Wikipedia Will Fail Within 5 Years

By Eric Goldman

Over the weekend I had dinner with Mike Godwin, one of the most significant influencers of the development of Cyberlaw and a longtime friend. Mike and I were discussing Wikipedia, the community-edited and -maintained encyclopedia. I like Wikipedia a lot and use it pretty frequently. However, as recent events have indicated, Wikipedia is far from perfect.

In particular, I remarked to Mike that Wikipedia inevitably will be overtaken by the gamers and the marketers to the point where it will lose all credibility. There are so many examples of community-driven communication tools that ultimately were taken over—-USENET and the Open Directory Project are two that come top-of mind-—that I didn’t imagine that my statement would be controversial or debatable. Instead, I was surprised when Mike disagreed with my assertion. Mike’s view is that Wikipedia has shown remarkable resilience to attacks to date, and this is evidence that the system is more stable than I think it is.

Here’s my thinking. As Wikipedia grows in traffic, outlinks from Wikipedia become more valuable—-because of direct referrals and, perhaps more importantly, the PageRank that will flow from the link. Therefore, marketers will inevitably try to stuff links into Wikipedia. Because there are no barriers to editing Wikipedia, this is trivially easy for marketers to do. Eventually, marketers will build scripts to edit Wikipedia pages to insert links and conduct automated attacks on Wikipedia.

So long as the marketers’ scripted/repeated activity is trivial in quantity, the self-policing community of Wikipedia will patiently delete those attacks-—just like we delete spam from our in-boxes today. But over time, as the attacks become more determined and more automated, the Wikipedia community will become less enthusiastic about undoing the marketers’ changes. At this point, one of two things will happen:

1) Wikipedia will have to change its open access nature. Instead, Wikipedia will have to lock down lots of pages from being edited at all. Or Wikipedia will have to install some reputational management system to limit who has the right to post or edit content.

2) Alternatively, Wikipedia community members progressively will do less spam clean-up. This will lead to a gradual but ultimately irreversible downward spiral as more pages are taken over by marketers, decreasing the database’s credibility, while as database credibility decreases, community members will feel less incentive to clean up the pages.

Mike and I made a (wagerless) bet that on December 2, 2010, we will see where Wikipedia stands and decide the winner. If you have your own prediction on the fate of Wikipedia, please leave a comment.

UPDATE: So just about the same time I posted this initially, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia announced that registration will be required before a person can create a new entry. Needless to say, I’m hardly surprised by this move, but it’s far too little to solve the real problem, and I’m confident that soon it will be followed by more limits on posting and editing. Marketers can still game the site by (1) creating fake accounts, and (2) editing existing postings (which is what I’d do if I were gaming the system); and both of these steps can be automated. Wikipedia is a fantastic idea with a finite life built into its architecture–it can be open access or spam-free, but not both. We’ve already seen the first significant step towards restricting access.

UPDATE 2: Mike Godwin offers a response.

UPDATE 3: Wikipedia has offered a “semi-protection” option for “vandalized” pages, which restricts the ability of some people to edit pages. This is yet another step towards shutting down open access, but it’s a very small response to a very small subset of the problems Wikipedia faces. Look for continued expansions of limits on open access as the full scope of the problem becomes clear.

UPDATE 4: In Dec. 2006, I renewed my prediction that Wikipedia will fail in 4 years.

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