William Beutler on Wikipedia

Trendy Thinking: Contemplating Wikipedia Contributorship

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on March 17, 2011 at 8:49 am by William Beutler

Last week, the Wikimedia Foundation published some early results in an ongoing study of trends in editor participation, both in a detailed analysis by the survey’s leaders and a general summary by Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardner. I’d actually started writing a summary of my own before I read Gardner’s letter… only to find that Gardner had already made the exact same “Eternal September” comparison as I had planned. (Which makes sense, since I first learned of the term from Wikipedia.) Anyhow, both are worth reading if you are so inclined, but here’s a key excerpt from Gardner’s summary:

Between 2005 and 2007, newbies started having real trouble successfully joining the Wikimedia community. Before 2005 in the English Wikipedia, nearly 40% of new editors would still be active a year after their first edit. After 2007, only about 12-15% of new editors were still active a year after their first edit. Post-2007, lots of people were still trying to become Wikipedia editors. What had changed, though, is that they were increasingly failing to integrate into the Wikipedia community, and failing increasingly quickly. The Wikimedia community had become too hard to penetrate.

In the first half of Wikipedia’s first ten years, it experienced exponential growth in the absolute number of editors, from barely 100 active participants in 2001 to about 44,000 in 2006. The community continued to grow in 2007, cresting at nearly 52,000 active editors. Interestingly, though, 2007 brought fewer new editors: the peak owed to a one-year spike in retention. Thereafter, the number of total editors (and new editors) has dropped each year, with about 33,000 active contributors in 2010. Granted, that’s a pretty big drop. While it hasn’t bottomed out, it does seem to be stabilizing.

At the moment, Wikipedia has somewhat fewer editors than it had in 2006 and more than double the editors it had in 2005. But it only has slightly more new editors than it did that year: about 13,000 in 2010 compared to 12,200 new editors in 2005. For a better understanding of these trends, see this chart prepared for the survey:

Gardner continues:

Our new study shows that our communities are aging, probably as a direct result of these trends. I don’t mean that the average age of editors is increasing: I’m talking about tenure. Newbies are making up a smaller percentage of editors overall than ever before, and the absolute number of newbies is dropping as well. That’s a problem for everyone, because it means that experienced editors are needing to shoulder an ever-increasing workload, and bureaucrat and administrator positions are growing ever-harder to fill.

My initial reaction is to say this is not necessarily a problem. Yes, over time the proportion of new editors is shrinking, but this is the flipside of editor retention. The community “growing older” as a proportion of all editors does not necessarily mean number of editors is getting smaller, but that longtime editors are sticking around. Except that the community actually is getting smaller.

How many Wikipedians does the community really need to sustain itself? This is another open question. Some editors may point to the rapid development of impressive new articles such as Fukushima I nuclear accidents whereas interesting but less timely articles (let’s pick on the Assassination Records Review Board) languish.

If you joined Wikipedia in 2004, there is about a 40% chance you were still editing Wikipedia after one year. All things considered, that’s a pretty solid number, but that’s about as good as it got: by mid-2005 those retention rates started plummeting. If you joined in early 2007, there was about a 15% chance you were still editing after one year. Interestingly, the drop in retention more or less coincides with the explosion in new contributors: new editorship grew most between early 2005 and early 2007; the drop in retention begins about the same time and continued falling into the middle of 2007.

This makes some sense: those were the years with the greatest number of new editors, so it makes sense that a larger number would wash out. On the other hand, even as trends have stabilized, only about 10% of editors who joined in 2009 are still editing today. That’s a pretty remarkable drop-off in retention, and so the class of 2004 and 2009 today have about the same number of editors currently active.

Why the drop-off? Hard to say, but as the study’s authors put it: “[W]e do know something drastically changed during this time period, which corresponds to the period of massive influx of New Wikipedians.” This almost sounds like the influx of new editors drove the old ones out, although there’s no way to know that. So this raises an interesting question: were all those new editors necessarily good for the community?

For a snapshot of editor participation trends based on which year one joined, see this chart:

Wikipedia is an incredible resource and, like natural resources, it needs to be both developed and preserved. That means more editors are needed, and this study is just one step in a long process of figuring out how best to do that. Fortunately, there is time.

  1. I have made minor edits to wikipedia from time to time since its inception. I made the effort to register as an editor when I was surprised to find no page for a notable figure in British politics from the late 1990s and decided to create a page for her.
    Being a conscientious kind of fellow, I made the effort to read up on my duties before I did so. And what an effort! There were pages and pages and pages of wikipediology to master in order to make anything like a the beginnings of a reasonable page. Linking in the page with the rest of wikipedia’s content was a considerable effort.
    It was very gratifying to see other wikipedians joining in, and the page magically improved subsequently (though it is still classed as a stub).
    The lesson: over the few years since the inception of wikipedia, the amount of meta-material one must master in order to contribute has so increased as to make the attentional barrier to entry higher and higher. Wikipedia is complex, and the plumbing that enables it is becoming ever more baroque. If we wish to address the worrisome decline in participation, simplifying and shortening the “advice for editors” is where effort should be directed.

  2. The second chart in the posting shows that the retention rate for editors keeps getting worse. For editors who started in January 2004, it wasn’t until 80 months later that 90% had left. For those who started editing in January 2006, about 90% had left within 40 months. For those who started editing in January 2008, 90% were gone within 20 months. For those who started in January 2010, it took less than 10 months to reach the point where 90% were gone.

  3. No question, Douglas, that the virtual Everest of policies, guidelines and other community norms are an incredible hurdle. It’s not just that it’s poorly organized, but that it’s hard to know where to begin. Common Craft has done some nice videos for the Foundation explaining how certain key policies work. However, they are limited, and it’s hard to know where to go next. Plus, I just ran a search to find the one I had in mind, and failed. More evidence for your point.

  4. IF Wikipedia is a “new thing” then the data will be skewed. I believe it is and they are. All initial editors will be newbies. It must be so. Now that it is not a new thing, not.

  5. When Wikipedia was a “new thing” then the data would be skewed. I believe it was and they were. All initial editors would be newbies. It must be so. Now that it is not a new thing, not.

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