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