Saturday, February 17, 2007

What Are Wikipedia's Limitations?

In a previous XODP Blog post, I stated my belief that whatever creative and progressive genius ODP/dMOZ once had has been inherited by Wikipedia. Following up on this belief, I considered the fact that the number of articles on Wikipedia rivals the number of URLs indexed in the ODP database. And while my cursory review of Wikipedia's statistics failed to determine exactly how many outbound links Wikipedia has, I think it's safe to say that the number of outbound links in Wikipedia articles is already much larger than the number of URLs indexed in the ODP database. This prompts me to ask: What are Wikipedia's limitations?

Given the highly decentralized nature of Wikipedia editing practices and the scalability of Wikipedia's open source platform, there are virtually no internal limitations to Wikipedia's potential for growth, whether it be growth in the sheer amount of content, growth in the number of articles, growth in the number of outbound links, or growth in the number of contributors. Rather, Wikipedia has a demonstrated potential for exponential growth, and its practical limitations are found in the potential number of topics to be covered, the amount of outside content to be indexed, and the number of people who are willing to contribute their time and talents to Wikipedia. A derivative limitation is quality control, as Wikipedia's so-called "conflict of interest" policy scares away many subject matter experts.

Of the many growth metrics one can measure, the only one that indicates Wikipedia's growth is slowing down is its prominence on Alexa, where Wikipedia is currently ranked #12. To a certain degree, this is comparing apples and oranges, as none of the sites that are impeding Wikipedia's growth in this way are reference sites. Rather, Wikipedia is now going head to head with established search engines and community portals and is steadily gaining ground; as I have stated previously, there is every reason to believe that Wikipedia can and will make search engines as we know them obsolete because of Wikipedia's focus on disambiguating keyword-based queries.

Although it's impossible to predict when it will happen, the first practical limitation that Wikipedia will encounter will be in its ability to attract additional contributors. A related problem that I alluded to above is quality control based on Wikipedia's inherent bias against subject matter experts. Absent some incredible breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, these limitations will impede Wikipedia's growth long before any inherent limitations in the number of potential Wikipedia topics to be covered. Meanwhile, based on Wikipedia's success at being the purveyor of general knowledge, I think the various expert-based wikis that are currently emerging will find it easier to attract contributors.

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