Wikipedia Is Finally Gearing Up For Video

This week, it almost happened. The servers hosting all of Wikipedia’s media were ready to burst, filled up to the max with almost six million files totaling close to eight terabytes of data. Wikimedia Foundation, the organization behind Wikipedia, was able to install a new server with tons of new space just in time this Tuesday, but Wikimedia’s deputy director Eric Moeller admitted in a blog post: “It’s been a much closer call this time than we would like.”

Part of the reason why Wikimedia has to deal with a huge influx of data is that volunteers are increasingly uploading videos, and content partnerships with museums and archives have brought in hundreds of hours of additional footage. Wikimedia announced two years ago already that it was getting ready to include more of this content into Wikipedia. Little of this has materialized so far, but now it finally seems like video on Wikipedia is actually going to happen soon. So how is the free encyclopedia going to use moving images, and why has this taken so long?

Wikimedia announced a partnership with open source video platform provider Kaltura to get Wikipedia fit for video in early 2008.  However, two years later, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any video clips on the site. I got in touch with both Kaltura and Wikimedia in recent days to figure out what happened. Both partners told me that they’re still very much in the process of making video on Wikipedia happen. It’s just that this process has been taking a little longer.

Much of the delay has to to with a mixture of technical and licensing issues. “We don’t work with proprietary video systems,” explained Wikimedia’s Head of Communications Jay Walsh when I talked to him this week. It was clear early on that Wikimedia wouldn’t use Flash or any other proprietary technology for video, which is why HTML5, with its capability to play video straight in your browser, was the obvious choice. However, the implementation wasn’t just a question of plug-ins, but also of codecs. Wikimedia decided to use the license-free, open source codec Ogg Theora, which didn’t natively play back in most browsers two years ago. In fact, even Firefox only started to support Ogg video playback with version 3.5, which was released last summer.

Wikipedia’s collective structure has been another reason for the delay. The site is ruled by consensus, and its tens of thousands of volunteers need to be on board with any major changes, which is one of the reasons why Wikipedia’s basic look and functionality have remained the same over the years. Walsh assured me that “Wikipedians are thrilled” about the possibilities of including video on their site, but Kaltura VP of Business and Community Development Shay David said that this hasn’t always been the case. “People needed to understand that video is an important aspect of Wikipedia,” he told me, adding: “That needed some time.”

Finally, Wikimedia also needed to figure out how to actually make the transition towards video work. “We are not Flickr, we are not YouTube,” cautioned Walsh. “We need to grow intelligently.” The organization needed to figure out how to encourage collaboration in the video space without becoming a repository for everyone’s vacation videos, and at the same time improve the usability of its video hosting. Part of this has been to come up with new uploading tools that make it easier to submit and tag media. The gathering of meta-data is especially important to make video work across Wikipedia’s various international editions as well as Wikimedia’s other sites. “It needs a lot of information attached to it,” said Walsh.

Kaltura’s video playback and editing tools are another important part of the puzzle. The company has developed an HTML5 video player that can be embedded into third-part websites. It will be substituted with a Java-based player for browsers that don’t support HTML5 yet. Kaltura has also developed encoding and uploading tools as well as a web-based video editing suite that will eventually make it possible for Wikipedia users to edit clips on Wikipedia in very much the same way they now can edit the site’s articles.

Walsh told me that we’ll finally see at least some of this functionality through a wider roll-out of video on Wikipedia within the next three to six months — provided, of course, that Wikimedia’s servers can handle it.