”.

So the ultimate crowd-sourced web resource needs more “crowd” – especially female, and especially with content expertise. And it needs translators and bi-lingual people to improve translations. There are over 280 language versions, which are relying heavily on translations to grow.

As if that’s not enough, the whole thing has to stay up-to-date – as well as absorb older material when copyright expires, freeing it up for inclusion. Those Wikipedians are basically never going to run out of stuff to do.

Yet according to Herrick, Wikipedia participation peaked in 2007. He thinks the small decline after that is because of the emergence of popular internet activities like Facebook from 2008. “Knowledge philanthropy” took a bit of a hit, as people headed off towards more enticing internet pastures.

Still, the community is thriving – and directing its considerable energy to figuring out how to sustain and build momentum. The whole Wikipedia “thing” is social internet time but with a valuable purpose at its heart. It’s collaborative and communal action, rather than purely individualistic expression. At its best, it’s idealistic, fun and intellectually stimulating. Although as with all community action, there will be some obsession and uncivility to contend with (or better yet, to ignore).

If you wonder whether an article is worth your time, go to the Wikipedia stats tool, enter the title of a Wikipedia page and see how many people are visiting that page. You could be blown away.

Find someone in your network who knows how to edit Wikipedia and get them to show you how to do it. Or go to the Wikipedia Teahouse and be prepared to take some time to learn how to do it. If you’ve had (or heard of) a frustrating experience, don’t let it put you off.

Jimmy Wales said at Wikimania: “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” Quite. It’s up to all of us, isn’t it? At the very least, stepping up to fix some of those places tagged [citation needed] is worth doing. It’s going to require some persistence. But surely knowledge philanthropy is a habit worth forming.

* When Wikimania started, I had never edited Wikipedia content: but I have now.

Image: by the author at Statistically funny