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Possible Changes

The previous section described Wikipedia’s impending labor supply challenges. This section explores some ways Wikipedia might try to overcome those challenges.

Raise Technological Barriers and/or Eliminate Free Editability

As discussed in Part 1, Wikipedia is already “raising the drawbridge” by enhancing its technological defenses against spammers and vandals. In a labor squeeze, Wikipedia can leverage its remaining editor corps by increasing its technological defenses even higher. Not only do higher technological barriers thwart the threats, but they also may curb editor burnout by reducing the amount of time editors spend doing unsatisfying maintenance work.

But how high do technological barriers need to be to defeat the spammers and vandals? Minor anti-threat changes, such as requiring a CAPTCHA to make certain edits, do not meaningfully affect free editability but have low payoffs.57 More significant measures, such as semi-protection or banning new articles from anonymous contributors, do more to reduce editor workload58 but at greater cost to free editability. Even more dramatic measures, such as Flagged Revisions, would further cut down spam and vandalism but at the cost of free editability.

Recruit Replacement Labor

From my perspective, the labor squeeze and desire to retain credibility makes the latter outcome inevitable. However, Wikipedia can retain free editability if it can maintain a strong labor supply to replace departing editors. To do this, Wikipedia could tap into several potential labor sources, including:

  • Readers. Wikipedia could convert more readers into editors. However, despite the ease of editing Wikipedia and the multiple prominent encouragements to “edit” in every article, Wikipedia’s technological and social barriers hinder reader-to-editor conversion. To overcome some of the social barriers, Wikipedia has implemented several newcomer programs, including a “welcoming committee”59 and a mentorship program.60 It is not clear how well these programs work. Wikipedia remains fairly intimidating and unwelcoming to newcomers overall,61 and it chastises existing editors not to “bite” newcomers.62
  • Cash-motivated individuals. As discussed in an earlier section, Wikipedia effectively precludes contributions from cash-motivated individuals. However, attracting those individuals would not be easy. Obviously, Wikipedia could not directly pay editors for contributions. Putting aside the out-of-pocket costs, commoditizing labor that was previously provided for free can counterproductively suppress people’s desire to perform the work,63 so paying for Wikipedia contributions would likely accelerate the departure of existing editors.64 Furthermore, people who want cash for writing encyclopedic-style content already have numerous options,65 and those sites are not exactly beating Wikipedia today.66
  • Even if Wikipedia cannot pay for contributions directly, Wikipedia could find ways to create indirect economic payoffs for Wikipedia participation. For example, Wikipedia could try to create a secondary market for Wikipedia-honed skills. Thus, if future employers valued the editing or writing skills an editor developed by participating in Wikipedia, cash-motivated editors would be willing to provide valuable free services to Wikipedia with the hope of being rewarded by future employers. Interestingly, it is not yet clear that employers value the skills developed on Wikipedia, although perhaps this would become clearer if it were a more explicit goal on Wikipedia. Even so, a secondary market could increase competition for editors’ time, so this would partially exacerbate the problem it is trying to solve.67

  • Companies. Just like many FOSS projects rely on companies providing employees’ time, Wikipedia could benefit from companies requiring or encouraging employees to contribute to Wikipedia on company time. However, this would require the Wikipedia community to relax its attitudes towards conflicts of interest.68
  • Academics. Many academics currently have little extrinsic incentive to contribute to Wikipedia. Most academics are measured by their “reputation,” but as discussed earlier, Wikipedia does not help its contributors build external reputations. As a result, participating in Wikipedia is not credited by academics’ peers or employers.
  • Wikipedia could change its policies to be more academic-friendly, such as by attributing articles to individual authors so that academics could get credit for their contributions as “publications.”69 However, participation by academics potentially conflicts with several Wikipedia norms. Academics do not get any deference for their expertise (actual or self-perceived),70 which can create conflicts when academics are debating technical matters with people who lack any domain expertise. Further, it would be difficult to give credit to academics for article contributions given the strong norms that articles are not externally credited to any one contributor.71 Finally, academics have to be careful not to violate the no-conflict-of-interest policy when talking about the subjects they know best—their research.72 All told, Wikipedia could become a more academic-friendly environment, but doing so would not be easy.

  • Students. Instead of (or in addition to) recruiting academics to contribute themselves, Wikipedia could recruit teachers and professors to require their students to contribute to Wikipedia as part of their courses.73 Wikipedia already is trying this approach.74 Student labor would provide Wikipedia with an influx of new contributors whose incentives do not inherently pose conflicts of interest, and some students would convert into long-term dedicated editors. However, this would also unleash a group of new contributors who, by definition, are building their domain expertise and, at the same time, are not acculturated to Wikipedia’s norms and practices. As a result, insider xenophobia poses a serious risk of mooting student contributions.75
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