An oft-repeated cliché about UGC sites is “if you build it, they will come.”76 Usually, this phrase is used pejoratively to describe websites that launch UGC features without providing the necessary support to build and foster a robust community of invested contributors. In these cases, the website operator hopes that it can throw open some UGC tools to the world and quality contributions will magically materialize. The web is littered with failed efforts where those hopes went unrealized.
This is part of what makes Wikipedia so remarkable. Wikipedia is the epitome of an “if you build it, they will come” website and, yet, people did come, and they built it beyond everyone’s wildest expectations.
Wikipedia’s comparatively unique architecture has played a key role in this surprising success, including two key choices that continue to shape Wikipedia today: free editability and the reliance on contributors who are principally seeking to satisfy intrinsic motivations. However, these architectural features are at odds with each other. Wikipedia now is grappling with the challenges of maintaining itself, and free editability invites spammers and vandals while its labor supply cannot easily grow to combat these threats. I predict that Wikipedia necessarily will respond with more restrictive editing policies, eventually eliminating free editability. This is the only sustainable outcome given its increasing labor squeeze.
Eliminating free editability would hardly overshadow the many amazing accomplishments of Wikipedia and its community. Nevertheless, Wikipedia’s success to date makes it tempting to assume that Wikipedia is indestructible. It isn’t.77 History reminds us that UGC sites are brittle. In Wikipedia’s case, it will flourish only if lots of people make the ongoing decision to invest their scarce time and energy in the site. We should not take that for granted.