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Progress was swift. The English-language Wikipedia alone had about 750, 000 entries by late 2005, when a boom in media coverage and a spike in participation pushed the project across the line from Internet oddity to part of everyday life. Around that time, Wikipedians achieved their most impressive feat of leaderless collective organization—one, it turns out, that set in motion the decline in participation that troubles their project today. At some time in 2006, the established editors began to feel control of the site slipping from their grasp. As the number of new contributions—well-meaning and otherwise—was growing, the task of policing them all for quality began to feel impossible. Because of Wikipedia’s higher public profile and commitment to letting anyone contribute even anonymously, many updates were pure vandalism. High-profile incidents such as the posting of a defamatory hoax article about the journalist John Seigenthaler raised serious questions about whether crowdsourcing an encyclopedia, or anything else, could ever work.
As is typical with Wikipedians, a response emerged from a mixture of cordial discussions, tedious arguments, and online wrestling matches—but it was sophisticated. The project’s most active volunteers introduced a raft of new editing tools and bureaucratic procedures intended to combat the bad edits. They created software that allowed fellow editors to quickly survey recent changes and reject them or admonish their authors with a single mouse click. They set loose automated “bots” that could reverse any incorrectly formatted changes or those that were likely to be vandalism and dispatch warning messages to the offending editors.
The tough new measures worked. Vandalism was brought under control, and hoaxes and scandals became less common. Newly stabilized, and still growing in scope and quality, the encyclopedia became embedded in the firmament of the Web. Today the English Wikipedia has 4.4 million articles; there are 23.1 million more in 286 other languages. But those tougher rules and the more suspicious atmosphere that came along with them had an unintended consequence. Newcomers to Wikipedia making their first, tentative edits—and the inevitable mistakes—became less likely to stick around. Being steamrollered by the newly efficient, impersonal editing machine was no fun. The number of active editors on the English-language Wikipedia peaked in 2007 at more than 51, 000 and has been declining ever since as the supply of new ones got choked off. This past summer only 31, 000 people could be considered active editors.
“I categorize from 2007 until now as the decline phase of Wikipedia, ” says Aaron Halfaker, a grad student at the University of Minnesota who has worked for the Wikimedia Foundation as a contractor and this year of the problem. “It looks like Wikipedia is strangling itself for this resource of new editors.”
Halfaker’s study, which he conducted with a Minnesota colleague and researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington, analyzed Wikipedia’s public activity logs. The results paint a numerical picture of a community dominated by bureaucracy. Since 2007, when the new controls began to bite, the likelihood of a new participant’s edit being immediately deleted has steadily climbed. Over the same period, the proportion of those deletions made by automated tools rather than humans grew. Unsurprisingly, the data also indicate that well-intentioned newcomers are far less likely to still be editing Wikipedia two months after their first try.
In their paper on those findings, the researchers suggest updating Wikipedia’s motto, “The encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Their version reads: “The encyclopedia that anyone who understands the norms, socializes him or herself, dodges the impersonal wall of semi-automated rejection and still wants to voluntarily contribute his or her time and energy can edit.”