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Wikipedia's Labor Squeeze and Its Consequences, Part 1

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Author Eric Goldman uses Wikipedia as a case study for how credible user generated content and a website’s free editability are goals that conflict with each other. The first in a two-part series, this article examines threats faced by Wikipedia and how it has coped with those threats. It also shows how the Wikipedia community has closed ranks as a response to spammers and vandals, which in turn has raised the barriers to participating in Wikipedia.

Editor's Note: This article originated from three blog posts on Eric's Technology & Marketing Law Blog: Wikipedia Will Fail Within 5 Years (Dec. 5, 2005); Wikipedia Will Fail in 4 Years (Dec. 5, 2006); Wikipedia Revisited: the Wikipedia Community’s Xenophobia (Jan. 22, 2008). A version of this article was published in the Journal on Telecommunications and High Technology Law.

The Internet allows geographically dispersed individuals to voluntarily contribute their time and expertise towards socially productive tasks.1 Wikipedia is a shining example of this phenomenon. By every measure, Wikipedia’s success has been remarkable. In eight short years, powered solely by volunteer contributions, Wikipedia has developed a huge database of encyclopedic entries and become one of the most popular websites around.

However, user-generated content (UGC) sites are fragile, perhaps surprisingly so. Internet history is littered with once-successful UGC sites that ultimately fizzled out.2 Can Wikipedia avoid the fate of those sites, or is it destined to join them?

Like many other UGC websites, Wikipedia allows everyone to contribute. Unlike many other websites, Wikipedia also allows just about everyone to edit or delete other people’s contributions, an architectural feature I refer to as “free editability.” By allowing entries to be improved by an unlimited labor force, free editability embraces the “wisdom of the crowds”3 philosophy and theoretically should improve article quality.4

Instead, I think free editability is Wikipedia’s Achilles’ heel. Wikipedia attracts vandals and spammers who edit entries for unproductive purposes. Thus far, Wikipedia’s volunteer editors have successfully defended against these threats, but future success is not guaranteed. First, as Wikipedia’s popularity increases, so does its appeal to vandals and spammers, thus increasing the volume of malicious edits. Second, over time, Wikipedia’s current editors will turn over, and I believe various obstacles—including Wikipedia’s reliance on contributors who seek neither cash nor credit—will hinder the recruitment of replacements. This dynamic will create a labor squeeze because more anti-threat work will be borne by a reduced number of committed editors.

To maintain site credibility in the face of this labor squeeze, Wikipedia will reduce free editability over time by increasing the technological and procedural hurdles required to contribute to the site. With these high barriers, Wikipedia will achieve a defensible position against spammers and vandals, but only by changing its basic architecture.

As a result, this article explores how credible UGC and free editability conflict with each other.5 Part 1 talks about the threats that Wikipedia faces and how it has been coping with those threats. Part 2 explores the consequences of Wikipedia’s responses and some alternative responses that might improve its odds of ongoing success.

Measuring Wikipedia’s Success

In 2005, Jimmy Wales said, “Wikipedia is first and foremost an effort to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language.”6 The English-language version of Wikipedia7 has made remarkable progress towards this goal. Wikipedia is one of the top ten most trafficked Internet destinations in the United States;8 it has generated nearly 3 million English-language articles since 2001;9 and its article quality has been compared favorably to the Encyclopedia Britannica,10 the traditional gold standard of encyclopedias.

Along with its success, Wikipedia entries often show up as top Internet search results.11 Until that changes,12 Wikipedia’s traffic will remain strong even if its credibility slips. Thus, Wikipedia’s popularity is a lagging indicator of Wikipedia’s credibility.

Rather than using Wikipedia’s popularity as a success criterion, this article is more interested in Wikipedia as a vehicle to analyze the long-term viability of a freely editable website. Like many other wikis,13 Wikipedia allows almost everyone to instantly publish entries and edit other people’s entries—a configuration choice that is core to Wikipedia’s identity and part of Wikipedia’s motto. As the Wikipedia main page header says, “Welcome to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.”14

This architecture distinguishes Wikipedia from most other popular UGC websites, which often welcome contributions from everyone but restrict subsequent editing to the initial author or a group of editors designated by the site operator. Therefore, I focus on whether Wikipedia can retain its relatively unique architecture of free editability while remaining a credible publication.

Although this article focuses on Wikipedia’s specific fate as an institution, I am considering Wikipedia as a case study of the inherent tensions between editability and credibility.15 Wikipedia’s idiosyncrasies reduce the generalizability of any insights, but it remains a useful analytical vehicle due to its popularity and its years of experience developing anti-threat systems. Further, given its prominence, Wikipedia’s inability to retain free editability would be a troubling sign for the vitality of free editability as a site configuration option. After all, if Wikipedia—with its effectively unlimited labor supply embodying the wisdom of the crowds—cannot marshal the resources required to maintain free editability, who can? Thus, I address challenges currently facing Wikipedia that any freely editable UGC site is likely to face.

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