Not All is Well in the World of Wikipedia

A few months ago, I blogged about “Wikipedians” – the hordes of people around the world who write and edit for the online encyclopedia sensation. In the “free information” world of the Internet, in just a few short years Wikipedia has effectively knocked the more traditional encyclopedias like World Book and Britannica off of their perch as the denizens and purveyors of broad knowledge.

With its self-described goal to be “the sum of all human knowledge,” Wikipedia has become the world’s fifth most popular web site, attracting more than 325 million visits per month – a 20% increase in traffic from a year ago. All this success, even as there have been well-publicized incidences of “rogue” information incorporated into Wikipedia article entries, either through honest error or deliberate insertions of false material; the report on Ted Kennedy’s Wikipedia entry of the senator’s death months before its actual occurrence is but one recent example.

Indeed, among the strengths of Wikipedia’s information model has been the idea of crowd-sourcing, with its legions of editors who have kept an eagle eye on Wikipedia entries to police them and aggressively remove incorrect, non-cited or otherwise suspect information.

But just last week, The Wall Street Journal published a front-page story reporting that Wikipedia is losing its volunteer force at a much steeper rate than ever before. Writers and editors have been departing Wikipedia faster than new ones joining – and the net decline has become particularly pronounced in 2009, to the tune of a net loss ~25,000 editor volunteers every month.

What’s causing this? A few reasons that have been suggested are:

As Wikipedia has grown, the number of topics not yet covered has diminished, making for fewer opportunities for new writers and editors to come on board with entries or to improve on existing articles.

Well-publicized problems with the veracity of some articles have caused Wikipedia to tighten its editorial and submission guidelines. The not-for-profit Wikipedia Foundation has adopted a plethora of rules (spelled out over dozens of web pages) that make it much harder for editors who are less familiar with the software to successfully post new stories – causing some articles to be removed within mere hours of being posted. It’s no secret that the burnout rate for writers is going to be higher when they have to continually debate and defend the content and format of their articles.

A reduction in the “passion” factor – Wikipedians are a bit of a different breed, driven as much by altruism as a generous dose of ego (“I’m better than the rest of you”) when it comes to information knowledge. They’ve even created their own special social world, with the Wikipedia Foundation hosting annual get-togethers of volunteers in such exotic locales as Buenos Aires where they can collectively bask in the aura of their shared “specialness.” But, people being people, over time the thrill abates except for the most passionate contributors.

The downturn in the economy probably doesn’t help, either. More free time might be available to devote to Wikipedia for those newly out of work … but in such times, more attention and effort is understandably going to be placed elsewhere.

Recognizing the need to reverse recent trends, the Wikipedia Foundation is working on creating streamlined instructions to help novice editors contribute articles that adhere to the proper submission guidelines more successfully. It is also working to actively recruit writers and editors from the scientific community, a historically soft spot in terms of Wikipedia’s information coverage.

Whether these steps will be enough to make a difference is an open question. Encouraging more volunteers from the world of science for what is essentially a volunteer mission with little or no peer recognition has been (and likely will continue to be) a tall order. And the jury is still out on the potential effectiveness of the new streamlined submission guidelines, because they haven’t been put into practice yet.

Still, there’s no denying that Wikipedia has had a major impact on the way people research information … and it has accomplished this over the span of only a few short years.

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