reports of our demise are greatly exaggerated

edited to add: Erik Zachte’s latest stats show that in fact, reports of our demise are exaggerated — we may actually be gaining editors. My second observation here holds true 🙂

If you follow the news, you may have noticed a whole series of stories in the last couple of days about how Wikipedia is losing editors. This started with a long article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal (summary in last week’s Signpost), which featured an analysis of research done by my friend and colleague Felipe Ortega, research which was published in his dissertation about Wikipedia contributors this Spring. (Editorial comment from my dissertating-roommate: he had the Wall Street Journal calling him about his dissertation?!)

The article also had quotes from various Wikipedia luminaries, including the two community-representative board members, and Andrew Lih, author of The Wikipedia Revolution. (I suspect the reporters also interviewed a number of people they didn’t end up quoting; they interviewed me this summer, for instance). In a nutshell, the story is about whether there is a net loss of steady contributors to Wikipedia in recent months (Felipe’s data shows a net loss of contributors, though he’s focusing on leave dates, which is an inconsistent indicator; Andrew writes about why). The answer (though this is not highlighted by the WSJ) is that at the very least there seems to be a flatlining of new contributors, proportional to the overall growth of the site, and this has been true for a while. Though there’s dozens of theories, we don’t know why. Our in-house stats are summarized here. (The other conclusion to draw, though the WSJ doesn’t highlight this either, is that Wikipedia research is hard: making assumptions, e.g. about who’s a contributor, must be done with care and with a deep understanding of the system, and no one quite knows how to do it “properly.” Trust me on this; I’ve been following Wikipedia research for a long time).

The article got a lot of buzz, as front-page analytical stories tend to do, and the story (such as it may be) got picked up by a wide variety of other big news outlets.

Though I’m interested naturally in the substance of the story, I’m also interested on a meta-level in the development of the story itself. In one respect, my roommate is right — what’s so special that a major paper wants to write about a fairly technical academic dissertation? Of course, “Wikipedia in decline” makes for a nice headline; but it’s more than that — people are genuinely interested, inside our community and out, whether this project can work over the long-term. At this point, it’s hard to imagine an internet without us; our readership, which is a substantial chunk of the web’s traffic, cares if we stay up or not.

People who evangelize Wikipedia, myself included, like to talk about the extraordinary social system and contributor base the projects have. What matters in the long-term, I feel, is the lesson of how a huge and disparate group of people can come together online to build something; the content that everyone else uses is in some sense a byproduct, though it is the projects’ reason for being. This is also why people care if Wikipedia works: this is in some ways all a grand social experiment.

So will it work? This is a question we’ve been asking and worrying about internally for a long time — though perhaps not as much as one might expect. There’s an old saw that “Wikipedia doesn’t work in theory, only in practice” (see my friend Sage’s post on this subject for a nice analysis) and we’ve more or less run with that so far, crossed our fingers and watched it grow. And it does work in practice — but will it continue to? We’re in the midst of our annual fundraiser right now, as you might have seen from the banner ads, and the budgetary goals are more ambitious than they’ve ever been before; the WMF is reaching out into supporting more areas (outreach about Wikipedia, chapter development) than ever before. Will it work? What does success look like, for us? The foundation is in the midst of a soul-searching year-long strategy development project, but I don’t know that we’re much closer to the answer to those two questions.

So I’ve found the deep and immediate and interested response to this story compelling — everything from the dozens of comments on our own Signpost article to the 113 comments on the original WSJ article, to the story getting picked up everywhere from the BBC to Slashdot. People care, and there’s a lot of anxiety about the future of the participatory web. How can we turn this interest to our advantage? Wikipedia needs engaged people to help find solutions for why more people aren’t participating, and we need more contributors, too (or do we? Not everyone agrees, and in my grumpier moments, I feel like only people who are interested enough to try editing without any prompting ever make it through the Wikipedia gauntlet). But why do such a small percentage of readers ever try editing at all? To my friends, relatives, neighbors, colleagues, who all talk about Wikipedia every time they see me: why don’t you edit? These are the questions I’d like answers to.

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