Wikipedia’s Editor Problem Explained

The crowdsourced encyclopedia now has 31,000 active editors, down from 51,000 in 2007.

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Wikipedia’s declining number of contributors isn’t news–founder Jimmy Wales acknowledged it the issue years ago–but MIT Technology Review’s thorough examination of the online encyclopedia’s challenges is worth reading:

The main source of those problems is not mysterious. The loose collective running the site today, estimated to be 90 percent male, operates a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers who might increase participation in Wikipedia and broaden its coverage.

The story has a few examples of how Wikimedia Foundation has struggled to change the culture, but this one is particularly striking:

In July 2012, some editors started a page called WikiProject Editor Retention with the idea of creating a place to brainstorm ideas about helping newcomers and fostering a friendlier atmosphere. Today the most vibrant parts of that project’s discussion page have gripes about “bullying done by administrators,” debates over whether “Wikipedia has become a bloody madhouse,” and disputes featuring accusations such as “You registered an account today just to have a go at me?”

While the story says Wikimedia Foundation is staging “a kind of rescue mission” to attract more contributors, the current efforts are minor things like a Thank button to encourage good edits.

All of this stems from Wikipedia’s core conflict of discouraging exploitation and vandalism while making it easier for anyone to contribute. And the former isn’t getting any easier; just this week, Wikipedia editors removed 250 accounts tied to a PR firm that offered “page management” services.

[MIT Technology Review]


I'm an active editor, and I have some opinions on the matter.
Perhaps if the Wikipedia administrators and their cronies weren't bullying the editors and taking a "I know more than you, and have more value to this place than you because I am an administrator" attitude, they wouldn't be chasing off editors. I've been editing on Wikipedia since 2008, and I will admit even I've been turned off by dealing with the admins. I've come close to closing the door on my account a few times over dealing with one specific admin. I haven't but it doesn't mean the thought hasn't crossed my mind. And such, I can see why new editors don't stick around. A "thank" button doesn't matter, when some know-it-all bully administrator undoes your edits and starts up a flame war. And as for flame wars, it appears to me that THEY start them more than simple editors do. I'm currently embroiled in one now over a page about a company in the city I live in (a page about a media outlet to be precise), and the damn admin (who doesn't even live in the same country, let alone my city) is trying to undo my source backed edits, because he's "an expert" and he "knows more about the subject" than I do, despite the fact that this is a small media company, which nobody where he lives would even remotely know about.

That kind of attitude will chase away even the best long time editors, let alone rookies.

This is the problem with a "free", "anyone can edit" encyclopedia - it becomes the Facebook of encyclopedias, filled with people with the attitude of High Schoolers, hiding behind screen names, bullying people they have no connection to.


Here are a couple of other thoughts. For one thing, unemployment is down. I was a very active editor on Wikipedia back in 2007, but I was unemployed at the time and needed something to do to keep my writing/editing juices flowing. These days I'm much busier and would rather spend my free time reading rather than writing — not to mention riding herd on edit wars.

Also, in its pursuit of respectability I think Wikipedia has ceased to be the go-to source for information on "fun" things. has taken over that niche, and if you want to write and maintain articles on your favorite TV show, film series, video games, comics, or what have you there's a lot more freedom there. They don't require that all information be "real-world" relevant and are much less uptight as to what constitutes a reputable source. They give the fans of those subject what they want, which is the freedom to determine what is relevant to them.

So between the old-boys club the author mentions here, fewer idle hands, and more freedom to be had elsewhere, I think Wikipedia is experiencing a correction in its talent pool. I don't know if will go away entirely, but its no longer the only player in its niche.