Wikipedia used to be a challenge. "How will we ever finish this thing?" I would wonder to myself while confronting the fact that half of the U.S. presidents didn’t even have articles. "So much to do and so little time …." became my mantra when deciding which to start fuilling out first: history, geography, film, literature, science, biology, religion, art, or some obscure topic that no one ever heard of. With a fondness for mindless calculations, I figured out that Wikipedia would be rather respectable by the time I was 87, if I would quit smoking and live that long.
I don’t think any of us would have guessed that within a few short years—the time it takes to graduate college—we would have over one million articles or half a million images. When we proudly listed every article that made it on the first page of a Google search, there is no way we could have known that we would soon become a household name, a subject of academic research, the rival of the mighty Britannica.
We grew, and we grew fast. We solved the problems, found the content, expanded stubs into feature articles, and transformed Wikipedia into what it is today. We brought in tens of thousands of new editors, along with many millions of readers, and the challenge disappeared.
The question I now ask is "What next?" What do we do now, when we already have the biggest encyclopedia in the history of the world? Sure there is still lots of work to do, like verifying articles or correcting grammar and typos, but the fact is that the real sexy work is done, unless you are a real specialist in some quirky field like microplankton evolution in Antarctica or sixteenth-century Burmese poetry. I can find plenty to do, but none of it has the same appeal as, say, starting an article about Ludwig Beck or Horatio Alger, Jr. (both of which I started).
What do we do with the thousands of volunteers, mulling around, eager to work, but not really knowing where to direct their energy? What can we do to harness the enthusiasm, so that it doesn’t get caught in the muck-holes of RfA, AfD, DRV, or any other of those established acronyms, which by the way, did not even exist when we were building Wikipedia.
The truth is, I don’t know. I, for one, have started focusing on Wikisource, a nice, intimate little project that captures the spirit of the old Wikipedia. Maybe it, and Wikibooks, and Wikiversity are where the real future lies for now. Or maybe we have to set new goals for ourselves—impossible goals, but goals none the less—like half a million feature-quality articles. After all, what this experiment has shown us is that the impossible is achievable. Maybe we need to promote special projects, like fact-checking teams and spelling squads.
The one thing I do know is this: we have reached our first goal of building the most vibrant and exciting encyclopedia the world has ever seen. The new challenge that all of us face is to figure out "What next?"