In response, the Wikimedia Foundation, the 187-person nonprofit that pays for the legal and technical infrastructure supporting Wikipedia, is staging a kind of rescue mission. The foundation can’t order the volunteer community to change the way it operates. But by tweaking Wikipedia’s website and software, it hopes to steer the encyclopedia onto a more sustainable path.

The foundation’s campaign will bring the first major changes in years to a site that is a time capsule from the Web’s earlier, clunkier days, far removed from the easy-to-use social and commercial sites that dominate today. “Everything that Wikipedia is was utterly appropriate in 2001 and it’s become increasingly out of date since,” says Sue Gardner, executive director of the foundation, which is housed on two drab floors of a downtown San Francisco building with a faulty elevator. “This is very much our attempt to get caught up.” She and Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, say the project needs to attract a new crowd to make progress. “The biggest issue is editor diversity,” says Wales. He hopes to “grow the number of editors in topics that need work.”

Whether that can happen depends on whether enough people still believe in the notion of online collaboration for the greater good—the ideal that propelled Wikipedia in the beginning. But the attempt is crucial; Wikipedia matters to many more people than its editors and students who didn’t make time to read their assigned books. More of us than ever use the information found there, both directly and via other services. Meanwhile, Wikipedia has either killed off the alternatives or pushed them down the Google search results. …