Whither Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is in trouble. The chart above shows why (data from here). During its first five years, the number of active editors on English Wikipedia (those with 5 or more monthly edits) grew exponentially (see the dashed curve, with R2 = 0.98). However, these numbers peaked in March 2007, and since then, Wikipedia has experienced a linear decline, with a net loss of about 2,100 editors each year (see the dashed line, with R2 = 0.90). Extrapolating this loss suggests that the number of Wikipedia editors will reach zero in January 2028 – although in reality Wikipedia will die much sooner unless something changes.

Wikipedia’s problems are fundamentally human, and relate to internal conflicts which have caused thousands of editors to leave. Wikipedia’s system of governance has proven unable to deal with this problem, for a variety of reasons.

However, this raises the question of whether technology solutions can ameliorate Wikipedia’s problems. A recent paper on arXiv, discussed also on the MIT Technology Review, suggests automated tools for assessing article quality, based on edit-longevity and contributor-centrality measures.

This is certainly an intriguing idea, but one that fails to catch some spectacular quality failures. For example, one Wikipedia user made more than 87,000 article edits over a period of many years, but was found to have systematically added false information to articles on a wide range of topics (including history and video-games). Simplistic quality measures are likely to view these articles positively – the real indicator of poor quality is that the articles contain references which do not support (or, in many cases, contradict) the statements to which they are attached. In theory an automated tool could detect that, but it would not be easy.

See also this article on Wikipedia’s decline, which suggests that technology applied to date has been part of the problem [Halfaker, A., Gieger, R. S., Morgan, J., & Riedl, J. (2013). The Rise and Decline of an Open Collaboration System: How Wikipedia’s reaction to sudden popularity is causing its decline. American Behavioral Scientist 57(5) 664-688, DOI:10.1177/0002764212469365].