The promise and perils of crowdsourcing content
IT MAY not stir up international outrage like its semi-namesake WikiLeaks, but Wikipedia sparks debate. The free online encyclopedia, which celebrates its tenth birthday on January 15th, is a symbol of unpaid collaboration and one of the most popular destinations on the internet, attracting some 400m visitors a month. It also faces serious charges of elitism.
Wikipedia offers more than 17m articles in 270 languages. Every day thousands of people edit entries or add new ones in return for nothing more than the satisfaction of contributing to the stock of human knowledge. Wikipedia relies on its users’ generosity to fill its coffers as well as its pages. Recent visitors to the website were confronted with images of Jimmy Wales, a co-founder (pictured), and a request for donations. The campaign was annoying but effective, raising $16m in 50 days.
With its emphasis on bottom-up collaboration and the broad dissemination of knowledge, the online encyclopedia is in many ways an incarnation of the fundamental values of the web. But Wikipedia also reveals some of the pitfalls of the increasingly popular “crowdsourcing” model of content creation. One is maintaining accuracy. On the whole, Wikipedia’s system of peer reviewing does a reasonable job of policing facts. But it is vulnerable to vandalism. Several politicians and TV personalities have had their deaths announced on Wikipedia while they were still in fine fettle.
Some observers argue the site should start paying expert editors to produce and oversee content, and sell advertising to cover the cost. Problems with accuracy “are an inevitable consequence of a free-labour approach”, argues Alex Konanykhin of WikiExperts, which advises organisations on how to create Wikipedia articles. (The very existence of such outfits hints at Wikipedia’s importance, as well as its susceptibility to outside influence.) The encyclopedia’s bosses retort that such concerns are overblown and that taking advertising would dent its appeal to users.
That still leaves the site with another, bigger, headache in the form of declining engagement. The number of regular contributors to Wikipedia’s English-language encyclopedia dropped from around 54,000 at its peak in March 2007 to some 35,000 in September 2010. A similar trend has been visible in some foreign-language versions of the encyclopedia.
Wikipedia’s leaders say this reflects the fact that the large majority of subjects have now been written about. Perhaps, but some evidence suggests that neophytes are being put off by Wikipedia’s clique of elite editors. One study by researchers at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre looked at the number of times editorial changes were subsequently reversed. It found that roughly a quarter of the edits posted by occasional contributors were undone in late 2008, compared with less than 2% of those posted by the most active editors. And it noted that this gap had widened considerably over time.
Mr Wales dismisses the notion of a clique as “silly”. Sue Gardner, the head of the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation that operates Wikipedia, notes that people have reason to be protective about high-quality content. Still, the organisation seems concerned. Ms Gardner wants to learn from sites such as Yelp and Facebook that are good at encouraging users to contribute. She hints that in future, contributors whose changes are undone may receive a message urging them to remain active on the site. Time, perhaps, to consult Wikipedia’s entry on motivation—though it turns out to be one of the articles flagged as needing expert attention.