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Wikipedia's Labor Squeeze and Its Consequences, Part 2

📄 Contents

  1. Wikipedias Looming Labor Supply Problems
  2. Possible Changes
  3. Conclusion
  4. Endnotes
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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. Part 2 in the two-part series looks at how Wikipedia’s closed community threatens Wikipedia’s missions, and considers some alternative ways that it might proceed.

Editor's Note: This article originated from three blog posts on his 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.

Part 1 of this series of articles made the case that the Wikipedia community has closed ranks as a response to spammers and vandals, which in turn raised the barriers to participating in Wikipedia. Part 2 continues the discussion of challenges facing Wikipedia by looking at how its closed community threatens Wikipedia’s missions, and considers some alternative ways that Wikipedia might proceed.

Wikipedia’s Looming Labor Supply Problems

Over time, Wikipedia will face a growing labor supply problem because its dedicated editors—the people responsible for suppressing threats from vandals and spammers—will leave faster than new dedicated editors can replace them. This section explains why a labor deficit will develop.

Editor Turnover

As all online user communities do, Wikipedia will experience editor turnover.1 I have not seen any studies rigorously exploring these turnover rates,2 but undoubtedly Wikipedia needs a constant influx of lots of new editors to replace departing ones.3

Why do editors leave? Some turnover is due to typical lifecycle changes that displace the time an editor has available to contribute to Wikipedia: students graduate from school and begin working full-time; employees change to new and more demanding jobs; people get married or have children; and people develop new hobbies that consume their free time.4

Other editors leave because they get burned out.5 Every successful UGC (user-generated content) community will have its share of political battles that push out some community members, either due to frustration with site politics or because the member’s political positions were rejected. Wikipedia is no stranger to political battles,6 and frequent sparring over edits and editorial policies prompts some community members to check out.7

Yet other editors tire of the anti-threat work. Spammers and vandals create repetitive and uninteresting work simply to keep the site intact, and some editors opt out of this seemingly Sisyphean effort. Their departure increases the anti-threat work borne by the remaining Wikipedia editors, which increases the remaining editors’ fatigue and could accelerate their departure rate if the editors feel that the bad guys are winning.8

The Open Directory Project (ODP),9 a partial predecessor to Wikipedia, illustrates how relentless spam can eventually overwhelm volunteer UGC editors. The ODP describes itself as “the largest, most comprehensive human-edited directory of the Web. It is constructed and maintained by a vast, global community of volunteer editors.”10 At its zenith, several major search engines incorporated the ODP directory into their search indexes,11 and the broad distribution of the ODP directory provided potentially significant traffic for any link that ODP editors incorporated into the directory. The commercial value of these links caused marketers to submit lots of links to ODP.12 The number of links eventually overwhelmed the ODP editors, causing the project to fall far behind in its ability to provide a reasonably up-to-date directory of websites.13 Eventually, ODP editors started leaving (or just stopped doing their tasks), rendering ODP effectively irrelevant.14

Wikipedia’s Limited Toolkit to Attract New Editors

The ODP experience provides a useful cautionary tale to Wikipedia. To remain credible in the face of growing spam and vandal attacks, Wikipedia needs a constant new supply of engaged and motivated editors. However, Wikipedia’s design creates some challenges to attracting those editors:

  • First, as discussed in the previous section,15 the existing community’s xenophobia hinders the recruitment and integration of new dedicated editors.16 For example, new editors can be driven away by reversion of their contributions,17 a problem compounded by the fact that their contributions are especially vulnerable.18 The ever-increasing technological hurdles also discourage some editors from joining the Wikipedia community.19
  • Second, and perhaps more importantly, Wikipedia has a limited toolkit of incentives to attract new editors. Broadly speaking, users provide labor to websites for one of three categories of motivations: cash (financial payoffs, either directly or indirectly), credit (recognition and notoriety), and intrinsic motivations. Unlike many other UGC communities, Wikipedia relies almost exclusively on intrinsic motivations because it does not satisfy contributors’ cash or credit motivations very well.

Wikipedia does not have much to offer contributors motivated by cash. Like many UGC sites, Wikipedia does not pay editors directly for their contributions.20 However, Wikipedia goes much further than most UGC sites at suppressing contributions from people being paid for their work. For example, UGC websites usually ban fake contributions from companies trying to manipulate consumers,21 but Wikipedia presumes a conflict of interest when an editor makes any financially incentivized edits.22 Thus, Wikipedia’s policies discourage employees from editing entries for their employers23 and editors from seeking direct payment to write entries.24 The norms are so strong against these types of contributions that a third-party service, WikiScanner, automatically identifies and publicizes edits from putatively self-interested sources.25

Further, unlike most other UGC websites, Wikipedia effectively prevents editors from developing commercially valuable reputations that could indirectly translate into cash. The next section explains this in more detail.

For these reasons, it is practically impossible for any Wikipedia editor to make money, directly or indirectly, from participation in Wikipedia. Thus, Wikipedia effectively excludes individuals who would supply their labor for cash motivations.

For people motivated by credit, Wikipedia offers numerous recognition opportunities,26 including election to administrative positions,27 appearance on various ranking charts,28 acknowledgment of laudatory articles29 and individual awards called barnstars.30

These recognition systems may prompt existing editors to work harder, but they are weakly calibrated to recruit new editors.31 First, as discussed above, insider xenophobia drives away prospective new editors before these editors buy into Wikipedia’s reputation systems. Second, the recognition systems are not easily understood by outsiders, so their recruiting power is limited.

Further, Wikipedia blocks attribution for authoring a Wikipedia article,32 which also dissuades contributors looking for external recognition for their work.

Because Wikipedia is not designed to promote external recognition for editors, it differs from other popular UGC sites that have brought successful users to the public’s attention.33 Without these “stars,” Wikipedia does not have any public examples that might draw new editors to the site with the hope of emulating their notoriety.34

In light of the absence of cash motivations and the weak recruiting power of its reputational systems, Wikipedia is remarkable for how little it depends on contributions from people who seek cash or credit.

Wikipedia Compared with the Free and Open Source Software Community

Wikipedia and the free and open source software (FOSS) community share numerous intellectual and philosophical underpinnings,35 but they diverge in the motivations for participation. Unlike Wikipedia, the FOSS community relies heavily on both cash and credit to fuel its labor economy.

Significant FOSS contributions come from company employees whose employers officially sanction their FOSS work.36 In effect, employers fund these employees’ FOSS participation, in many cases because the resulting FOSS project commercially benefits the employer.37 In other cases, a company may decide to put mature proprietary software into a FOSS project to reinvigorate customer interest or obtain cheaper ongoing development or support.38 In these cases, the employing company funds the labor supply for the FOSS project.

Individual software authors also participate in FOSS communities. Often, these contributors seek economic payoffs such as increased expertise in commercially valuable skills, future employment from employers impressed by the work, or an installed base of software adopters who will pay for support from the program’s expert.39

In contrast, Wikipedia discourages contributions from company employees advancing the company interest, and individual Wikipedia contributors cannot build commercially valuable reputations. As a result, Wikipedia’s labor market differs markedly from the FOSS community’s labor market.

Beyond their differences in contributor motivations, Wikipedia and FOSS have other important differences:

  • First, producing encyclopedic information may be a qualitatively different process than producing software. A contributor to a FOSS project, by definition, automatically possesses a minimum degree of expertise and sophistication in the relevant subject matter, while Wikipedia accepts contributions from novices and experts equally.40 Further, it may be easier for users to assess the quality of a FOSS contribution (does it compile? does it run?) than the accuracy of factual contributions to Wikipedia.41
  • Second, FOSS projects often have more hierarchical workflow management than Wikipedia. Many successful FOSS projects have a single individual or small group of individuals with express authority to oversee the project and decide whether new contributions become part of the project’s canon or are vetoed.42 This represents significantly more organization and structure than Wikipedia’s process of letting individuals self-appoint themselves as page guardians.

Given the many differences, we should not assume that FOSS’s success is inherently extensible to Wikipedia.43 More likely, if Wikipedia wants to replicate FOSS’s success, it may need to emulate the FOSS community more closely.

Can Wikipedia Thrive on Intrinsic Motivations?

Because of its weak systems to motivate editors using cash and credit, Wikipedia relies principally on editors’ intrinsic motivations for participation, including pride in building something important, the satisfaction of publishing in a highly visible venue, the sense of participating in a community, and pure altruism.44

These are all substantial and important motivations, and unquestionably people provide valuable labor based solely on intrinsic motivations.45 My concern is that Wikipedia’s heavy reliance on this labor supply reduces its pool of potential contributors to replace departing editors. The number of people willing to contribute to Wikipedia without any cash or credit is a relatively small fraction of people willing to contribute to UGC communities generally.46 Further, Wikipedia must constantly and successfully compete for these people’s attention against other activities and hobbies, including those activities that offer them cash or credit.47

Therefore, Wikipedia is particularly vulnerable to a labor squeeze over time. Its labor needs increase as its popularity (and attractiveness to spammers and vandals) increases, but Wikipedia can replenish its departing editors only from the portion of the overall UGC labor force that does not seek cash or credit.

Doesn’t Wikipedia’s Success to Date Disprove My Argument?48

This discussion raises an obvious anomaly: Many of the foregoing labor supply issues should have prevented Wikipedia’s community from forming in the first place, so Wikipedia’s current success provides strong empirical proof against my argument.49 Nevertheless, for several reasons, Wikipedia’s past does not ensure its future success:50

  • First, many early Wikipedia editors joined to build something from scratch: the opportunity to write new articles that did not exist and to develop the site’s community and policies. With much of that initial development work completed, the site now emphasizes incremental enhancements and site maintenance.51 Site maintenance requires different skill sets and personalities from those required to build the site, and people who enjoy building sites may not enjoy maintenance as much.52 This may be analogous to how some successful entrepreneurial companies struggle as they evolve from start-up mode into more bureaucratic enterprises.53
  • Second, Wikipedia initially operated in relative obscurity, so fending off spammer and vandalism attacks required less effort.54 Wikipedia’s editors are now forced to spend more time on potentially less enjoyable anti-threat work.
  • Third, Wikipedia’s xenophobia may be increasing over time,55 which would cause Wikipedia to be less welcoming to newcomers now than in the past. As barriers to contribution increase, Wikipedia loses two sources of labor that it had in the past: occasional contributions from non-insiders and ongoing contributions of potential dedicated editors who would have joined the community but instead are driven away.
  • Finally, it is hard to ignore that Wikipedia is effectively one-of-a-kind. No other mass-market or topically broad wikis have had meaningful success to date. Even Wikimedia’s other wiki projects are not nearly as active as Wikipedia.56 If successful wikis are rare, Wikipedia might be a one-in-a-million lightning strike—some unique combination of factors succeeded in this case, but those circumstances are unlikely to replicate. If so, Wikipedia’s rarity might also highlight its fragility.
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