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