Oct. 29, 2012 at 8:39 PM ET
The suggestion that Wikipedia may be as complete as it's ever going to be caused a stir over the weekend. But can a community-edited encyclopedia ever really be "done"?
An in-depth article by historian and Wikipedia editor Richard Jensen describes how the Wikipedia entry for the War of 1812 exemplifies the approaching completeness of the online encyclopedia. Posts at The Atlantic and Slashdot attracted significant discussion.
In the early days of that war's Wikipedia entry, it was being edited dozens of times a day by a dedicated group of history buffs. Now hardly anything has changed in years. And it's not just the War of 1812 that's fallen off in activity. The overall edit rate on thousands of articles has slowed to a trickle as the major events, people, and concepts in history are covered more or less comprehensively.
As Jensen points out, there are a finite number of things about which one can write:
After an encyclopedia reaches 100,000 articles, the pool of good material shrinks. By the time one million articles are written, it must tax ingenuity to think of something new. Wikipedia passed the four million article mark in summer 2012.
Certainly there is still much to be done: Localization of articles to other languages, for instance. And there will likely continue to be "edit wars" on controversial articles like political figures and current events. But it appears that the goal of providing a respectable reference for the topics most likely to be needed by students and curious visitors has been met.
What's next, then? The Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia and associated sites, seems to be focusing on usability and new features for the site, which has not changed much in years. Users' increasing reliance on mobile devices means portability is important; hence the new ability to export articles as e-books. The foundation is also looking at extending what Wikipedia is used for by hosting textbooks, courses, and other secondary resources.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.