Wikipedia struggling with a small-screen future

Sajjad Altaf, an information technology consultant, edited Wikipedia pages on his cellphone in an Ohio hotel room.
Fabrizio Costantini/New York Times
Sajjad Altaf, an information technology consultant, edited Wikipedia pages on his cellphone in an Ohio hotel room.

NEW YORK — Internet behemoths Google and Facebook have proved they can still attract users and advertisers as their traffic shifts from desktops to mobile devices.

But at Wikipedia, the giant online encyclopedia, the transition to a mobile world raises a different existential question: Will people continue to create articles and edit its 9 million existing ones on the small screen of a smartphone or tablet?

“This is definitely something we were pretty worried about in 2013,” said Erik Möller, deputy director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that operates Wikipedia with donations rather than ads. To address this concern, the foundation has formed a team of 10 software developers focused on mobile. In July, for the first time, mobile users could edit and create articles.


The fact that people increasingly access the Internet with a smartphone, and only a smartphone, has disrupted television, books, and news, among other things, and media companies have scrambled to adjust. Wikipedia, the world’s fifth-largest website, but one with a relatively minuscule operating budget, has been especially slow to adapt to a mobile world.

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Only 20 percent of the readership of the English-language Wikipedia comes via mobile devices, a figure substantially lower than the percentage of mobile traffic for other media sites, many of which approach 50 percent. And the shift to mobile editing has lagged even more.

Just 1 percent of changes to Wikipedia articles in all the more than 250 languages are made via mobile devices; for example, since July, there have been 200,000 mobile English-language edits, compared with 20 million total edits.

The concern in the Wikipedia movement and among people who study it is that smartphones and tablets are designed for “consumer behavior” rather than “creative behavior.” In other words, mobile users are much more likely to read a Wikipedia article than improve it.

As a result, the shift to mobile away from desktops could pose long-term problems for Wikipedia, the 13-year-old project to create what the site calls a “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.”


“It’s a big issue for everyone; the mobile phone is not a great input device — especially a smaller phone,” said Judith Donath, author of the coming book “The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online.”

Donath said that while mobile is well suited for a service like Twitter, with its 140-character entries, “it is not the interface for someone writing a long article with footnotes.”

Despite its popularity, there is worry in the Wikipedia community and among people who track it that the pipeline of editors could dry up if new mobile users do not realize that they can edit the articles, or have difficulty doing so. Who will change the Seattle Seahawks’ entry to note their first Super Bowl victory? Who will update the CVS article to record the pharmacy chain’s decision to stop selling tobacco products at its stores?

The Wikipedia page on the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died this month from what appeared to be a drug overdose, highlights the lack of editing on mobile devices. Since Hoffman’s death, his entry has had more than 4 million page views. Of the more than 200 editors who updated its content and made hundreds of changes, only two changes were tagged as coming from a mobile phone or tablet, according to Wikipedia data.

But no one expects Wikipedia to go away, and people have wrongly predicted its demise since it started in 2001.


Möller of the Wikimedia Foundation, which has roughly 200 employees, is optimistic about adjusting to a mobile world. He notes that the transition to mobile will allow Wikipedia to enlist a more diverse editing corps, whether by age, sex, or geographic location.

The trends are promising — in July, only 3,000 mobile users made at least one change to a Wikipedia article; now the number is about 20,000 a month.

Some Internet specialists argue that Wikipedia should adjust to a mobile world by harnessing “microcontributions” like those on Twitter and Facebook. For example, they suggest creating a “like” button similar to Facebook’s that would allow a reader to flag errors in Wikipedia articles, or to suggest those that need to be updated. Quickly adding photographs to a Wikipedia article from an editor with a smartphone is another possibility.

“If it is within two or three clicks, it is happening more automatically,” said Joseph M. Reagle, an assistant professor at Northeastern University and the author of “Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia.” “If it requires more than two or three clicks, it’s not happening so easily.”

One young Wikipedia editor, Nicholas Nuccio, a teenager from Staten Island, N.Y., said he had made thousands of edits to Wikipedia from his iPod — usually about television shows — and was undeterred by the relatively smaller screen or more difficult editing tool.

But Nuccio acknowledges that it is harder to multitask on a mobile device than a computer, and realizes that an effective editing function is Wikipedia’s lifeblood.

“Wikipedia is already more than 10 years old, so the ‘hardest work’ has already been done,” he said.

But, he added, “by definition, an encyclopedia is supposed to contain literally (well, almost) everything. Every day, more ‘everything’ happens, waiting to be documented.”