The celebration of Wikipedia's 15th birthday threatens to be overshadowed by debates concerning governance of the various Wikimedia projects and how much of a voice the community will have in the future direction of the Wikimedia movement. These debates also threaten to overshadow another debate we should be having about the future of the community, regarding what lies at the heart of the movement and its community: the encyclopedia itself.
So far our focus has been primarily on growth. This was natural and appropriate for a movement that built the world's most widely used reference work out of nothing. In October, the English Wikipedia reached five million articles, and we loudly celebrated that milestone and every milestone beforehand. Expansion has been the watchword: expanding to five million articles, expanding stubs to complete articles, expanding articles to Featured Article status, expanding the encyclopedia to cover content gaps. We celebrated the people who wrote those articles, showered them with barnstars, and marked their articles with indicators of their quality, as we should have.
Now the community needs to have a conversation about maintaining what it has built. One hesitates to reach for the cliche comparing the growth of an organization to that of a living person, but sometimes the comparison is apt. Wikipedia is reaching adulthood. The growth spurts are subsiding. Instead of focusing on constant expansion, now is the time to turn our attention to maintenance and upkeep.
When we turn our attention to an article or topic, the results are generally positive. Some of Wikipedia's worst mistakes and embarrassments, from the Seigenthaler controversy to Jar'Edo Wens have come from the lack of attention from editors. Hoaxes and defamation can lurk in the encyclopedia because editors did not see a particular article or reacted inadequately, by ignoring it or slapping a tag on it and leaving it for others to deal with.
Assuming good faith is one of our core values, and we justifiably have a lot of faith in the results of crowdsourcing and the abilities of other contributors. That may cause us not to be sufficiently critical when evaluating encyclopedia edits. Countless times editors have challenged obvious vandalism or implausible edits and stopped there, while less obvious vandalism from the same editor goes unchallenged. For example, in the case of a fabricated Thoreau quotation, an obvious hoax was immediately challenged. So the hoaxer quickly provided a fake citation to a real book, without a page number, and this citation went unchallenged and unverified, persisting for six years, even after the hoaxer tried to undo their own hoax.
As the saying goes, we need to trust but verify. We can trust the work of our fellow contributors while verifying their facts and citations and not letting their edits go sufficiently challenged. We need to encourage a culture of verification so when editors see something like the Thoreau hoax or Jar'Edo Wens, they act sufficiently by deleting it or verifying it instead of challenging it once by adding a tag and then forgetting about it. In addition to celebrating the content creators, we need to celebrate the content verifiers, like Mr. Granger, who looked at that Thoreau quote and its citation six years after it was added and would have none of it, and ShelfSkewed, who uncovered a hoax article about an imaginary war by systematically examining citations with invalid ISBNs.
Creating projects and procedures to systematically verify articles and citations is one approach we can take to create a culture of verification. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has its authors update their topics every four years. Perhaps we can systematically revisit articles after a set period of time instead of relying on tagging and forgetting, waiting for hoaxes and other frauds to be accidentally discovered.
One such new program for verification is scheduled to run from January 15 to 23, 2016, in conjunction with Wikipedia's anniversary celebration. The Wikipedia Library has created 1Lib1Ref to encourage librarians to bring their expertise to bear on these issues by having as many of them as possible add a single reference to Wikipedia. Imagine if we could get librarians to do this every year, or Wikipedians to do this every week. It would go a long way to working on our backlog of tagged articles and to encouraging editors to think about these issues as a fundamental part of their work here.