Volunteers Log Off As Wikipedia Ages
By JULIA ANGWIN and GEOFFREY A. FOWLER
Wall St. Journal
Wikipedia.org is the fifth-most-popular Web site in the world, with roughly 325 million monthly visitors. But unprecedented numbers of the millions of online volunteers who write, edit and police it are quitting.
That could have significant implications for the brand of democratization that Wikipedia helped to unleash over the Internet -- the empowerment of the amateur.
Volunteers have been departing the project that bills itself as "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit" faster than new ones have been joining, and the net losses have accelerated over the past year. In the first three months of 2009, the English-language Wikipedia suffered a net loss of more than 49,000 editors, compared to a net loss of 4,900 during the same period a year earlier, according to Spanish researcher Felipe Ortega, who analyzed Wikipedia's data on the editing histories of its more than three million active contributors in 10 languages.
Eight years after Wikipedia began with a goal to provide everyone in the world free access to "the sum of all human knowledge," the declines in participation have raised questions about the encyclopedia's ability to continue expanding its breadth and improving its accuracy. Errors and deliberate insertions of false information by vandals have undermined its reliability.
Executives at the Wikimedia Foundation, which finances and oversees the nonprofit venture, acknowledge the declines, but believe they can continue to build a useful encyclopedia with a smaller pool of contributors. "We need sufficient people to do the work that needs to be done," says Sue Gardner, executive director of the foundation. "But the purpose of the project is not participation."
Indeed, Wikipedia remains enormously popular among users, with the number of Web visitors growing 20% in the 12 months ending in September, according to comScore Media Metrix.
Wikipedia contributors have been debating widely what is behind the declines in volunteers. One factor is that many topics already have been written about. Another is the plethora of rules Wikipedia has adopted to bring order to its unruly universe -- particularly to reduce infighting among contributors about write-ups of controversial subjects and polarizing figures.
"Wikipedia is becoming a more hostile environment," contends Mr. Ortega, a project manager at Libresoft, a research group at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid. "Many people are getting burnt out when they have to debate about the contents of certain articles again and again."
Wikipedia's struggles raise questions about the evolution of "crowdsourcing," one of the Internet era's most cherished principles. Crowdsourcing posits that there is wisdom in aggregating independent contributions from multitudes of Web users. It has been promoted as a new and better way for large numbers of individuals to collaborate on tasks, without the rules and hierarchies of traditional organizations.
But as it matures, Wikipedia, one of the world's largest crowdsourcing initiatives, is becoming less freewheeling and more like the organizations it set out to replace. Today, its rules are spelled out across hundreds of Web pages. Increasingly, newcomers who try to edit are informed that they have unwittingly broken a rule -- and find their edits deleted, according to a study by researchers at Xerox Corp.
"People generally have this idea that the wisdom of crowds is a pixie dust that you sprinkle on a system and magical things happen," says Aniket Kittur, an assistant professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied Wikipedia and other large online community projects. "Yet the more people you throw at a problem, the more difficulty you are going to have with coordinating those people. It's too many cooks in the kitchen."
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who is chairman emeritus of the foundation, acknowledges participation has been declining. But he says it still isn't clear to him what the "right" number of volunteer "Wikipedians" should be. "If people think Wikipedia is done," he says, meaning that with three million articles it is hard to find new things to write about, "that's substantial. But if the community has become more hostile to newbies, that's a correctable problem."
Mr. Wales says his top priority is to improve the accuracy of Wikipedia's articles. He's pushing a new feature that would require top editors to approve all edits before they are displayed on the site. The idea is to prevent the kind of vandalism that in January declared Sen. Edward Kennedy's death months before his actual passing.
Mr. Wales, a onetime options trader in Chicago, founded Wikipedia in 2001 amid frustration that his effort to create an online encyclopedia was hampered by the slow pace of copy-editing and getting feedback from experts. He saw Wikipedia as a side project -- a radical experiment with software that allows multiple people to edit the same Web page. The term "wiki" comes from the Hawaiian word for fast.
The collaborative software fostered a unique form of online governance. One of Wikipedia's principles is that decisions should be made by consensus-building. One of the few unbreakable rules is that articles must be written from a neutral point of view. Another is that anyone should be able to edit most articles. One policy serves as a coda: "Ignore all rules."
The Wikimedia Foundation employs a staff of 34, mostly in San Francisco, to run the site's computers, guide its planning and serve as its public face. In its fiscal year ended in June, it reported expenses of $5.6 million. It funds its operations mostly through donations. Earlier this month, it launched a campaign to raise $7.5 million from users.
Wikipedia's popularity has strained its consensus-building culture to the breaking point. Wikipedia is now a constant target for vandals who spray virtual graffiti throughout the site -- everything from political views presented as facts to jokes about their friends -- and spammers who try to insert marketing messages into articles.
In 2005, journalist John Seigenthaler Sr. wrote about his own Wikipedia write-up, which unjustly accused him of murder. The resulting bad press was a wake-up call. Wikipedians began getting more aggressive about patrolling for vandals and blocking suspicious edits, according to Andrew Lih, a professor at the University of Southern California and a regular Wikipedia contributor.
That helped transform the site into a more hierarchical society where volunteers had to negotiate a thicket of new rules. Wikipedia rolled out new antivandalism features, including "semiprotection," which prevents newcomers from editing certain controversial articles.
"It was easier when I joined in 2004," says Kat Walsh, a longtime contributor who serves on Wikimedia's board of trustees. "Everything was a little less complicated.... It's harder and harder for new people to adjust."
In 2008, Wikipedia's editors deleted one in four contributions from infrequent contributors, up sharply from one in 10 in 2005, according to data compiled by social-computing researcher Ed Chi of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center.
Nina Paley, a New York cartoonist who calls herself an "information radical," had no luck when she tried to post her syndicated comic strips from the '90s. She does not copyright their artwork but instead makes money on ancillary products and services, making her perfect for Wikipedia's free-content culture.
It took her a few days to decipher Wikipedia's software."I figured out how to do it with this really weird, ugly code," she says. "I went to bed feeling so proud of myself, and I woke up and found it had been deleted because it was 'out of scope.'"
A Wikipedia editor had decided that Ms. Paley's comics didn't meet the criteria for educational art. Another editor weighed in with questions about whether she had copyright permission for the photo of herself that she uploaded. She did.
Ultimately, it was decided that Ms. Paley's comics were suitable for the site. Samuel Klein, a veteran Wikipedian who serves on the board of trustees, intervened and restored her contributions. Mr. Klein says experiences like Ms. Paley's happen too often. Mr. Klein says that the Wikipedia community needs to rein in so-called deletionists -- editors who shoot first and ask questions later.
The Wikimedia Foundation says it is seeking to increase participation, but that growing the overall number of participants isn't its main focus.
"The early days were a gold rush," says Ms. Gardner, the foundation's executive director. "They attracted lots and lots of people, because a new person could write about anything." The encyclopedia isn't finished, she says, but the "easy work" of contributing is done.
To attract new recruits to help with the remaining work, Ms. Gardner has hired an outreach team, held seminars to train editors in overlooked categories, and launched task forces to seek ways to increase participation in markets such as India. The foundation also invested $890,000 in a new design for the site, slated to go live in the next few months, that aims to make editing easier for contributors who aren't computer-savvy.
She says increasing contributor diversity is her top goal. A survey the foundation conducted last year determined that the average age of an editor is 26.8 years, and that 87% of them are men.
Much of the task of making Wikipedia more welcoming to newcomers falls to Frank Schulenburg, the foundation's head of public outreach. An academic, he began contributing to articles about French philosophers on the German Wikipedia in 2005.
"The community has created its own language, and that is certainly a barrier to new participants," he says.
One of Mr. Schulenburg's first projects, called the "bookshelf," is an effort to gather the basic rules for contributing to Wikipedia in one place for newcomers. He hopes the new multimedia bookshelf will be the Wikipedia community's equivalent of a high-school civics textbook.
In Germany, to recruit more academics, Mr. Schulenburg had devised an educational program called Wikipedia Academy. In July, he conducted the first such program in the U.S., for scientists and administrators at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. His goal was to entice the scientists to contribute.
Wikipedia already attracts lots of academics, but science isn't its strength. By its own internal grading standards, the article on Louis Pasteur, one of the founders of microbiology, for example, is lower in quality than its article on James T. Kirk, the fictional "Star Trek" captain.
For the July event, Mr. Schulenburg got about 100 scientists and NIH staffers to spend the day listening to arguments about why they should bother contributing to Wikipedia, despite the fact that it doesn't pay, won't help them get a grant or even win them applause from their peers.
His audience was skeptical about the lack of credentials among Wikipedia editors. "One of my concerns is not knowing who the editor is," said Lakshmi Grama, a communications official from the National Cancer Institute.
Several participants started contributing to Wikipedia right after the event. The NIH says it is considering whether to adopt formal policies to encourage its staff to contribute while at work.
Each year, Wikipedians from around the world gather at a conference they call Wikimania. At this year's meeting in Buenos Aires in August, participants at one session debated the implications of the demographic shifts.
"The number one headline I have been seeing for five years is that Wikipedia is dying," said Mathias Schindler, a board member of Wikimedia Germany. He argued that Wikipedia needed to focus less on the total number of articles and more on "smarter metrics" such as article quality.
He said he disagreed with dire views about the project's future. "I don't expect to see Wikipedia follow the rule of any curve or any projection."