The Rise and Decline of an Open Collaboration System: How Wikipedia’s reaction to sudden popularity is causing its decline

Summary (TL;DR):

To deal with the massive influx of new editors between 2004 and 2007, Wikipedians built automated quality control tools and solidified their rules of governance. In our paper, we observe that these reasonable and effective strategies for maintaining the quality of the encyclopedia have come at the cost of decreased retention of desirable new editors.

The Rise and Decline of the English Wikipedia

The number of active editors (>=5 edits/month) is plotted over time for the English language Wikipedia.

The Story:

In 2006, the English Wikipedia faced an amazing opportunity; the open encyclopedia was growing exponentially both in new content and new contributors. With this success and growth, however, came a problem — anonymous vandalism.

In Wikipedia, content is contributed openly by Internet users, often anonymously. As the English Wikipedia gained in popularity, the potential for malicious activity grew, as well. Many feared that the vandals could overwhelm the good-faith editors tasked with keeping them at bay.

In response, Wikipedians constructed a complex immune system to fight vandalism, incorporating several strategies, including:

  • Robots to automatically catch egregious cases.
  • Semi-automated systems that combined human judgment with computational efficiency.
  • Interface improvements to streamline the process of reverting malicious edits.

Our Results:

In early 2007, the English Wikipedia’s exponential growth in active editors changed directions and entered a steady decline. In this paper, we show that this decline was primarily due to a substantial drop in the retention of new, good-faith editors. Since 2007, desirable newcomers are more likely to have their work rejected, often through semi-autonomous vandal fighting tools (like Huggle). Furthermore, new users are being pushed out of policy articulation. During Wikipedia’s exponential growth period, Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines of behavior were effectively locked down against changes by new editors, and newcomers today struggle to find out where to ask for help.

For more, see our full paper, The Rise and Decline of an Open Collaboration System: How Wikipedia’s reaction to sudden popularity is causing its decline.
Aaron Halfaker, University of Minnesota
Stuart Geiger, University of California, Berkeley
Jonathan Morgan, University of Washington
John Riedl, University of Minnesota

5 thoughts on “The Rise and Decline of an Open Collaboration System: How Wikipedia’s reaction to sudden popularity is causing its decline

  1. This is a really interesting paper guys, thanks for posting! For my own work it is very timely too, as I’ve recently been thinking about this very same contributor vs. editor dichotomy at Wikipedia, since we use Wikipedia as an exemplar of our Crowd Capital theory (see the most recent HICSS post if you’re interested).

    As your work points out, the “bots” seem to exacerbate the “rejection situation”… this finding makes me wonder if there is something of a “mismatch” going on here..?

    By this I mean, that we can think of contributing to Wikipedia as an episodic event (by an anonymous, one-time contributor perhaps), whereas the editors collaborate with one another in community’s of varying degree… So perhaps there’s something of a mismatch between the “episodic” nature of contribution vs the “continuing/collaborative” nature of editing? If we think of bots as an episodic aspect too (certainly I’d argue that they don’t create community, and your finding seems to bolster this claim), then perhaps we have a situation where the bots are “nullifying” or “muting” the social capital necessary to bring new editors into the fold?

    Nonetheless, I’d be really interested to hear what you guys have to say about this little conjecture of mine, and thanks again for posting the work!

  2. This is a really fascinating argument, and one that’s intuitively appealing. What about the competing argument that there’s simply fewer open “resources” (as Suh et al. put it) left to write about?

    • That’s definitely really interesting Michael! It seems to raise the specter of some sort of nexus between contributors, editors and the content… Is it reasonable, I wonder, to assume that all editors begin as contributors in some respect…?

  3. That’s a good question. It’s the first one we get when presenting about this work. We tear down the argument more thoroughly in the hypothesis building portion of the paper.

    TL;DR: While there’s plenty of evidence that it is naturally becoming more difficult to contribute to the encyclopedia over time due to its completeness[1,2], there is both plenty of work left to do[3] and our work shows that there’s still plenty of newcomers willing to do it.

    While it may be true that newcomers simply aren’t aware of the available work, that’s a problem we already have made great steps in learning how to solve[4,5].

    2. Suh et al. The Singularity is not Near

  4. Agree with Aaron, obviously. ;) One part of the solution that we (HCI researchers, WMF) haven’t addressed very well yet is helping new editors find like-minded collaborators. Creating your own article from scratch may be plenty satisfying as a solo endeavor, but a great deal of the work on Wikipedia these days is oriented around curation and “filling in the gaps”. That kind of work may be more engaging for newcomers if they can work with others. WikiProjects[1] have traditionally served this purpose on Wikipedia, but many WikiProjects are inactive in 2013, and in general it’s hard for new users to find WikiProjects at all, let alone ones that match their interests.


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