As part of the Wikimedia 2030 strategy process, the Wikimedia Foundation is working with independent research consultants to understand the key trends that will affect the future of free knowledge, and to share this information with the movement.This report was prepared by Dot Connector Studio, a Philadelphia-based media research and strategy firm focused on how emerging platforms can be used for social impact, and Lutman & Associates, a St. Paul-based strategy, planning, and evaluation firm focused on the intersections of culture, media, and philanthropy.
Come 2030, how will people around the world be using communications technology to find, create, and share information? And what will continuing shifts in interfaces and user habits mean for members of the Wikimedia movement who seek to ensure universal access to knowledge?
What platforms are coming in the future?
As people continue to adopt mobile devices and turn away from traditional text and toward creating and sharing video, audio, and visual multimedia content, pressure is growing on technology organizations to evolve.
The technology behind Wikimedia projects has advanced in some important ways, including mobile access to the sites, language translation, and visual editing. But in many other ways, Wikimedia projects have been slower to change than their mainstream counterparts. The number of editors on Wikipedia has declined, though it has recently stabilized. Younger users who already spend many hours on commercial social media platforms are not joining Wikipedia communities in large numbers to demand that Wikimedia projects keep up with their changing technological needs. Based on a once-revolutionary and disruptive concept, Wikipedia and most of its sister projects are now facing challenges familiar to other legacy media institutions: how to adapt to new user habits and expectations and take advantage of emerging technology.
These pressures are only set to increase over the next 15 years as new platforms and content types mature—especially in regions where awareness of Wikipedia and related projects is high. But how to decide where to focus? The sheer volume of claims about new information technologies is daunting, and analyses range from the near-term, to the far-term, to the patently speculative.
The Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies provides one convenient snapshot of a wide range of technologies currently being developed and discussed by technology and business leaders—and how viable they currently seem:
While there is no shortage of predictions, certainty is hard to come by. Surveying key sources that project communications technology futures, there seems to be broad agreement around areas of platform and device innovation that are most likely to affect the way that people connect, learn, and stay current.
Near term: What’s next for mobile access?
The adoption and penetration of mobile devices is well on its way around the world. According to Deloitte’s Global Mobile Consumer Trends report, 78% of the global consumers surveyed for this report—across 49,500 respondents in 31 countries that represent close to 70% of the world’s population—now have smartphones. On average, these global consumers check their smartphones around 40 times per day. First thing every day, these users are most likely to check text messages or instant messages rather than checking the news or searching the web.
Increasingly, “the internet is mobile, and mobile is the internet,” notes the Global Mobile Trends report from GSMA Intelligence. “For an entire generation, the internet is now inextricably linked with mobile and vice versa.” India and China lead the list of countries with projected new mobile subscribers by 2020—the report suggests that more than 1 billion additional people will use mobile phones by 2020 compared to 2015. “Barring perhaps radio, it is the most prevalent technology on earth,” reaching an estimated 65 percent of the global population by the end of 2016, accompanied by an increase in higher-speed connections. In markets such as the United Kingdom, smartphone penetration is “nearly saturated.” But access to the web via mobile remains low–under 40 percent–in much of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Of the world’s 7.3 billion people, only 3.4 billion use the mobile internet, GSMA Intelligence estimates.
Interestingly, one of the barriers to adoption that this report cites is a lack of local content. “In trying to connect the unconnected to the internet, content has for many years been the forgotten ingredient, with efforts prioritised in expanding coverage and lowering the cost of ownership. These are, of course, fundamental, but so too is the question: is the internet relevant for me?” For the Wikimedia movement, this means there’s still time to catch up, by focusing on developing mobile solutions and new partnerships that can reach and engage mobile contributors and users in countries still coming online—building on the existing strength of maintaining both a local and global presence. Note the position that Wikipedia occupies in this infographic from GSMA Intelligence.
While understanding mobile penetration by country is important, one additional important factor to consider is the role that mobile devices are playing among displaced populations. An analysis by the Pew Research Center of the digital footprints of migrants in 2015 and 2016 demonstrates the central role that smartphones played in helping these users access maps, travel advice, government forms, resources about their country of arrival, and more. Such research can help to illuminate new use cases for Wikimedia projects.
Emerging platforms and content types
Meanwhile a separate study from the Pew Research Center suggests that while those in “emerging economies” play catch-up, “people in advanced economies still use the internet more and own more high-tech gadgets”—especially those who are younger and more economically advantaged.
A look at two reports on technology innovation and usage by Mary Meeker and Amy Webb lay out the most likely new content types and platforms to mature between now and 2030—several of which, not incidentally, use mobile devices as a base for attracting users and shifting media consumption behaviors.
Each of these has the potential to serve as competition for the attention and time of Wikimedia project users, as content or topics for Wikimedia projects, as potential opportunities for distributing Wikimedia projects’ content, or as vehicles for spreading the ethos of open editing and sharing of content.
Natural language processing will continue to improve, which will in turn improve voice-driven applications and platforms. Both desktop and mobile devices are being retooled to accept audio commands, as is one of the most commonly used home devices—the TV remote. This is also a key factor when it comes to phone use in cars, as well as proprietary systems being installed in new vehicles. Voice is beginning to replace typing, a trend that has real implications in the short term for if and how Wikipedia editors might add citations and make changes. Voice-driven search and media consumption are on the rise with AI-enabled personal assistants like Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant, Siri, etc.
The current purpose-built audio devices such as Amazon’s Echo already re-use Wikimedia content frequently, and have the potential to evolve into even more interactive and personable 3D avatars, which could become our daily companions for news, entertainment, and company. Driven by a mix of AI and our own media/consumer choices, these will be able to deliver ever-more-personalized results. Another possibility, long predicted in science fiction, is the rise of human-like (or animal-like) robot companions and collaborators. Children raised to interact with such artificial companions would most likely seek out, interact with and produce knowledge in very different ways from those raised with print, Web 1.0, or even today’s mobile and interactive interfaces.
Voice-based platforms are only one way in which AI will change interfaces for obtaining and sharing information over the next 15 years. Currently, chat and conversational interfaces are popular, especially on mobile devices, and automated “bots” can provide guidance, education, news or even serve a therapeutic role. Increasingly, chat and instant messaging have been moving away from text and towards visual, the expressive, and the ephemeral, and bots are being programmed to use these same modes of communication in order to seem more natural.
Innovations in AI can also change the way that knowledge is gathered, assembled, and synthesized. It can inform adaptive learning, which adapts training or coursework based on a user’s progress. The way that we encounter and input information may shift—from text-based or keyboard-based to camera-based or microphone-based. These capture devices might communicate directly with other devices without human intermediation. Ever-more sophisticated sensors are being developed to gather data in environments unfit for human habitation—too far away, hot, cold, toxic or tiny for us to reach. This new data in turn will lead to new modes of understanding that require massive computing power to achieve.We may find that human crowdsourcing of knowledge and information—the heart and soul of the Wikimedia movement—was only one step along the way to computer-assisted analysis. Editors’ roles might morph to setting the rules and checking the creation of knowledge by automated systems rather than original writing and research.
So far, consumer adoption of these devices is tepid, but continues. Gaming —most popular among younger generations but increasingly gaining older users—seems to be a strong driver for adoption of immersive technologies.
One barrier to wider adoption of VR is the fragmented nature of the marketplace—content must be tailored to a variety of proprietary systems, and the pace of innovation makes it difficult for both consumers and content creators to keep up. “The highly fragmented VR market today will eventually narrow as the market grows and matures,” predicts BI Intelligence, a research service associated with Business Insider, an international site reporting on tech and business news. In a late-2016 report, they project the relative growth of sales for headsets associated with smartphones, PCs and game consoles through 2022.
Like bot-driven interfaces, VR experiences have the potential to change users’ expectations about how, why and where to seek out news, information and entertainment, and how they will interact once they do.
Currently, immersive experiences emphasize visual, audio, and tactile communication modes, and are interactive rather than participatory. Even short-form text interrupts the illusion of presence that these media projects seek to foster—the longer-form text that Wikipedia in particular relies upon is more difficult to translate into such environments. For the most part, VR and 360 experiences are also closed rather than open, although the advent of social VR opens up new possibilities for collaborative knowledge production and learning. Recasting current Wikimedia projects to be functional and appealing in these environments—or creating new Wikimedia platforms that are native to them—will be a difficult challenge.And yet, in the same way that the Wikimedia Commons currently houses freely reusable images, sounds and videos, it is possible that these developments could host a coming flood of open source immersive content. Relatively inexpensive 360 cameras are already available to consumers, and Flickr for example currently has a collection of nearly 7,000 360 photos tagged with a Creative Commons license. The Open Source Virtual Reality project is working to make both hardware and software more accessible. By collaborating with other movements and organizations seeking to democratize these technologies, the Wikimedia movement could find new relevance and reach.
Visual forms of augmented reality (AR)—which superimposes computer-generated images on users’ view of the world through devices such as mobile phones, tablets, eyewear or projections—have already proven to be popular. Both the viral sensation of Pokemon Go and the runaway popularity of Snapchat filters that allow users to virtually don various props and masks have served as proofs-of-concept that AR has the potential for widespread popularity. These technologies could also transform education, vocational training, healthcare, real estate, retail, military, and other realms.
AR applications and devices could help support Wikimedia’s mission—serving up relevant definitions and location information when users point their phones at an object or landmark. Museums and theme parks are both already using such technology today.
While mobile screens or lenses are needed to access AR, other types of screens are becoming more ubiquitous and durable, potentially making it easier to access information on the go. Kiosks, smart signs, and wall-mounted interactive displays are all current innovations that will continue to evolve to provide more user-specific and context-specific information—reducing the relevance of search, where Wikipedia results still dominate.
Equally, smart “things” might serve to provide contextual information, communicating with our mobile devices to provide just-in-time insights and consumer recommendations—even without prompting. Some retailers are already using this type of technology via mobile apps to ping customers with coupons and recommendations based on their buying history.
“What makes ambient design so tantalizing is that it should require us to make fewer and fewer decisions in the future,” notes the Future Today Institute’s 2017 Tech Trend Report. “Think of it as a sort of autocomplete for intention. Our mobile devices and many of the wearables coming to market will be listening and observing in the background and will offer up either text, audio or haptic notifications as needed, and those will be decided by algorithm.”Such “push” notifications contrast with the “pull” logic of search and reference that shapes the Wikimedia projects. The growth in the marketplace of wearables for kids again suggests that by 2030 the rising generation may interact with both their own bodies and the world around them in vastly different ways.
In the United States, traditional offline media formats including live TV, radio, DVRs and game consoles still dominate users’ daily time—although, as is often the case, habits differ by generation, with younger users gravitating to mobile:
After decades of digital disruption, we are learning that often older communications technologies do not vanish. Instead they linger and sometimes become more targeted to adjust to shifting consumer habits.
A response to the “always on” lifestyle, along with concerns about privacy, may continue to re-route users back to analog and earlier communications technologies. These impulses may also drive the growth of hybrid platforms or “enchanted objects” that combine beauty, tradition and tailored use with new fabrication capabilities such as 3D printing and do-it-yourself microchip manufacturing.The Wikimedia Foundation’s New Readers team has already been exploring possible formats for offline access to Wikipedia, including mobile PDFs, digital classroom systems, solar-powered terminals, pre-loaded apps and more. Artists such as Wikimedian Michael Mandiberg have also experimented with print versions of Wikipedia, but due to the volume of text this project proved cost prohibitive. However, this does not preclude the possibility that better-curated data sets could be distributed via more aesthetically pleasing analog forms.
Things to keep in mind
All of these technology predictions and many others like them are provocative, and provide useful context for the Wikimedia movement as it works to develop a strategy for the next 15 years. At the same time, they have real limitations.
As the Hype Cycle above suggests, such predictions can be overblown or just plain wrong. Consulting or industry firms seeking to prove their value to customers or to stimulate investment in particular markets might be much more bullish on the prospects for certain technologies than is warranted. The focus on gadgets, platforms and products downplays the importance of how users might creatively adapt both old and new technology to serve public good based on their own needs and constraints. Many of these experts are based in the U.S. or Europe, and are focused mainly on the habits of consumers with disposable income. What’s more, the entire tech prediction industry tends to be more optimistic about the positive outcomes associated with innovation, rather than considering negative consequences.
Among many, those negative consequences include:
- Embedded bias: As AI continues to shape news and knowledge, algorithms might encode deeply held prejudices.
- Loss of a shared public space: The continued fragmentation of media platforms and content could further deepen polarization and drive people ever more deeply into only consuming information that matches their own preferences.
- Overload: As new forms of media continue to colonize every available moment of our days—as well as the spaces where we live, work and play—people might become less able to critically process new information and more prone to avoid it.
- Digital divide: The gap between information haves and have-nots may further widen as fiber to the home and 5G wireless become more commonplace in developed markets, and corporations prioritize associated content.
- The loss of the open web: New devices for VR, AR and personal assistants may accelerate the creation of paid and proprietary content and platforms, and shift users away from an expectation of content creation and back into the role of passive consumers.
- Digital frailty: Archivists, educators and historians may find it more and more difficult to maintain and access these many different types of knowledge and content.
All of these concerns—plus a lack of capacity to do everything all at once—suggest that the Wikimedia movement should proceed cautiously in both adapting existing projects for delivery on new platforms, and in deciding to develop projects for new platforms. But while the movement might not take the stance of an early adopter as described in Everett M. Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations, it seems clear that being what Rogers terms a “laggard” is not an option.
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Questions for the Wikimedia movement to consider:
- Given that Wikipedia is the most-used of all of the Wikimedia projects, and mobile seems to be the way that new users will access the site, how will mobile access to existing content and editing capabilities continue to be improved?
- How much time and energy should be put into maintaining and updating each of the other Wikimedia projects for mobile and other emerging platforms?
- How can these projects be retooled for a future in which content is increasingly visual, audio, or immersive?
- How can Wikimedia find ways to ensure that users can identify and trust its content when it is delivered in new ways and on new platforms, particularly in the face of rising concern about increasingly sophisticated misinformation campaigns?
- Could combining the projects somehow make it easier to weather continual disruption?
- Which new platforms and technologies seem most promising for expanding access to knowledge?
- How can a continual culture of research and development be built into the movement, so that new approaches and platforms are regularly being evaluated and tested?
- What is the balance between distributing content via new partnerships and platforms vs. ensuring participatory knowledge creation?
- How can the Wikimedia movement help to articulate the value of a shared digital public sphere, while simultaneously affirming the importance of local knowledge, languages and contributors?
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