Wikipedia’s Volunteer Story

What’s happening to Wikipedia’s volunteer community? Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages”. The article is a comprehensive description of the challenges and opportunities facing the Wikipedia community. Among other things, it describes recent research findings regarding the number of Wikipedia editors. A quote from the article: “In the first three months of 2009, the English-language Wikipedia suffered a net loss of more than 49,000 editors, compared to a net loss of 4,900 during the same period a year earlier, according to Spanish researcher Felipe Ortega.”

Other news stories have further focused on this particular number, some going so far to predict Wikipedia’s imminent demise, others highlighting its strengths and resilience. It’s understandable that media will look for a compelling narrative. Our job is to arrive at a nuanced understanding of what’s going on. This blog post is therefore an attempt to dig deeper into the numbers and into what’s happening with Wikipedia’s volunteer community, and to describe our big picture strategy.

In a nutshell, here’s what we know:

  • The number of people reading Wikipedia continues to grow.  In October, we had 344 million unique visitors from around the world, according to comScore Media Metrix, up 6% from September.  Wikipedia is the fifth most popular web property in the world.
  • The number of articles in Wikipedia keeps growing.  There are about 14.4 million articles in Wikipedia, with thousands of new ones added every day.
  • The number of people writing Wikipedia peaked about two and a half years ago, declined slightly for a brief period, and has remained stable since then.  Every month, some people stop writing, and every month, they are replaced by new people.

The numbers quoted in the Wall Street Journal are the result of analysis by Spanish researcher Dr. Felipe Ortega. Dr. Ortega has conducted valuable research on a wide range of aspects of the projects hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation.  It is, however, important to understand the meaning of the cited numbers.  Dr. Ortega’s findings are described in his doctoral thesis “Wikipedia: A quantitative analysis.”

First, it’s important to note that Dr. Ortega’s study of editing patterns defines as an editor anyone who has made a single edit, however experimental. This results in a total count of three million editors across all languages.  In our own analytics, we choose to define editors as people who have made at least 5 edits. By our narrower definition, just under a million people can be counted as editors across all languages combined.  Both numbers include both active and inactive editors.  It’s not yet clear how the patterns observed in Dr. Ortega’s analysis could change if focused only on editors who have moved past initial experimentation.

Even more importantly, the findings reported by the Wall Street Journal are not a measure of the number of people participating in a given month. Rather, they come from the part of Dr. Ortega’s research that attempts to measure when individual Wikipedia volunteers start editing, and when they stop. Because it’s impossible to make a determination that a person has left and will never edit again, there are methodological challenges with determining the long term trend of joining and leaving: Dr. Ortega qualifies as the editor’s “log-off date” the last time they contributed. This is a snapshot in time and doesn’t predict whether the same person will make an edit in the future, nor does it reflect the actual number of active editors in that month.

Dr. Ortega supplements this research with data about the actual participation (number of changes, number of editors) in the different language editions of our projects. His findings regarding actual participation are generally consistent with our own, as well as those of other researchers such as Xerox PARC’s Augmented Social Cognition research group.

What do those numbers show?  Studying the number of actual participants in a given month shows that Wikipedia participation as a whole has declined slightly from its peak 2.5 years ago, and has remained stable since then. (See WikiStats data for all Wikipedia languages combined.) On the English Wikipedia, the peak number of active editors (5 edits per month) was 54,510 in March 2007. After a more significant decline by about 25%, it has been stable over the last year at a level of approximately 40,000. (See WikiStats data for the English Wikipedia.) Many other Wikipedia language editions saw a rise in the number of editors in the same time period. As a result the overall number of editors on all projects combined has been stable at a high level over recent years. We’re continuing to work with Dr. Ortega to specifically better understand the long-term trend in editor retention, and whether this trend may result in a decrease of the number of editors in the future.

Let’s move on to the bigger picture.

The mission of the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization, is to ensure that every single human being can share in the sum of all knowledge. Both the health and growth of our volunteer community are key to succeeding in that endeavor. This is why the Wikimedia Foundation works with researchers from around the world to understand what is happening in its projects, supports comprehensive analytics work, and is pursuing long term initiatives to recruit new editors and support the development of its communities:

  • Our usability initiative is making it easier to contribute to Wikipedia and its sister projects by improving the underlying open source technology. Removing barriers is key to recruiting new editors.
  • Our outreach initiative is developing a comprehensive set of training and outreach materials that will help us to recruit new volunteer editors.
  • Our strategic planning initiative is a unique community-driven process to identify how we can maximize our impact. One of its task forces is specifically studying community health.

Wikimedia chapter organizations around the world are supporting our technology work, our outreach initiatives, and strategic partnerships; their activities are documented in the archive of chapter reports.

The Wikimedia volunteer community is also engaged in important discussions and experiments. A community-initiated project in the English Wikipedia, for example, tried to assess the typical experience of new Wikipedia editors when trying to contribute useful content. This newbie treatment study is directly informing community discussions about community processes. Similar experiments and large strategic discussions are happening in other languages.

These discussions and projects are important. Wikimedia is a unique global volunteer movement to share what we know, to make and keep it available. We need your help and your participation in these initiatives – please follow the above links and get involved.

We want more people to join us, to edit Wikipedia to make it richer and better and more comprehensive. We don’t know what the “perfect” number of Wikipedia volunteers is, but we do know that we want to significantly increase it from where it is today.

In addition to direct volunteer participation, Wikimedia depends on public support. If you share our goal of bringing free knowledge to every person on the planet, please make a donation today.

Erik Moeller, Deputy Director
Erik Zachte, Data Analyst
Wikimedia Foundation

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33 Comments on Wikipedia’s Volunteer Story

Chris 5 years

Wikipedia definitely suffers from it’s clique of senior Editors, who feel that they own pages. And look down on any new user who tries to make a well meaning edit.

You have a lot of old users, who simply control the content of pages (how they want them) by following the thousands of Wikipedia rules to the very letter. If they want something off there are numerous ways to get rid of it.

As a new user, if you make an edit, I’d say there is a very good chance that it will just be reverted. And that’s not just it. When I first started I was receiving official looking warnings (complete with specially created icon) warning me that I could be banned if I continue to make changes to certain pages. You know. seriously, why is anyone going to bother working on a site when that’s what happened.

That’s the issue. Cliqs of Editors who attempt to police the site. And drive off new people.

What’s more, I’d suggest that it’s next to impossible to make any significant change, on any major article, no matter how well sourced. Purely because of the Editors who watch over them

Nisith Ranjan Panda 5 years

Dear Sir,
I volunteered for translation in “ODIYAA” thats a recognized language in India as it is one of the several language written over currency note. But I was directed to serve for translation of HINDI language. Where there is Marathi , Urdu , Nepali , Tamil , Malayalam are allowed , ,,,????”WHY U DON’T LET ME TRANSLATE PAGES IN ORIYA LANGUAGE “.
I just want to see Oriya (of the state Odisha ) language so that please allow me to do so. I don’t know where to send this message so m leaving it in this blog , sorry.
Nisith R. Panda /Odisha/

Sietze Hylkema 5 years

Wikipedia has some serious challenges.
The old guys have decided that Wikipedia should be a credible source. This goal can only be reached with strict reference and quality requirements. These requirements drive new editors away. Wikipedia will never be a credible source. It should focus on the added value Wikipedia can be. A starting point for information on every topic.
This is mainly an issue for the senior editors who(as above comments prove) a scarring people and impose ridiculous requirement.

A second problem is the software. The usability is low.
The category system doesn’t work as it should. Often topics have so many relations with other subject that the category system becomes impractical. A tag system should replace the category system. A tag cloud is the best options because it also gives information about the relevance of tags.

Liz Mac 5 years

You’re not listening are you? The people you are losing might not be ‘editors’ by your incredibly arbitrary definition, but they are potential contributors that the stranglehold some idiotic members of your community have been allowed to have are driving away.

– Reverts for no reason
– Unjustified removal of edits
– VERIFIABLE facts being removed arbitrarily.

There is a horrendous culture of members who have achieved a certain status not allowed other peoples’ voices to be heard, and if you want Wikipedia as a community to be sustainable and not insular you have to rethink your policies because otherwise you’ll end up with rubbish.

Timeshifter 5 years

The Wikimedia blog article states: “On the English Wikipedia, the peak number of active editors (5 edits per month) was 54,510 in March 2007. After a more significant decline by about 25%, it has been stable over the last year at a level of approximately 40,000. (See WikiStats data for the English Wikipedia.) Many other Wikipedia language editions saw a rise in the number of editors in the same time period. As a result the overall number of editors on all projects combined has been stable at a high level over recent years.” So it seems that many newbie English-speaking editors (less than 5 edits a month) quit because there is little room for new interesting articles on English Wikipedia. But other Wikimedia projects (Wikiversity, Commons, etc) have a great need for editors. The problem is that edits in Wikiversity, Commons, Wikibooks, Wikinews, etc. can’t be watched in the same watchlist as Wikipedia. So people can’t be bothered to open multiple watchlists. Especially new editors who barely understand watchlists, signatures, time stamps, etc.. Unified watchlist(s) could help.

Gerhard 5 years

I have tried to correct some of the most basic mistakes in Wikipedia related to the topic of e-recruiting and job boards – every time my improvements were deleted or reversed to the previous version. Even though I have spent the last ten years researching and analysing e-recruting topics, my comments have been deleted by ignorant amateurs with no specific knowledge of the topic. I have now given up contributing in view of the ignorance and red-tape mentality prevailing in the Wikipedia community. It is not Wikipedia itself, it is the ignorance of people involved who are at the center of the problem.

Bernd Weber 5 years

Since all my changes have been taken down, I’ll never contribute to wikipedia again. It makes me angry seeing an editor taking down my research – just because he can.

S 5 years

I think wikimedia is missing the point here, and not addressing the underlying issues. New users are being constantly harassed by more established users and especially by admins, many of who will band together to address an issue they don’t agree with even if they at first had failed.

Reign in your army of thugs, then maybe we will come back and contribute to the Encyclopedia.

Henry Gilbert 5 years

I really don’t care.
Fact is.
Wikipedia is such a wonderful resource, never ever would I be able to read and learn about so many incredibly interesting and informative subjects.
Wikipedia large archive beats any library or university resource.
This way knowledge (or the illusion of such) is open and free to the common man, specially those that can’t afford tuition and/or are shut out from knowledge-circle because of status or financial means.
Obviously Wikimedia being a human endevour it will eventually fall into politics, bickering, propaganda for and anti .. ok the usual power or desire thing.
I just want to say thank you. I have nothing to gain whatsoever by saying this: but thank you.
And remember the old saying: no good deed is left unpunished. Now you lot carry on doing what you do best: continue bickering – you are humans after all; and wikipedia has reach a popular influential stage that not to behave discontently towards each other would be pretty abnormal behaviour.

Maury Markowitz 5 years

I think this post does a disservice to everyone involved. Both Dr. Ortega’s study and the earlier Xerox one went into detail about the precise nature of ”what” was being lost, not ”how many”. This post, however, has decided to ignore this and instead focus on the how many issue, concluding in Alfred E. Neuman fashion that there’s nothing to worry about.

There is. Both reports clearly demonstrated that there are three clear groups of editors: occasional and newbie, mid-life editors, and long-timers. What the studies showed, and especially the PARC version, was that new editors are finding it increasingly difficult to move into the mid-life, and from there to long-timers. So as major editors leave, they are not being replaced.

If you count 100 comma placements by an occasional editor as equal to a 5000 word edit by a long-timer, then you might think there’s no problem. If, on the other hand, you consider the quality of the edits as well as the quantity, then there is clearly a very serious problem.

Both articles also went into some detail as to the root causes of the problems. As they noted, new articles are often deleted on site without comment, and other abusive administration practices that are making it increasingly difficult for new editors to make constructive edits. This blog post ignores this dimension completely.

If this is the sort of lightweight “analysis” we should expect from the Wikipedia supporters, the project is in just as much trouble as I thought.

Maury

Maury Markowitz 5 years

I think this post does a disservice to everyone involved. Both Dr. Ortega’s study and the earlier Xerox one went into detail about the precise nature of ”what” was being lost, not ”how many”. This post, however, has decided to ignore this and instead focus on the how many issue, concluding in Alfred E. Neuman fashion that there’s nothing to worry about.

There is. Both reports clearly demonstrated that there are three clear groups of editors: occasional and newbie, mid-life editors, and long-timers. What the studies showed, and especially the PARC version, was that new editors are finding it increasingly difficult to move into the mid-life, and from there to long-timers. So as major editors leave, they are not being replaced.

If you count 100 comma placements by an occasional editor as equal to a 5000 word edit by a long-timer, then you might think there’s no problem. If, on the other hand, you consider the quality of the edits as well as the quantity, then there is clearly a very serious problem.

Both articles also went into some detail as to the root causes of the problems. As they noted, new articles are often deleted on site without comment, and other abusive administration practices that are making it increasingly difficult for new editors to make constructive edits. This blog post ignores this dimension completely.

If this is the sort of lightweight “analysis” we should expect from the Wikipedia supporters, the project is in just as much trouble as I thought.

Maury

gwern 5 years

> Even more importantly, the findings reported by the Wall Street Journal are not a measure of the number of people participating in a given month. Rather, they come from the part of Dr. Ortega’s research that attempts to measure when individual Wikipedia volunteers start editing, and when they stop. Because it’s impossible to make a determination that a person has left and will never edit again, there are methodological challenges with determining the long term trend of joining and leaving: Dr. Ortega qualifies as the editor’s “log-off date” the last time they contributed. This is a snapshot in time and doesn’t predict whether the same person will make an edit in the future, nor does it reflect the actual number of active editors in that month.

Why is this important? Do you expect thousands and thousands of editors who have been logged off for months or years to abruptly decide to come back? This seems like a quibble.

Anon 5 years

>> Kozuch Said:
> I have left and returned several times as an editor to various Wikimedia projects.
> This is because the “progress” of the projects was so variable that it bothered me
> one day and excited again the other. There should be more consistency with all doings.
> Hopefully the new Strategy, Outreach and Usability projects will address this as a
> priority.

Did you read what you wrote? You’re bothered by inconsistency–presumably you meant the tempo of article activity–and yet you admit you’re feeding back into the ebbing and flowing yourself by coming and going.

John 5 years

I used to edit, but now switched to a policy of ‘use but don’t contribute’

Reason?

This used to be a great concept. If you don’t agree with something – contribute, put it right.

Then the stuff I used edit/update suddenly attracted pompous ‘ratings.’ I was all in favour when a tag popped up asking for references – great, I added them. I though it was great when other people contributed or debated. But to hell with the pompous ratings by people who then admit they have no knowledge of the topic.

If I submit something to a journal it gets rated by a ‘peer’ – someone who is expert. Personally I’m just not interested in being rated by someone with zero knowledge of the subject. If they think an article is not up to their high standards then they should contribute.

To quote someone off a news article:

“Can’t be bothered dealing with the officious self-appointed ruling elite of Wikipedia”

So basically: use but not contribute. Times that by 49,000 and I guess thats what the guy is talking about.

wikitired 5 years

TL;DR, you’ve got a lot of yak yak here but fail to address the most crucial thing about WP: too many asshole aditors/admins who fight every new addition or fact with [Citation Needed] or [Speedy Delete] when it’s about something *they’ve* never heard of, or disagree with. Been editing WP since the 12th day. Gave up last year because dealing with the increasing number of assholes is just tiring.

Hans 5 years

Wikipedia should fire all its editors and start over. Otherwise the bad editors who are causing all the troubles, will destroy it. In case any good editors might complain, explain how saying you are a Wikipedia editor, at a party, is equal to saying you have some sort of contagious disease, and this is not something to strive for and is caused by the deletionists. Now wikipedia is just a collection of the saddest people, and no one wants to be affiliated with that. The only good thing is that they are collected in a single point of potential damage, and can also be named and shamed.

Kozuch 5 years

The Wikimedia Foundation should listen to both editors and readers much more, trying to figure out how to ease their lives. What is it doing now??? A lot of stuff that is not visible, at lease not to an average community member in terms of making their lifes easier. For example, are users complaining about too many rules? Go and put dedicated staff member to address this particular issue, hopefully helping the rules to be stripped down. I personally did not read a single rule fully yet I was able to make 20k+ edits in the projects. Finally, there is a rule that says you can ignore any of rules if you think it will be constructive for the project, so that is a kind of anarchy in the system present anyways. However, it is not easy to figure out your way.

I have left and returned several times as an editor to various Wikimedia projects. This is because the “progress” of the projects was so variable that it bothered me one day and excited again the other. There should be more consistency with all doings. Hopefully the new Strategy, Outreach and Usability projects will address this as a priority.

In general the foundation has always been behind the community in terms of what it was doing. Maybe it would be best for it trying to do as little as possible and hand all core competences to community. I think this nicely works with adminships (at lease on English Wikipedia) – I mostly have good experience with them. For example I would like to do much more, Ive got ideas, I think they are not really bad, but it is really difficult to execute that ideas and turn them into reality if I dont go technically deep enough, which I dont want because I have no time for it.

Warpath/Cometstyles 5 years

Wikipedia has had the problem of trigger happy admins for a very long time and believe me, that problem will never get solved. The best we can hope for is good sense prevailing. I have seen admins blocking users for making the smallest of edits, most which should have just been reverted in good faith. The best thing about being an admin on wikipedia (english language) is that you are admin for life unless the arbcom tags you for being a “maniacal twat”. I once, with the help of other editors did try to get that area of the policy changed but it failed miserably as people who make decision on this were inactive admins themselves who wanted to keep their admin rights even though they never use them. Deletionist are the worst “type” admins to have cause they will just delete anything they can’t any information about on Google even if its legit. Wikipedia is flawed, editors will come and go, people will always complain about how badly they were treated by admins who shoot (block) first and ask questions later but that is the wiki cycle of knowledge. Some people use wiki for their greater good while others use it as their playground, vandalism will continue and the fact is that the only reason we have so many editors is that they are all here to fight vandalism, not make articles. Most editors are starting to make bot like edits and have small competitions between themselves to see who makes the most edits in a day or who blocks the most users in a day. Wiki is a battle ground, a playground and a big sponge of knowledge all in one…

ba 5 years

Not merely deletionists, but dogmatists insist their pre-copernican view of the world, backed by self-serving corporate media and/or their own conflict of interests, is WP:RS correct. Medical articles suffer from greatly from this. Even worse is that they form gangs, and will stalk skilled “opponents”. It gets old. Cripes, I see one such editor above.

margin1522 5 years

>using nonsense criteria like preferring commentaries to original source material,

Jel, you will understand the reason for this if you have ever tried to edit an article that supports the Korean side in Japanese-Korean territorial disputes by citing original source material, in the form of ancient Chinese chronicles.

There must be a wealth of scholarly research on the Albigensian Crusade. Instead of your interpretation of the original source material, Wikipedia wants your summary of expert research. Published research is reliable at least in the sense that a reputable publisher has chosen to provide it. Why is it nonsense to prefer that?

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