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

Alex Linhares 6 years

600+ comments on slashdot; all complaining about the deletionists.

If WP does not fight the deletionist mentality and its archaic bureaucracy, it will become altavista.

Tim Vickers 6 years

Do your analyses count the edits disallowed by the edit filter? If you are counting a single edit as an “editor”, the large number of vandalism edits that are now being warned off by this software may affect the numbers, particularly since the filter was turned on in March 2009.

Anky-man 6 years

I, for one, am one of those professional contributors who left Wiki in disgust. After spending a lot of time creating pages or adding a lot of content, some amateur came along and dumbed down the content and added fictious pictures that were purported to be of the creatures listed. It became a waste of my time to provide a lot of information that could be cut-and-paste into term papers, dissertations, reports, etc., and have some arm-chair contributor wreck it all.

A Valery 6 years

No-one seems to have taken into consideration the number of editors with multiple alternative accounts. That would drastically reduce the number of people who are editing, though not the number of named editors. And what about IPs? One IP, such as a school one, may allow editing by many, many people.

Jel 6 years

The entire thing has fallen into the hands of spambots – automatic stylecheckers which stick nonsense flyers over pages. You look at the discussion pages of some and find they’re part of Project This and Group That, pages of nonsense because the top page is a stub and nobody from any of these so-called groups can be bothered to do some serious work on it. Then there’s a bot looking for references on the page, and another which – well, go look around and you’ll see.
I took on editing the Albigensian Crusade page a while back, a fairly simple job because what’s known about it comes principally from three contemporary chronicles dealing with the specific subject. A chronicle is self-indexed by time, therefore it should have been adequate to simply point readers in the direction of the sources, but no, that was inadequate, full references please. I got started, went so far, and checked if this was right. The %*$^^@# responsible refused to take the time to feedback, and was quite rude about it, so I stopped.
Other appeals to administration went nowhere, and I concluded this is a system full of chiefs who can’t be bothered to get their hands dirty actually editing, using nonsense criteria like preferring commentaries to original source material, and who have drifted a long way from the fundamental maxim of the Wiki, Ignore All Rules. My reply nowadays when I come across one of these BS merchants is simply to bin all flyers, as if they can’t be bothered to fix the problem themselves, they’re unworthy of our notice.

Warpath/Cometstyles 6 years

Wikipedia has definitely lost a lot of good editors over the last 18 months, there is no denying that but 49,000 may be a bit over the top. In the early months of this year, there was definitely a mass-exodus an most of these were long time contributors but with Wikipedia, no one is truly ever gone..they come back, or they stop for a while then return months or even years later to continue from where they left off or if they were banned or blocked, they wait a few days, get a new IP and are back with a seemingly clean conscience with their mind set on one goal..which I won’t mention. What most media sites don’t report on is the ages of most of these “volunteers”. In my time on WikiMedia, I have come across users as young as 7 years old to as old as 65 (mostly people over 65 forgot their password to their accounts..haha) and most of these editors have no ill-feeling towards wikimedia as a whole and are just trying to make a name for themselves. The highest per stats was 54,510 back in March 2007 but if you look at the trend, its definitely falling and In Sept 2009, it was down to just over 39,000. There is definitely a gradual decline in WP users. Before I used to bet with other users on the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) that wikipedia will not be around in a few years time because they would lose most of their users because of some new internet social site pulling them in or after the introduction of AD’s to the wiki’s, no one would want to be part of it. I hope neither of it happens as Wikipedia is probably one of the few sites on “teh intehnet” which is actually educating yet at the same time entertains the masses..

Robert 6 years

I used to spend a lot of time writing for Wikipedia, amending entries and creating new articles. Now it seems that a small number of self-appointed editors run the site. If I create new articles then they are nearly always deleted. If I correct information I know for a fact is wrong, it is reverted back and I am warned by the small sub class of elite editors. I could indulge in an “edit war”, but there seems very little point. It seems more mature to back away.

I will never write for wikipedia again, even if I see a spelling mistake. I still read the site daily, and still find it a valuble resource. But editing is a waste of time.

blahedo 6 years

I was once a fairly active editor on Wikipedia. For reasons not directly related to WP itself I backed off a bit but still would edit in fits and starts every few months. My most recent experiences have been quite negative: edits reverted with no reason, pages tagged as grammatically terrible when they were no such thing, or tagged as “not up to WP’s standards” when they were stubs and in some cases *still editing*. These taggings tended to be “drive-by” in the sense that some other editor dropped the tag onto the page or made their reversion but then failed to respond to explanations on the talk page for days. None of the welcoming, try-anything, be-bold spirit that first drew me in five years ago. So when you say that “Removing barriers is key to recruiting new editors,” that may be true, but it’s not the UI barriers that are the problem: it’s got to be an attitude change among the active editors that haven’t been chased away. Good luck with that.

Interested Observer 6 years

Alex – could you give a link to the biographical article about the scientist that you worked on? I for one would love to see what happens with it (or what happened already).

Felix Pleșoianu 6 years

I’m a very occasional contributor to Wikipedia. Now and then I add a reference, or a link, or else I correct the occasional typo. That happens a few times a year. Would I be counted as an editor by any measurement? Would anyone have – eventually – made the same corrections and additions if I wasn’t there?

Dr. Ortega’s study is interesting and potentially useful, but it doesn’t say anything about Wikipedia’s state of health. Let’s just keep up the good work.

Alex Linhares 6 years

So here the talk is about being open; the action is to moderate or block all comments?

VenDiagram 6 years

Let’s face it, Wiki is here to stay. While it may not be submittable as a reliable source of assignments mot of the information for these is gotten off of wiki and sites liked to by the wiki, these students will often then inprove the wiki. Dedicated fans of various shows and games will create and improve wikis on their various topics. Professionals may take some time out of their busy scheduals to fix an error they have noticed on a page about their topic, or create articles on more specific areas in order to help share their knowledge.

Forget google, there are thousands of search engines on the internet. There is not another database system as user friendly and dedicated as wiki. Whether you edit 1000 times or just once the sharing of knowlegde brings a feeling of pride and community that will keep people coming back to improve wikis for years to come.

Plus, you know, wiki’s awesome.

Alex Linhares 6 years

Well, I have taken hours editing and polishing a biographical article about a scientist. There is nothing in the article now that is under dispute, yet it is probably going to be taken down and deleted as one editor is exercising his or hers petty power-plays. Take it out and I’m never contributing again (neither time or money).

It is unbearably sad that wikipedia seems to be becoming the encyclopedia of all things pokemon, and deletes (or will) pages of scientists who have influenced courses in major universities and who are doing serious change out there.

All things Pokemon smoothly flow, unchallenged, while serious researchers are deleted?

Is that the future of wikipedia?

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