Who are ‘Wikipedians’ … and what makes them tick?

Wikipedia logoBy now, most web surfers have had first-hand experience with Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute. As a quick resource for gaining knowledge, it’s hard to beat; it’s fast,and it’s comprehensive.

Speaking personally, fewer than 10% of my queries on Wikipedia come back empty. So I find it a great resource for getting a quick handle on most any topic.

Of course, it would be unwise to consider Wikipedia an unimpeachable resource because its content is not vetted in the traditional way. Volunteers author the articles, and it’s up to the community of Wikipedia readers to call out and correct errors or omissions to the entries.

Just who are these volunteers, and what motivates them to devote time to Wikipedia? As it turns out, while there’s no pay, there’s a strong mixture of altruism and ego gratification associated with being a Wikipedia contributor.

This is borne out in an international research survey conducted jointly by the Wikimedia Foundation (the not-for-profit group that operates Wikipedia) and United Nations University’s MERIT tech research project. A whopping 175,000 responses were collected. Of these, approximately one third reported that they contribute Wikipedia content in addition to consuming it.

So what makes those people want to become a Wikipedia contributor? Three-fourths of them agreed with the statement that they “like the idea of sharing knowledge and want to contribute to it.” Two-thirds also reported that they “saw an error I wanted to fix.” Nearly half would contribute more often “if I knew there were specific topic areas that needed my help.”

The survey also uncovered some fascinating demographic statistics regarding Wikipedia contributors. It comes as no real surprise that the median age of Wikipedia contributors is in the mid- to upper-twenties … or that one-fourth of them have post-graduate degrees.

But the gender breakdown is curious. In fact, the survey found that only 13% of Wikipedia contributors are women – a startling finding. And even among those who have edited others’ entries rather than contributing full articles of their own, only 31% are women. The researchers steered clear of suggesting any reasons for the gender skew, which was more than likely a cop-out.

And what are the reasons why people don’t contribute to Wikipedia? Predictably, “time constraints” were cited by many respondents. Another factor cited was not knowing how to create or edit the Wikipedia pages. But a substantial percentage (~25%) cited being fearful of making a mistake and “getting in trouble” for it.

So one takeaway from the survey is that it takes certain traits to be a Wikipedia contributor — like being a self-proclaimed “informed expert” looking for validation, affirmation and recognition … or even being narcissistic?

Come to think of it, perhaps it’s not so surprising after all that Wikipedia contributors are over 85% male!

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