NEW DELHI, India — With growth slowing in the United States and Europe, Wikipedia has settled on India for the beachhead of its next round of expansion — which will see the seemingly ubiquitous online encyclopedia storm into the developing world for new users, and new contributors, in a host of languages.
The Wikimedia Foundation — which administers the online encyclopedia — is set to open its first foreign office in New Delhi in a matter of months.
The nonprofit has already mushroomed here in its typical guerrilla style. Wikipedia is the fourth most visited website among India's 100 million internet users.
Contributors and editors to Wikipedia are few in number compared with the United States and Europe, but the quantity of entries that they produce can be remarkable. One contributor alone said he had edited more than 14,000 pages and created so many that he's lost count.
That kind of enthusiasm is vital for Wikimedia. By 2015, the foundation aims to increase the monthly visitors to its sites to a billion people from around 400 million today, while boosting the number of articles available online to 50 million from 20 million, according to its latest strategic plan.
But the number of contributors — "the lifeblood of Wikimedia projects" — has plateaued around 100,000 active editors.
India's real promise, therefore, lies in its huge, young population and the rapid growth of internet penetration. Its 100 million internet users will as much as double by 2015, according to some estimates, as web-ready smart phones draw more mobile users online.
And due to a dearth of libraries and the infrequent revisions of government-mandated school textbooks, the demand for Wikipedia promises to be greater here than virtually anywhere in the world.
"Wikimedia is like an alternative market response to the failures of the state in India," said Anirudh Singh Bhati, a member of the executive council for the Wikipedia India chapter. "If a student needs information which is up to date they use mainly Wikipedia to get it."
To tap that potential, Wikimedia is working to promote 40 individual encyclopedia sites in Indian languages like Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, as well as mobilizing volunteers for programs like "Campus Ambassadors," which are designed to turn users into contributors, said Bishaka Datta, a Mumbai-based documentary filmmaker who was recently appointed to Wikimedia's board of directors.
"In India there are thousands of languages, so if you want to reach somebody who's been to school and studied in Malayam entirely, then that person has to be reached in Malayalam," Datta said.
That presents its own challenges. Nagging software issues make it difficult to enter text in Indian languages — none of which use the English alphabet. Discussions about the accuracy and neutrality of the encyclopedia entries must often be conducted in multiple languages.
And even though the non-English sites are vital for expansion, the advance guard of contributors and editors has come mainly from the portion of the population that speaks English (along with another language), so the number of entries on the Indian language sites has not grown as rapidly as it might have.
The Malayalam Wikipedia languished with only around 400 entries for its first three years, for instance, even though it is spoken by some 36 million people — most of whom live in Kerala, a state with an unusually high literacy rate.
India's desperate need for basic research materials, however, has already begun to act as a stimulus to the growth of the editing community, both in English and Indian languages. Last month, a Wikimedia team led by Hisham Mundol — a development sector expert recently hired to drive the expansion of readership and editor base in India — visited the university hub of Pune, Maharashtra to roll out the first Campus Ambassadors program outside the United States.
Academics like Rimi B. Chatterjee, a novelist and historian who teaches at Kolkata's Jadavpur University, are pioneering ways to leverage students' reliance (and over-reliance) on Wikipedia to motivate habitual rote learners to think about their research papers in new ways.
And the government of at least one state, Kerala, has embraced the online encyclopedia as an educational tool that can save it from using vital resources from its meager budget essentially to reinvent the wheel — a move that helped boost the number of entries on the Malayalam Wikipedia from 400 in 2005 to more than 18,000 today.
"I think the potential [for India] is huge," Datta said. "Platforms like Wikipedia can really equalize access. People in the [developing] countries of the Global South have always lacked access to knowledge and institutions. Something like this can really erase that inequality of access."