Wikipedia Plateau?

There has been anecdotal evidence that Wikipedia’s prospects have shifted recently. Deterioriting article quality, backslide of featured articles, pages unnecessarily put in the deletion process.

But this graph provides definitive, sobering proof of something gone awry:

(UPDATE: n.b. the chart is for en.wikipedia.org specifically)

Sometime in September/October of 2006, the growth rate of Wikipedia dropped dramatically. It crossed over from overperform to underperform in that time. And it’s been mired in that slump ever since.

People have recognized the community has been facing issues of quality and growth, but it has never been as stark as it is here. Wikipedia seems to be hitting that top part of the S-curve, and it’s something the community has been worried about for a while.

What could explain this? The beginnings of a virtual colony collapse disorder, or the natural course of a mature community?

Is it governance issues? A new board was put in place almost the exact same time while multiple staff reshuffles have taken place. Certainly a new style of oversight and leadership has taken hold. The board is larger than its ever been, and is very much an operational, hands-on entity. Gone are the days of grassroots informality. Elected folks are now delegated with authority and a six figure budget. Formal “chapters” with leaders dominate the community organizing efforts. There is still lingering resentment over the selection of an Asian city over a European city for the Wikimania 2007 conference. The stakes are higher. Have the tensions too?

Is a “tragedy of the commons” affecting Wikipedia? As a community grows, and becomes more anonymous and unfamiliar with each other, the same original grassroots underpinnings start to fade. It’s the difference between a town and a city. The difference between Ann Arbor and Detroit. In big town concrete jungle Wikipedia, unfamiliarity with others fosters incivility. This was something that was more often kept under control in small town picket fence-lined Wikipedia.

Is it the natural consequence of a nearly complete project? The “low hanging fruit are all gone” according to one Wikipedian. The thrill of starting the article on [[Monkey]] or [[Theodore Roosevelt]], and the associated feeling of empowerment, no longer exists. More and more, newbies are met with “don’t touch that,” or “we don’t do that here.” As more veterans leave, their ranks are not being filled with those inspired by the early exuberance and “aha” factor that Wikipedians felt even one year ago. That has a significant effect on whether quality editors can be replaced. New article writing, map creation and forming new features all thrilled the first generation of Wikipedians. Today, the mundane and boring tasks remain — copyediting, fact checking and vandalism fighting.

Increasingly, Wikipedia admins today find themselves fending off the tacking on of often pointless “Trivia” sections to every article. (If they’re lucky, they can shunt these factoids to pages such as [[Eiffel_Tower_in_pop_culture]], but you are still left with cringeworthy examples like [[Hitler_in_popular_culture]])

Perhaps the only virgin areas for Wikipedia are ones related to “newsmakers” or sudden celebrity. News is constantly streaming out new facts, stories and personalities, and Wikipedia’s strength has been to capture it all. Another area of potential growth involves “second level” articles that go up the information pyramid — comparative analyses, “Impact of…” articles, or large sweeping [[The Eighties]] roundups. The problem is they start to drift closer to a current no-no within the community — original research. Those attitudes may have to change.

A community built on passion and interest can do great things. For six years, it has done great things in Wikipedia. But what happens when the fuel is exhausted? The low hanging fruit has been plucked. The soil not as rich. Has the golden age of Wikipedia passed? And how will it be recorded in [[Wikipedia]]?

52 thoughts on “Wikipedia Plateau?

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