Considered a crowning achievement of open information on the Internet, Wikipedia needs to pick up its act to avoid getting worse, according to a recent exposè by the MIT Technology Review.
In recent years, the number of active editors has steadily declined, since reaching a peak in 2007. You can see trend in the chart below:
The volunteer workforce has shrunk by more than a third since 2007 and continues to decline. The composition and size of Wikipedia’s pro-bono editors is important because they create and maintain the quality on the site. Without dedicated and diverse editors, the content could become mediocre and the coverage skewed.
The declining number of editors is not due to the site’s inability to keep longtime editors contributing. Instead, according to a report from the University of Minnesota, it can’t keep new editors from sticking around, due to an abrasive collective of editors and a system that is crushingly bureaucratic.
Around when Wikipedia first gained widespread popularity in late 2005, the number of new contributors went way up. Along with it came troublesome contributors, who inserted jokes or vandalised what was meant to be a serious enterprise.
Because of that, the most active editors introduced a host of new editing tools, bureaucratic procedures, and automated “bots” to combat the vandalism. The measures worked at keeping out vandals, but the effect was that it alienated newcomers. The problem has never been solved and it has slowly eroded the number of Wikipedia’s editors.
“I categorize from 2007 until now as the decline phase of Wikipedia,” Aaron Halfaker, a grad student at the University of Minnesota who has worked for the Wikimedia Foundation as a contractor and this year published the study behind the chart. “It looks like Wikipedia is strangling itself for this resource of new editors.”
Now, the number of editors has shrunk from more than 51,000 in 2007 to 31,000 this past summer. 90 per cent of those editors are male and coverage is skewed toward articles that appeal towards techy men.
“[Wikipedia’s] entries on Pokemon and female porn stars are comprehensive, but its pages on female novelists or places in sub-Saharan Africa are sketchy. Authoritative entries remain elusive,” writes Tom Simonite for MIT Technology Review.
The Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that pays for Wikipedia’s infrastructure, is attempting to rectify the situation by tweaking Wikipedia’s website and software. Wikipedia is scheduled to undergo a facelift in the coming year, but that will only make the site more aesthetically pleasing.
Without the culture of Wikipedia’s volunteer editors changing, it’s unlikely that more new editors will stick around.
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