Wikipedia has spent a long time defending itself against more established reference materials, but now the user-generated encyclopedia is having the opposite problem. If enough random people aren’t contributing content to the site, it could lose relevance.

The company is hoping that a new redesign will help encourage people to take an active role creating and editing its content. But will readers notice?

As I wrote last year, Wikipedia needs to get people to contribute more if it wants to survive.

Plenty of people still read Wikipedia, but the site has implemented many rules to make sure content is verified. In the process, it has turned the incentive structure for commenting against occasional editors. As Dr Ed H Chi, a scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center, told The Guardian:

“We found that if you were an elite editor, the chance of your edit being reverted was something in the order of one per cent – and that’s been very consistent over time. For editors that make between two and nine edits a month, the percentage of their edits being reverted had gone from five per cent in 2004 all the way up to about 15 per cent by October 2008. For people who only make an edit once a month, their edits are now being reverted at a 25 per cent rate.”

Wikipedia is aware of the issue. In their new release, the company states:

“When knowledgeable people cannot participate in editing Wikipedia because they find it too confusing or difficult to edit articles, it is a serious problem that undermines the potential quality, breadth and depth of the content that we can offer to you. In other words, even if you don’t contribute content, the easier we can make it for knowledgeable people to join our projects, the more useful our resources become to you.”

To that end, there will be fewer distractions on the site. The new default theme, called Vector, has clearer navigational elements, including a “cheatsheet” to direct readers to commonly used functions and a new editing toolbar that takes some of the guesswork out of changing an entry.

The changes will be implemented by April 5 and are available to browse on Wikipedia’s prototype site. They’re not overwhelming, but Wikipedia says that they will be rolling out  more changes in subsequent months. 

To a certain degree, Wikipedia may just need to step up its marketing efforts to get people more active with its content. An issue with the site that came up during SxSW was eventualism, or the fact that Wikipedia readers assume that someone else will come along to fix an error. 

While readers may get the difference between Wikipedia and a traditional encyclopedia, many use it for the same purpose — to quickly check and gain information. Wikipedia needs to make it easier for people to change items, but in addition, the site could do well to remind people that it needs them to survive.

Image: Wikipedia