Wikipedia's exponential growth over this decade is due to the efforts of the millions of volunteers who write, edit, and check its entries. But could that volunteer effort now be in danger?
Volunteers have increasingly been quitting Wikipedia en masse for a variety of potential reasons, according to Monday's Wall Street Journal.
More than 49,000 editors left Wikipedia's English-language edition during the first three months of 2009, compared with only 4,900 for the same quarter a year earlier, according to the Journal, quoting Spanish researcher Felipe Ortega, who analyzes Wikipedia's online data. Though the service still boasts about 3 million active contributors, volunteers are leaving more rapidly than new ones are joining, the Journal said.
Among the top 10 most-visited sites, Wikipedia is under continual pressure to expand the scope and to police the accuracy of its data, a task that could become increasingly difficult with fewer volunteers. Errors, both accidental and deliberate, have always plagued Wikipedia.
Several reasons for the decline in volunteers have been offered by Wikipedia contributors, noted the WSJ. Many subjects have already been fully written about. The site has also enacted an array of rules to limit conflict among people who contribute to the same entries, especially on controversial subjects. But the rules often trip up new contributors who find their content removed without understanding why.
Despite those rules, arguments over various articles have also taken their toll. "Many people are getting burnt out when they have to debate about the contents of certain articles again and again," Ortega told the Journal.
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales discussed the site in an interview with Silicon.com earlier this month. With 13 million articles now written and edited by volunteers, Wales sees conflict among multiple contributors as the exception.
"We really tend to use less inflammatory words--try to stick to basic facts and so on. And that's come about over time. You have people come together [on Wikipedia] with different viewpoints but in general they tend to be trying to work in good faith to collaborate and compromise with other people."
Wales also pointed out that most articles are written by a small number of people.
"One of the things that's important to know about Wikipedia is that the entries that are edited by hundreds of people are really anomalies," he told Silicon.com.
Wales does confirm that participation in Wikipedia has slowed, the Journal said, though potential solutions depend on the reasons for the decline. "If people think Wikipedia is done, that's substantial," he said, referring to the notion that there are no more subjects to write about. "But if the community has become more hostile to newbies, that's a correctable problem."