Geoffrey A. Fowler

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“I make my living off the Evening News
Just give me something: something I can use
People love it when you lose
They love dirty laundry.

Don Henley, “Dirty Laundry”

Look up “Wikipedia loses” (with the quotes) and you get 20,800 results. Look up “Wikipedia has lost” and you get 56,900. (Or at least that’s what I got this morning.) Most of those results tell a story, which is what news reports do. “What’s the story?” may be the most common question asked of reporters by their managing editors. As humans, we are interested in stories — even if they’re contrived, which is what we have with all “reality” television shows.

Lately Wikipedia itself is the subject of a story about losing editors. The coverage snowball apparently started rolling with Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages, by Julia Angwin and Geoffrey A. Fowler in The Wall Street Journal. It begins, is the fifth-most-popular Web site in the world, with roughly 325 million monthly visitors. But unprecedented numbers of the millions of online volunteers who write, edit and police it are quitting.

That could have significant implications for the brand of democratization that Wikipedia helped to unleash over the Internet — the empowerment of the amateur.

Volunteers have been departing the project that bills itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” faster than new ones have been joining, and the net losses have accelerated over the past year. In the first three months of 2009, the English-language Wikipedia …

That’s all you get without paying. Still, it’s enough.

Three elements make stories interesting: 1) a protagonist we know, or is at least interesting; 2) a struggle of some kind; and 3) movement (or possible movement) toward a resolution. Struggle is at the heart of a story. There has to be a problem (what to do with Afghanistan), a conflict (a game between good teams, going to the final seconds), a mystery (wtf was Tiger Woods’ accident all about?), a wealth of complications (Brad and Angelina), a crazy success (the iPhone), failings of the mighty (Nixon and Watergate). The Journal‘s Wikipedia story is of the Mighty Falling variety.

The Journal’s source is Wikipedia: A Quantitative Analysis, a doctoral thesis by José Phillipe Ortega of Universidad Rey San Carlos in Madrid. (The graphic at the top of this post is one among many from the study.) In Wikipedia’s Volunteer Story, Erik Moeller and Erik Zachte of the Wikimedia Foundation write,

First, it’s important to note that Dr. Ortega’s study of editing patterns defines as an editor anyone who has made a single edit, however experimental. This results in a total count of three million editors across all languages.  In our own analytics, we choose to define editors as people who have made at least 5 edits. By our narrower definition, just under a million people can be counted as editors across all languages combined.  Both numbers include both active and inactive editors.  It’s not yet clear how the patterns observed in Dr. Ortega’s analysis could change if focused only on editors who have moved past initial experimentation.

Even more importantly, the findings reported by the Wall Street Journal are not a measure of the number of people participating in a given month. Rather, they come from the part of Dr. Ortega’s research that attempts to measure when individual Wikipedia volunteers start editing, and when they stop. Because it’s impossible to make a determination that a person has left and will never edit again, there are methodological challenges with determining the long term trend of joining and leaving: Dr. Ortega qualifies as the editor’s “log-off date” the last time they contributed. This is a snapshot in time and doesn’t predict whether the same person will make an edit in the future, nor does it reflect the actual number of active editors in that month.

Dr. Ortega supplements this research with data about the actual participation (number of changes, number of editors) in the different language editions of our projects. His findings regarding actual participation are generally consistent with our own, as well as those of other researchers such as Xerox PARC’s Augmented Social Cognition research group.

What do those numbers show?  Studying the number of actual participants in a given month shows that Wikipedia participation as a whole has declined slightly from its peak 2.5 years ago, and has remained stable since then. (See WikiStats data for all Wikipedia languages combined.) On the English Wikipedia, the peak number of active editors (5 edits per month) was 54,510 in March 2007. After a more significant decline by about 25%, it has been stable over the last year at a level of approximately 40,000. (See WikiStats data for the English Wikipedia.) Many other Wikipedia language editions saw a rise in the number of editors in the same time period. As a result the overall number of editors on all projects combined has been stable at a high level over recent years. We’re continuing to work with Dr. Ortega to specifically better understand the long-term trend in editor retention, and whether this trend may result in a decrease of the number of editors in the future.

They add details that amount to not much of a story, if you consider all the factors involved, including the maturity of Wikipedia itself.

As it happens I’m an editor of Wikipedia, at least by the organization’s own definitions. I’ve made fourteen contributions, starting with one in April 2006, and ending, for the moment, with one I made this morning. Most involve a subject I know something about: radio. In particular, radio stations, and rules around broadcast engineering. The one this morning involved edits to the WQXR-FM entry. The edits took a lot longer than I intended — about an hour, total — and were less extensive than I would have made, had I given the job more time and had I been more adept at editing references and citations. (It’s pretty freaking complicated.) The preview method of copy editing is also time consuming as well as endlessly iterative. It was sobering to see how many times I needed to go back and forth between edits and previews before I felt comfortable that I had contributed accurate and well-written copy.

In fact, as I look back over my fourteen editing efforts, I can see that most of them were to some degree experimental. I wanted to see if I had what it took to be a dedicated Wikipedia editor, because I regard that as a High Calling. The answer so far is a qualified no. I’ll continue to help where I can. But on the whole my time is better spent doing other things, some of which also have leverage with Wikipedia, but not of the sort that Dr. Ortega measured in his study.

For example, photography.

As of today you can find 113 photos on Wikimedia Commons that I shot. Most of these have also found use in Wikipedia. (Click “Check Usage” at the top of any shot to see how it’s been used, and where.) I didn’t put any of these shots in Wikimedia Commons, nor have I put any of them in Wikipedia. Other people did all of that. To the limited degree I can bother to tell, I don’t know anybody who has done any of that work. All I do is upload shots to my Flickr site, caption and tag them as completely as time allows, and let nature take its course. I have confidence that at least some of the shots I take will be useful. And the labor involved on my part is low.

I also spent about half an hour looking through Dr. Ortega’s study. My take-away is that Wikipedia has reached a kind of maturity, and that the fall-off in participation is no big deal. This is not to say that Wikipedia doesn’t have problems. It has plenty. But I see most of those as features rather than as bugs, even if they sometimes manifest, at least superficially, as the latter. That’s not much of a story, but it’s a hell of an accomplishment.

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