Wikipedia is Not All-In on the Blockchain, Just Yet

The decentralization of finance may significantly impact how Wiki, a donation-funded charity, operates, according to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

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key takeaways

  • Wiki founder Jimmy Wales talked about the future of social media and the impact of blockchain technology at the NFT NYC event
  • Wiki’s business model is fundamentally at odds with most of the internet

NFT NYC — Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has considered several pitches for implementing blockchain technology into the online encyclopedia. The problem? Most ideas are fundamentally at odds with Wiki’s business model. 

“There were a lot of ideas that people have and a lot of them are really bad,” he said during a keynote discussion at the NFT NYC event in Times Square Wednesday. 

It’s a bold statement to make to the self-proclaimed “crypto bull” crowd. The scoffs were audible, but Wales was unphased. 

“One of the first things that pops into your mind with cryptocurrency is smart contracts, maybe we could do something where the contributors to Wikipedia could get paid,” Wales said. “Then people could bid on the best version of the article, and whoever writes the best one will get paid. Superficially, this sounds like a great idea.”

The issue is that what is true is not always the same as what readers are willing to pay for, Wales said. Wiki already faces challenges with contributors that are looking to paint a more positive narrative to benefit a company or interest, and paying writers would only exacerbate the issue. 

Another idea? Using the blockchain to store all of Wiki’s data and make it immutable. 

“Guess what? Immutability actually is really bad,” Wales said. “Sometimes people put stuff into Wikipedia that’s quite vicious, quite horrible. Like a celebrity’s home phone number or revenge porn, that sort of thing needs to go away.”

These examples, Wales said, prove that crypto has not yet been able to serve Wikipedia, but that’s not to say that there will never be applicable use cases. 

“In terms of the fundamentals of Wikipedia, I don’t think crypto is going to affect us, but I do think that depends on the past,” he said. 

The decentralization of finance may significantly impact how Wiki, a donation-funded charity, operates. Right now, the site’s finances are handled in a traditional manner, but if major disruption were to occur, there would have to be a shift, Wales said. 

Wikipedia is also fundamentally different from many of the big players in the digital space today. It is not in the encyclopedia’s best interest to drive engagement the way that social media sites do. 

“Advertising-based social media is largely toxic,” Wales said. “Engagement measured by number of comments means that people who offend people and stir up trouble get the most attention, and so being outrageous is a great way to get a huge following on social media. It’s not really healthy for discourse and dialogue.” 

Creators would also suffer, which Wales pointed out is something the NFT community should keep in mind as it continues to involve artists and makers. 

“What we have today, I would call it in a mild sort of way, is a ‘master-serf’ model for creators,” Wales said. “You go into big platforms and the ‘masters’ run those plantations, and you get a little bit of the percentage of the revenue and so forth, and if they don’t like what you’re doing, you get kicked off.”

Most platforms do not give creators genuine control over their work, but NFTs can potentially start to shift the narrative. Regardless of the use cases, or lack thereof, for Wiki, Wales said he is excited about watching the space grow. 

“For me, that’s one of the most exciting things about the NFT space — this opportunity to move on from that in a real decentralized model for artists and creators,” he said. “I don’t have all the answers, I don’t know how that would work. That’s your job. Let’s figure it out.”

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