A conversation with Ryan Merkley

by Rachel Harding 2020/07/29

In July, the CONP hosted its next Open Science in the Age of COVID-19 webinar joined by Ryan Merkley as a guest speaker. Merkley is currently the Chief of Staff at Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), the US-based non-profit which aims to develop and maintain open content and wiki-based projects and also to provide the full contents of those projects to the public free of charge. Merkley has previously worked in various roles in municipal politics, before joining Mozilla as Chief Operating Officer and then Creative Commons as Chief Executive Officer, before taking his current role at Wikimedia. 

Since the end of 2019, one of the key challenges for Wiki has been the infodemic associated with the novel coronavirus pandemic, as well as misinformation spread about the virus. One of Merkley’s responsibilities at WMF is the disinformation file, a topic he also studies as an affiliate at the Berkman Centre at Harvard. Merkley noted that many of us would remember the words of caution our teachers and professors used to give us about using Wikipedia as a source, but now, it has become one of the most trusted websites on the web. “I think that all credit to that goes to the communities who have put rigorous practice, policies and structures in place” said Merkley when discussing this turnaround, also citing the massive level of collaboration and contribution that happens online in order to monitor and respond to these issues. 

The response by Wiki communities around the world to the COVID-19 crisis has been huge. At the time of the webinar, there were 5200+ Wikipedia articles about the pandemic, in 175 different languages. These articles had been viewed over 400 million times, resulting in some of the highest traffic in the recorded history of Wikipedia. With more than 700 million visits to Wikipedia per day, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted a global dependency on the site for trusted information about COVID and beyond. Merkley noted that some of these critical COVID-19 Wikipedia articles have been edited over 768,000 times with an average of 163 edits per hour since December with approximately 67,500 editors contributing to those articles. Organised through Wiki Project COVID-19, the editors work collaboratively to figure out how to prioritise where they should focus their energy and to track issues and responses. “One of the things that is very radical about Wikipedia is that everything is editable and everything is open” says Merkley, “and so not only can you look at this page, but you can go behind this page, and see the discussion that relates to all the emerging and urgent issues that relate to that page”. This allows anyone to follow the page history about who made what edits as well as the discussion about those revisions. There are now also separate articles in 33 languages that cover misinformation relating to the pandemic. 

Coordinating this mammoth response is surely challenging. “There’s a saying that we all really like at Wikipedia, which is that it doesn’t work in theory, but it works in practice” says Merkley. He notes that there’s not just one Wikipedia but in fact over 300 Wikipedia’s organised by their various communities – confirmed by Slobodan Jakoski, one of the co-founders of Macedonian Wikipedia, who joined the webinar! Every single Wiki community self-organises and leads themselves with an underpinning of an international network of support. “But really, it’s individuals and collections of individuals who self organise to come together” says Merkley, “It’s become, I think, probably the most successful collaborative project in human history”. 

So is Wikipedia inherently more resilient to disinformation than other publication or social media platforms? Merkley thinks that if a platform allows user-generated content and the model is built around that content, it is likely going to be susceptible to disinformation, Wiki sites included. “The Wikimedia communities have been in the business of fighting disinformation for 20 years, it’s what they do for a living” commented Merkley. The model of Wikipedia has been for so-called Wikimedians to work to find knowledge that is of use to communities and then share it accurately with appropriate citations and sources. Although Merkley acknowledged that bad actors will probably succeed in getting disinformation onto the platform, Wiki’s communities are able to rapidly respond collectively and revert erroneous edits, and the version history provides accountability for the edits made to pages. The requirement for citations to original sources allows readers to further judge the credibility of the content, another feature which Merkley credits Wiki for providing accurate and reliable information on its encyclopaedia of topics, including the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Although there are huge numbers of editors, the majority of the work to maintain and update Wikipedia has historically been done by a very small percentage of super-editors. “One of the things that the foundation really does work on is driving new editor growth” said Merkley. “If you’ve edited Wikipedia, that experience can be a bit bumpy. Most people’s first experience of editing is making a change and then having it be reverted by a robot”. The team at WMF are working really hard to change that experience, in part through updates and developments of the Wiki mobile app, to boost the numbers of return editors by improving the experience. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Wikipedia will remain a staple information source for millions of people on the latest science, politics and public health information connected to the disease, as well as pretty much anything else. The pandemic is an illustration of just how powerful an open and collaborative tool like Wikipedia can be in collecting and providing information on any and all topics. The fight against mis- and dis-information will continue to be a challenge, but collaboration seems to be a very promising step forward. Find out more about how you can contribute towards Wiki projects here