Wikipedia Will Fail in Four Years

By Eric Goldman

[UPDATE: I put together a more formal assessment of Wikipedia's challenges in my 2010 article, Wikipedia’s Labor Squeeze and its Consequences.]

About a year ago, I predicted that Wikipedia will fail in 5 years. My logic:

* As Wikipedia traffic grows, it becomes a juicier target for marketers seeking to promote themselves (see the analogous problems Digg is experiencing with results gaming as it gains more traffic)

* Wikipedians are the only thing stopping those marketers from modifying Wikipedia’s open-access pages in ways that might degrade the user experience

* Wikipedians, in turn, will fight the marketers because of their pride in the site. However, as marketers become more determined and use automated tools to mount their attacks, Wikipedians will progressively find themselves spending more time combating the marketers.

* The repetitive and unsatisfying nature of these tasks will burn out some Wikipedians, and slowly they will individually decide to invest their time elsewhere.

* As some Wikipedians check out, the remaining Wikipedians will have to pick up the load. With fewer hands, the site will get progressively junkier, which will reduce the pride incentive of the remaining Wikipedians, further accelerating their check-out rate.

* Thus, Wikipedia will enter a death spiral where the rate of junkiness will increase rapidly until the site becomes a wasteland. Alternatively, to prevent this death spiral, Wikipedia will change its core open-access architecture, increasing the database’s vitality by changing its mission somewhat.

I’d like to think this prediction is based on my brilliant clairvoyance, but I’m just basing this prediction on the experiences of ODP. I think it’s fair to say that (1) in its heyday, the ODP did an amazing job of aggregating free labor to produce a valuable database, and (2) the ODP is now effectively worthless. We’re still in the first phase with Wikipedia, but the second phase seems inevitable. So on the 1 year anniversary of my 5 year prediction, I thought it would be a good time to check in on progress.

Wikipedia Relies on a Relatively Small Number of Editors

In theory, Wikipedia draws on the collective wisdom of its readers. Instead, Wikipedia is run principally by a fairly small group of hardcore Wikipedians. In June 2005, Benkler estimated that Wikipedia had 46,000 contributors (contributed 10+ times), 17,000 active contributors (5x in last month) and 3,000 very active contributors (100x in last month). Separately, Jimmy Wales reportedly said that 0.7% of Wikipedia’s users have made 50% of all Wikipedia edits and 1.8% of users have written more than 72% of all articles, and he was quoted in the New York Times in June as saying “A lot of people think of Wikipedia as being 10 million people, each adding one sentence…But really the vast majority of work is done by this small core community” of about 1,000 Wikipedians.

Distilling these observations, Ben McConnell posits a 1% rule: “Roughly 1% of your site visitors will create content within a democratized community.” At Epinions, our contributor ratio was a little higher, but the principle was roughly consistent–a very small fraction of readers become writers.

Not only is the group small, but it’s organized hierarchically just like any other editorially driven media enterprise. As a New York Times article said, Wikipedia “has built itself a bureaucracy….It has a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control, delete unsuitable articles and protect those that are vulnerable to vandalism.” Also see this interview for more details about Wikipedia’s various bureaucracies and internal procedures.

Is Wikipedia Really an Open-Access Site?

With this bureaucracy and tight editorial control, arguably Wikipedia already has diverged from a paradigmatic open-access site. As explained by Aaron Swartz, the community becomes somewhat insular and self-focused:

insiders account for the vast majority of the edits. But it’s the outsiders who provide nearly all of the content. Unfortunately, precisely because such people are only occasional contributors, their opinions aren’t heard by the current Wikipedia process. They don’t get involved in policy debates, they don’t go to meetups, and they don’t hang out with Jimbo Wales. And so things that might help them get pushed on the backburner, assuming they’re even proposed.

In my experience, Wikipedians also tend to be suspicious of contributions from outsiders. According to the NYT article, one Wikipedian monitors newly created pages and deletes half of those pages. Plus, in my experience, Wikipedians often revert these contributions and direct the contributor to discuss the change in the page’s discussion area (in other words, the contributor must effectively lobby the page’s guardian about the change’s merits). This increases the costs of any contributions, and only a limited number of contributors are willing to make such investments. For those who don’t undertake those lobbying efforts, I suspect there is widespread reversion of “drive-by” contributions.

The Incentives Problem

This model of Wikipedia relies on a small number of contributors who fiercely control contributions. Thus, for the model to sustain itself, these contributors must remain motivated—or, at least, the rate of new hardcore Wikipedians joining must exceed the rate of their departures.

However, the Wikipedia model provides little extrinsic benefits for Wikipedians. They don’t get paid, so Wikipedia never will attract large numbers of Wikipedians who can earn significant bucks by selling their time elsewhere. More importantly, Wikipedia doesn’t provide any meaningful attribution for power contributors; they are largely anonymous/faceless. Clearly, many people are willing to contribute time to a project if they get some reputational benefits; indeed, giving content/services away for free as a way of creating awareness of other offerings can be a hugely successful business model in many circumstances. But participating in Wikipedia doesn’t generate these reputational benefits.

So Wikipedia must constantly attract new Wikipedians without being able to offer them either cash or credit. Unquestionably, as we’ve seen, thousands of Wikipedians are willing to provide enormous amounts of their time for intrinsic benefits—the feeling of doing good, the fun of interacting with like minded contributors, the power of contributing to the discourse, etc. But, with the limited incentives, I think it’s going to be hard to recruit large numbers of Wikipedians over time, and it’s going to be even harder to keep power Wikipedians contributing at a consistent rate as they experience ennui or life changes that increase the opportunity cost of their time.

FWIW, contrast this with Epinions. Epinions paid contributors cold, hard cash and offered them a host of reputational benefits. Even so, Epinions has experienced significant turnover. I suspect that a supermajority of Epinions’ power users from 1999 are long gone by now. Nevertheless, the incentives have been enough for the community to replenish itself.

Meanwhile, the Attacks Continue

We continue to see a variety of attacks on Wikipedia. In one amusing attack from July, Stephen Colbert told his viewers to edit the Wikipedia entry on “elephants.” Wikipedia had to immediately “semi-protect” the page from the loosely coordinated vandalism.

Further, marketers have awoken to Wikipedia’s potential. Wikipedia is fighting back by threatening to publicly shame marketers through a public blacklist of link spammers, with the further hope that search engines will blacklist these people as well. This is a terrible idea, but the point is that the link spammers are getting to Wikipedians and invoking a response. This trend will only get worse.

Conclusion

I love Wikipedia. I use it every day. Based on the stats from my Google personalized search, Wikipedia is the #1 site I click on from Google search results. So, I’m not rooting for it to fail. But the very architecture of Wikipedia contains the seeds of its own destruction. Without fame or fortune, I don’t think Wikipedia’s incentive system is sustainable. Meanwhile, we can see the very beginning of the attacks that will lead to the death spiral. As a result, I stand by my prediction for 2010.

Nov 2009 update: I have explained my theories in more detail in this new article.

My Own Wikipedia Page

Finally, I should note that in January 2006, a Wikipedian created a Wikipedia page for me due to my prediction. Recently, that page got tagged that “article lacks information on the importance of the subject matter.” It was hard not to take this personally…until I realized that at least I wasn’t marked “non-notable” or for deletion (yet). (But my mom took great umbrage at the questioning of her offspring’s importance!) [see this update about my personal page]

UPDATE: I have not been able to verify the authenticity of this September email from Brad Patrick, Wikimedia’s in-house lawyer. However, according to the email, Patrick says that “corporate self-editing and vanity page creation…is simply out of hand” and, in response, “when [editors] see new usernames and page creation which are blatantly commercial – shoot on sight.” Not only does this reinforce the difficulty that average users have in making contributions, but obviously I’m predicting that the shoot-on-sight policy won’t be sufficient to solve the problem.

UPDATE 2: I closed comments because of comment spam. If you look at the existing comments, you see a string on specialized v. general wikis. In response to that, a Wikipedia editor sent me the following email (reposted with permission):

Specialized wikis *can* compete effectively with the main Wikipedias, but certain conditions have to be met. The advantages of doing all your work on a full Wikipedia shouldn’t be underestimated: access to a large pool of competent editors, with very low transition costs – for example, it would be almost free for me to switch from working on, say, medieval history articles to working on Star Wars articles, because the methods, organization, tools like templates, and so on are mostly identical, because my account and reputation follow me there, because all my customizations and personal tools like custom Javascript or text editors will be equally applicable in the new area.

This is not true if the medieval articles and Star Wars article are on entirely separate wikis. There are also network effects to consider – pretty much every article sooner or later needs to link out of its specialized area to more generalist articles. If the separate wikis have interwiki linking set up, it isn’t all *that* much harder to link

to articles on other wikis than it is to link to an article on the home wiki, but that’s an esoteric and not popularly well known feature, and even at its best still adds friction to the work. – and a host of other benefits.

So basically the only way a specialist wiki can survive or thrive is if it is something Wikipedia refuses to carry. I was involved in the Star Wars area of en Wikipedia articles for a long time, and it did well, until it began to do _too_ well: editors from other areas saw the detail and profusion of articles in the SW area, and began moving

to trim it down drastically and raise standards for the remaining articles. In other words, Wikipedia in a sense decided to stop carrying SW articles. This rejection prompted most of the hardcore SW editors to fork and begin building Wookieepedia (a SW wiki hosted on

Wikia) using the base of SW articles from Wikipedia. Now their resource is so good that SW editing is mostly dead on Wikipedia, with the exception of a few editors like Deckiller who focus on organizing and removing and improving what’s left, and occasionally borrowing articles from Wookieepedia on the notable new or missing stuff.

Similarly, Wikibooks works because the Wikipedias refuse to carry that sort of thing, but people want to work on them anyway.

Wikimedia Commons *doesn’t* work so well because you can still upload all the Free images to the Wikipedias quite easily – they haven’t decided to force everyone to go away (and go to Commons to upload Free images) and so the Wikipedias are still a force to be reckoned with.

To summarize, if a Wikipedia allows something, the benefits of doing that something on that Wikipedia are so compelling that rival wikis can’t really compete and wither. But if a Wikipedia cracks down on something, then they sometimes provide a seed for a new wiki to grow around and also a number of editors who want to work on that seed but are balked within the Wikipedia.

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