Wikipedia: We’re Not Losing Contributors!

Craig Buckler

Wikipedia usage reducingAccording to research conducted by Felipe Ortega at Libresoft, a research group at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Wikipedia suffered a net loss of 49,000 contributors in the first three months of 2009. That compared to a loss of 4,900 contributors during the same period in 2008. (View the report – PDF, 9MB).

The media pounced on the report as evidence Wikipedia was failing. The news was full of rash statements such as “contributors are leaving in unprecedented numbers”, “it’s definitely a worrying trend”, “editors are becoming disenchanted”, “the Wikipedia project could be starting to stall”, and “the site could vanish”.

It’s utter nonsense. Wikipedia remains one of the most popular sites on the web and is valuable source of plagiarism for every homework-hating student! Over 14 million articles have been published, it’s normally at the top of Google searches, and receives 325 million visits every month.

I suspect we’re observing a case of diminishing returns. When Wikipedia started, there was just one page so it’s initial growth was exponential. However, now there are 3 million articles in English alone; how easy is it for contributors to find a topic that hasn’t already been covered in considerable depth?

In addition, Wikipedia has evolved from a free-for-all into a more secure information resource. In the early days, it lured spammers and vandals who added or modified a significant number of pages. Those activities have been mostly banished, so frivolous updates are far less likely.

Finally, I’d question how the data was analyzed. How do you know that a contributor has left forever?

Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales has also responded to the reports:

Our internal numbers don’t confirm all the claims made … the number of active editors across all projects is stable and new editors are replaced at about the same pace as existing editors are leaving.

It’s important to note that Dr Ortega’s study of editing patterns defines an editor as anyone who made a single edit, however experimental. This results in a total count of three million editors. We choose to define editors as people who have made at least 5 edits. By our narrower definition, just under a million people are counted as editors.

You can’t keep growing forever – there are only so many people on the internet.

Do you think Wikipedia is failing? Or is this simply a case of old-media journalists wishing its demise?