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Wikipedia may be the fifth-most-popular website in the world, but most of those viewers come to look without adding or changing any of the content on the site. And if viewers stop contributing content, Wikipedia will cease to survive.

According to the Wall Street Journal, that's not so far fetched. Wikipedia is currently hemorrhaging article editors. If Wikipedia can't get people to contribute to its voluble entries, is it possible for free user generated content to survive?

The user generated encyclopedia has roughly 325 million monthly visitors. But while Wikipedia's troubles with curbing vandalism on entries are well-known, its inability to retain and encourage contributors and editors is a newer and growing problem.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

"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, who analyzed Wikipedia's data on the editing histories of its more than three million active contributors in 10 languages."

Wikipedia already has troubles with its contributor demographic. For starters it's skews male and young, which could greatly effect the content and slant of its supposedly opinion free entries.

According to Andrew Lih's “The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia," contributors are “80% male, more than 65% single, more than 85% without children, around 70% under the age of 30.”

That's not the demographic of Wikipedia readers, but dedicated editors comprise a very small percentage of Wikipedians. In April, the Wikimedia Foundation and UNU-Merit released a study of Wikipedia users finding that 65% of respondents self-described as readers, and 35% as mostly occasional contributors. 60% of contributors do it because “they like the idea of sharing knowledge”, while 50% wanted to fix a mistake.

Sue Gardner, executive director of the foundation, tells the Journal:

"We need sufficient people to do the work that needs to be done. But the purpose of the project is not participation."

Wikipedia's general popularity is not waning. The number of Web visitors grew 20% in the 12 months ending in September, according to comScore Media Metrix. But now it looks like an increasing majority of Wiki readers are leaning towards voyeurism rather than active participation. For a site that positions itself as "a world in which every single person can freely share in the sum of all human knowledge," that trend is worrisome.

Founder Jimmy Wales tells the Journal:

"If people think Wikipedia is done...that's substantial. But if the community has become more hostile to newbies, that's a correctable problem."

But if users are generally tired of contributing to a site without receiving any compensation, that is a big problem. Similar endeavors, like Jason Calacanis' Mahalo, pays contributors according to the popularity of their entries. In a world where individuals increasingly have outlets to share their opinions, whether it be on blogs, Twitter or personal websites, a business model that depends on free content that does not promote or pay its editors is likely to change if it wants to continue growing.

Image: Universidad Ray Juan Carlos

Meghan Keane

Published 23 November, 2009 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

721 more posts from this author

Comments (14)

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Michèle

I must admit I have never contributed to Wikipedia, though I have used it frequently for work. I guess that in my case it's just a problem of time, still I am not happy to learn that Wikipedia is losing contributors.

It is true that some form or reward could easily work. It doesn't have to be money; on the web lots of people are contented with badges, post counts, stars and other perks (e.g. the tiny "twitter translator" badge).

almost 7 years ago

Alec Kinnear

Alec Kinnear, Creative Director at Foliovision

The problem with Wikipedia is that whole section have been hijacked by self-appointed Wiki-police who discourage and roll back contribution. I think there is a demographic issue at stake.

i.e. contributing to Wikipedia isn't fun anymore. It's a long hard fight to try to keep any of one's posting online.

almost 7 years ago

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William Gaultier

As a business person and an individual, I have used Wikipedia time and again. I have corrected things that needed to be corrected and tried to had a link here or there.

With that said, I am going to go contribute to Wiki foundation now to ensure that this great resource is well funded and doesn't die.

William

almost 7 years ago

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Promotional Products

This is a very interesting concept that is definitely plausible, but I don't think will happen. I think the site is losing editors because people are finding other sites to use as more reliable sources. I think that as a new generation of users comes to the internet, the site will trend back upwards.

almost 7 years ago

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Developer Chris

Perhaps it has something to do with Wikipedia raising funds to support the lavish lifestyle of its founder rather than to contribute to the health of wikipedia.

If you lose faith in the purported founder, (he's not but wants to rewrite history) http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2005/12/69880 then its not surprising at all

over 6 years ago

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Pruning Grape Vines

I have been a long time editor and I have noticed that many people like to argue over small points now - they will change one's material - sometimes up to 50 times - like they have an axe to grind. So I stay out of it. I have made my contribution already.

over 6 years ago

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Kris

Wikipedia is losing editors. Is free user generated content dying?
I don't think it will happen..because there's more people using it. And until now its more useful..

over 5 years ago

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Dan Treswell

I don't think so.
I agree to what Kris said:
"Kris
Wikipedia is losing editors. Is free user generated content dying?
I don't think it will happen..because there's more people using it. And until now its more useful.."

almost 5 years ago

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Alex Hils

"William Gaultier
As a business person and an individual, I have used Wikipedia time and again. I have corrected things that needed to be corrected and tried to had a link here or there.
With that said, I am going to go contribute to Wiki foundation now to ensure that this great resource is well funded and doesn't die.
William"
--Thanks William.

almost 5 years ago

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Brad Nicholsen

This is a really good discussion! Thanks for the viewpoints.

almost 5 years ago

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N. Lopez

Wikipedia losing editors and readers should come as no surprise to those who have followed it as editors and readers. It has been taken over by propagandists, egoists and volunteers for Israel, It has always had a credibility problem, but it is no longer as truth-seeking or truth supplying as it used to be. The last thing it could afford is to become another propaganda machine with editors who make it impossible for those who disagree with their politics unable to contribute.

over 4 years ago

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N. Lopez

The cause of the loss that something can be done about can be summed up under one heading: egoist editors who sacrifice integrity to their egos.

over 4 years ago

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IAW

Too many Wikipedia editors are picky and dishonest. Yes, politically biased too.

over 4 years ago

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B. Walker

What N. Lopez and IAW said. Wikipedia is overrun with wannabe "experts" and "editors" who are there because they have enormous egos and nothing else to contribute. Add relevant, verifiable information along with sources and some loser with an inferiority complex will delete it within minutes. DO YOURSELF A FAVOR: DO NOT WASTE TIME ON WIKIPEDIA.

about 4 years ago

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