Wikipedia is dying! Wikipedia is dying! That’s the line parroted by the media every six months or so since 2009, when Spanish researcher Felipe Ortega first noticed that unprecedented numbers of volunteer editors were abandoning the sixth most popular website in the world. As the now familiar story goes, the byzantine infrastructure behind the free, crowdsourced encyclopedia—30 million articles in 287 languages, including more than 4.3 million in English—is choking to death. Wikipedia pessimists say the site is fatally clogged by a geeky cabal of white American men who would rather describe the minutiae of a new breed of Pokémon or fervently debate the politicization of hummus than mentor a diverse group of new editors around the world.
The other corrosive element is the pervasive fighting by editors that sometimes supersedes the facts. “You have to realize that there are two very, very different sides to Wikipedia,” Tarc, a 40-year-old IT worker from New England, told Newsweek in an email (Tarc is his Wikipedia editor name). One is “the public face of Jimbo Wales and ‘the sum of human knowledge,’ represented in tens of hundreds of thousands of articles, i.e. the encyclopedia proper.” The other is “harsh and ugly,” like “taking the red pill and waking up in the Matrix.”
Tarc took the red pill when he started editing in 2005. “To me it was more of a new place to hash out one’s ideological positions than to collaborate on writing your own encyclopedia,” he said. “And like most of the Internet, it can be done anonymously and without any repercussion.”
Tarc, a self-described reformed “Internet jerk,” spent years editing articles on contentious topics ranging from Israel to Sarah Palin, not for the love of public knowledge but for love of drama. “Some of the battles are waged down at the sentence and word level, where each is not the product of a cheerful volunteer but a large collective of competing sides that have to compromise,” he said. If, a few months later, an editor wants to change the wording, the bickering begins anew.
Everyone seems to agree that some editing standards are needed, and that Wikipedia can’t flourish without substantial pruning; otherwise, people’s reputations are ruined or, sometimes worse, restored (last month, Vice U.K. broke a story about Wiki-PR, a sock-puppet firm that strategically edits clients’ pages in violation of the site’s neutrality policy.)
In many ways, Wikipedia is a victim of its success, and the Wiki ethos upon which it was founded. The site grew quickly: more than 20,000 articles in 18 languages just one year after Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger founded it in January 2001. Two years later, Wales launched the Wikimedia Foundation to finance and run the site; the nonprofit now has a staff of 187 people who develop and maintain open-content, Wiki-based products. After the site saw gargantuan growth from 2004 to 2007—the English-language Wikipedia had around 750,000 entries by late 2005—the community created some tools to preserve quality and accuracy. Things didn’t go as planned.
A study published in the American Behavioral Science Journal by former Wikimedia fellows earlier this year found that the new automated quality-control tools and bureaucratic editing guidelines “crippled the very growth they were designed to manage” by scaring off new editors: The proportion of “desirable newcomers”—defined in the study as both “good-faith” editors who try but fail to be productive and “golden” (successful) contributors—entering Wikipedia has not changed since 2006, and they are significantly more likely than their predecessors to have their first contributions rejected. The number of editors peaked in 2007 and has been falling ever since, and it’s now next-to-impossible to become an exalted “administrator,” editors who check entries for accuracy and fairness.
The site didn’t just stagnate; it homogenized. In 2011, The New York Times reported that less than 15 percent of Wikipedia’s hundreds of thousands of contributors were women. Studies have found that articles written by female editors were notably shorter than those written by men, and that more than 80 percent of entries tagged by location were about either Europe or North America.
The Wikimedia foundation disclosed in its 2011-2012 annual report that “declining participation is by far the most serious problem facing the Wikimedia projects.” The Wikimedia fellows behind a comprehensive study led by computer scientist and University of Minnesota Ph.D. candidate Aaron Halfaker were more blunt: They suggested Wikipedia change its motto from “the encyclopedia that anyone can edit” to “the encyclopedia that anyone who understands the norms, socializes him or herself, dodges the impersonal wall of semiautomated rejection and still wants to voluntarily contribute his or her time and energy can edit.”
Wikimedia has been working hard on this problem, but the site is still “almost entirely written by techno-Libertarian white guys in their 30s,” said Kevin Gorman, a longtime Wikipedia editor who has done work for the Wikimedia Foundation. According to a 2011 worldwide Wikipedia Editor Survey, the typical editor is college-educated, 30 years old, and intimidatingly tech-savvy; 91 percent of them are men. In 2011, Wikimedia Executive Director Sue Gardner pledged to raise the number of women contributors to 25 percent by 2015. But it is unclear whether that is still a goal; last March, she announced plans to transition out of her position.
Headlines proclaiming Wikipedia’s decline are “hyperbolic and wrong,” said Andrew Lih, a journalism professor at American University and author of The Wikipedia Revolution. Even Halfaker thinks there’s hope. “I’m inspired by what Wikipedia has done for the accessibility and access of knowledge generally,” he told Newsweek. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do better.”
Halfaker has developed a program called Snuggle, an antidote to Huggle, Wikipedia’s most prolific countervandalism tool. Snuggle is meant to minimize the amount of effort Wikipedians waste fighting vandalism and spam so that they can focus on contributing new content. Halfaker said Huggle works, but it also “labels newcomers as a problem to be dealt with.” Conversely, Snuggle highlights the work of “good-faith” newcomers and the negative reaction they face. It sounds like a promising countermeasure, but Wikimedia is thinking bigger.
Gardner told Newsweek that Wikimedia is primarily focused on fixing the infrastructure, streamlining Wikipedia’s wonky and inscrutable text-based editing tool so that it’s as accessible to undergraduates and grandmas as it is to geeks. She believes VisualEditor, currently in buggy Beta, will do just that—as soon as it stops crashing.
She also pointed to another pet cause: tweaking the site’s interface in small ways most users probably won’t notice. For example, when Wikimedia realized that successful editors got their sea legs by fixing typos, the foundation started directing new registrants toward articles full of them.
“The idea is to handhold people so they’re getting positive feedback,” she said. According to Wikimedia, that quick fix has led to 3,000 new Wikipedians a month making their first edits.
Wikimedia has also hired diversity advocates like Sarah Stierch, a longtime Wikipedia editor and gender issues crusader. Before joining Wikimedia as a program evaluation community coordinator, Stierch held a paid Wikimedia fellowship during which she focused on gender work and taught women around the country how to edit Wikipedia. She also founded Teahouse, described on its Wikipedia page as “a friendly place to help new editors become accustomed to Wikipedia culture, ask questions, and develop community relationships.”
Additionally, Wikimedia helps organize domestic and global education programs in which volunteer “ambassadors” work with college professors to assign Wikipedia entries instead of essays. Gardner extolled the virtues of the program in Egypt, launched in spring 2012 to tackle the gender gap on the Arabic Wikipedia. It reached out to arts and languages departments, where there is a higher percentage of female students. According to Wikimedia, 87 percent of the Egyptian student-editors in the program are women, and they’ve added more than 1,000 articles to the Arabic Wikipedia and have made needed edits on many existing articles.
Gorman, the regional ambassador for the U.S. Education Program for California and Hawaii, spoke passionately of his work with professors and undergraduates and pointed to some of his favorite pages written by U.C. Berkeley freshmen, including one on STDs in prison, which he called one of his best “how the hell is this not here yet?” examples. But he said the program lacks oversight, particularly when it comes to targeting underrepresented topics, and wishes Wikimedia would consider paying ambassadors to attract more contributors. “A lot of Wikipedians have a phobia of money,” he said, which he believes holds back widespread progress.
Gardner’s response: “I don’t think we would ever consider paying [ambassadors], because we really don’t have to. Wikipedians naturally want to evangelize. They like coaching new people.”
Tell that to frequent Wikipedia editor Andy the Grump, a U.K. resident who “naturally” wants to squabble, not coach—he asked to be identified by his editor name only “given some of the controversial topics” he has written about. He listed a variety of subjects one could visit if looking for controversy, including “medical quackery,” em dashes, and “debates about whether Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ was New Wave or Dance Pop.” But Andy the Grump doesn’t think Wikipedia is eating itself alive. A better user interface “might encourage the non-geeks a little,” he said, but he thinks it’s inevitable that certain demographics—i.e., guys just like him—are going to be more attracted to the site than other groups. “Contributing to an encyclopedia for fun isn’t going to appeal to everyone,” he wrote in an email.
Gardner believes Wikimedia’s initiatives will start paying off in the next few years—and they might—but the data isn’t impressive. The education programs don’t result in higher editor-retention levels. Stierch said her grassroots groups haven’t attracted new women to editing and that Wikimedia still struggles to find women for leadership positions.
“There hasn’t been a [Wikipedia] project that has really moved the needle,” said Valerie Aurora, the executive director and cofounder of the Ada Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting women in open tech and culture. She said both community leaders and editors need to prioritize diversity. But what if Wikipedia’s core demographic would rather revive petty grudges on pages like “The Unblockables,” than, say, mentor an 18-year-old girl from Pakistan?
Even if Wikimedia fails to draw a diverse group of users who want to edit, not just battle one another, it seems unlikely that Wikipedia will self-destruct. What it offers the world is imperfect, but so much better than no Wikipedia at all—even if, as Stierch said, the site “epitomizes a project started by good-faith white males,” like so much written history and cultural research in the Western world, that may take years to change.“I can’t even imagine a world without Wikipedia at this point,” Stierch said. “Can you?”
From our Nov. 15, 2013, issue.