Today’s WSJ has an article by Julia Angwin and Geoff Fowler: Volunteers Log Off as Wikipedia Ages and the associated Digits blog post. It’s one of the best reported stories so far on the dropoff in numbers in Wikipedia (and it’s not just because they quoted me).
The article taps all the right folks: founder Jimmy Wales; WMF’s Sue Gardner and Frank Schulenberg; WMF board of trustees members Sam Klein and Kat Walsh; and many researchers of the project ranging from Mathias Schindler to Ed Chi. It’s hard to argue the plateau is something that can be dismissed lightly.
Perhaps the greatest fear is that Wikipedia will decline not with a bang, but a whimper. Why? Wikipedia has usually made its big strides from reacting to massive public relations “bangs.” Whether it was the Seigenthaler incident that restricted anonymous editing, or upped the requirement for verifiability and reliable sources, Jimmy Wales has been able to push through tough community changes in reaction to obvious public problems.
The alarming thing about a slow decline in Wikipedia’s quality is that there may be no flashpoint to rally around. A slow, low-level infiltration of spam and non-neutral edits may be occurring that the shrinking community may not be able to police.
At SXSW 2010, I’ll be doing a solo talk on this exact topic: “Can Wikipedia Survive Popular Success and Community Decline?” I welcome any and all theories related to this question, either in email or as comments to this post.
Here is an extended video interview I did with the Journal’s Angwin about this.