There’s a silent majority that edits Wikipedia every day, but who we do not know. Called anonymous or “IP” editors, these are people who contribute to Wikipedia without logging in. They are identified in page histories only by their IP address, a string of numbers used in Internet routing and addressing systems.

This month, the Wikimedia Foundation’s Growth team is embarking on a new project to learn more about anonymous editors on Wikipedia, and to see if we might attract more of them to join the community of registered Wikipedians.

Our first experimental call to register, triggered when a user clicks edit

Why ask anonymous editors to register?

We think that having an account on Wikipedia does enormous good for people who wish to edit the encyclopedia. While not requiring an account reduces friction for the very casual contributor, an account on Wikipedia is quick to set up, requires no personal information, and comes with a host of benefits for editors — like notifications, a personal contribution history, and access to new beta features.

Anonymous editors already represent a significant chunk of new people signing up for Wikipedia. 10% of new registrations in English are editing anonymously before registration, and this proportion is much higher in many other major languages: 18% in German Wikipedia, 19% in Spanish Wikipedia, and 21% in Japanese Wikipedia. We also know that people who edit anonymously before registering are much more likely to be successful contributors after they register.

Our second experimental call to register, triggered after a user saves an edit

There are a variety of simple and fairly unobtrusive ways we can educate more Wikipedia users about why they might want to register an account. While we might also target some of these improvements to readers as well, anonymous editors are extremely likely to be interested in these calls to register.

What we’re testing

Starting this month, we’ll be launching interface experiments to ask more anonymous editors to register. Until now, the only time that unregistered users are told they may want to log in is mid-edit, forcing them to abandon their work. Our first test, launching in English as well as a handful of other languages, will compare asking people to sign up just before or just after they edit.

We’ll measure the success of these tests based on how well they retain productive contributors on Wikipedia. Future tests ideas include making it easy to sign up and save an edit at the same time, showing registered-only features and then prompting login, and more. You can learn more by viewing our research and design documentation.

Learning more about who anonymous editors are

On the English version of Wikipedia alone, anonymous users make about 900,000 edits every month. These edits represent roughly a third of all contributions to the project. Anonymous editors may have a huge influence on our project, but we know little about who they are.

We actually don’t even fully understand how many people contribute anonymously. There are about 350,000 unique IP addresses editing every month in English. However, an IP address is a poor representation of a single device or person accessing Wikipedia. Individual users (especially on phones or tablets) may change IP addresses regularly. Contrast this with the fact that a handful of IP addresses can represent a large institution like a government office, school, library, or (in at least one case) an entire country.

We have recently learned more about the volume and impact of anonymous editors, but we have a long way to go. Through experimentation to improve the user experience for these contributors, we’ll also collect data that gives us insight into the role anonymous editors play in the Wikipedia community.

Steven Walling,
Product Manager