Wikipedia: A 'Victim Of Its Own Success?'
NEAL CONAN, host:
Wikipedia has been hailed as a revolutionary, attacked as inaccurate, and held up a model for Web 2.0 collaboration. With over 3 million articles in English, written and edited by hundreds of thousands of volunteers, it's a prime example of the phenomenon known as crowdsourcing. But Wikipedia's growth, once exponential, has begun to flatten. In an article for Time magazine, Farhad Manjoo considers why and wonders if the end may be insight for Wikipedia. So Wikipedians, why do you think once exponential growth is now merely incremental?
Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our web site. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Farhad Manjoo joins us now from member station KQED in San Francisco. He's a technology columnist at slate.com. His article is, Wikipedia: A Victim of Its Own Success?, appears in the current issue of Time magazine. It's nice to have you back on the program.
Mr. FARHAD MANJOO (Technology Columnist, Slate.com): Great. Thanks.
CONAN: And in the article, you draw an analogy to a family of bunnies left to roam freely over on an abundant green prairie. So how does that apply to Wikipedia?
Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, so if you leave a family of bunnies to roam freely over a prairie, their numbers grow. They become abundant. There's lots of new bunnies. But then at some point, all of the resources get depleted. The prairie gets depleted. And then suddenly you've got a population crash. Suddenly, there are many fewer bunnies, and the growth rate, you know, plummets. And that is something like what people, researchers think happened to Wikipedia.
For many years, from its start up until about 2007, Wikipedia was growing abundantly, and by growing there are many - I mean, there were many new articles being added and there were lots of new people joining to add those articles and to edit the articles and make sure everything was accurate. And then around March of 2007, Wikipedia has seems have to have hit its peak. And then the growth rate, sort of, became much flatter, the graph became flatter. And we're in this now, kind of, plateau where compared to the old days there are fewer people adding…
CONAN: New articles.
Mr. MANJOO: …new entries to - yeah, new articles to Wikipedia. And people, sort of - fewer people are kind of correcting it and making sure that things are working well. And…
Mr. MANJOO: …the main problem is that there are fewer new people. There's sort of a host of committed Wikipedians, but people aren't kind of joining it as newbies anymore.
CONAN: Well, we'll get to that. But to make your analogy work, there has to be a resource that is being depleted like the abundant, lush prairie growth that the bunnies all ate.
Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. So in Wikipedia's case, that is according to Wikipedians, it's kind of an emotion. It's basically the thrill you get when you go to Wikipedia for the first time and you see something wrong or you see something missing, and you add it to Wikipedia. And then suddenly it's live on the site for hundreds of millions of people around the world to…
(Soundbite of line dropping)
CONAN: Whoops, and that is the sound of a line going down between NPR's master control and KQED in San Francisco, which is where Farhad Manjoo is joining us from. Again, he's the technology columnist at slate.com. And we're talking to him about an article in Time magazine called, Is Wikipedia a Victim of Its Own Success? And he's talking about a phenomenon where indeed - and in fact he's back.
Farhad, are you there?
Mr. MANJOO: Yes.
Mr. MANJOO: So I don't know how much you heard, but basically the resource in Wikipedia's case is kind of the thrill people get in adding something to this user-edited encyclopedia, and kind of the feeling they - of joy of seeing hundreds of millions of people around the world having access to your new addition.
And in sort of these days, that's much harder to do it seems for new people to the site because it turns out that when you add something to Wikipedia and you're not very familiar with how it works, you have a -there's a very high chance that your new edit to Wikipedia is going to get overturned by someone who's kind of more familiar with the site. Novices to Wikipedia find that anything they add gets quickly reverted, in Wikipedia's language, to what was there before. So there's a much less, sort of, likelihood - much less fun people are having.
CONAN: Well, there is, as you have pointed out, even though everybody works for free, there is a bureaucracy that has developed.
Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. And this is not - you know, I don't mean to use bureaucracy in kind of a negative sense, although I don't know if you can use it on a positive sense. But, basically, it seems like, you know, in order to be more accurate, in order to be more - a better or fairer resource, Wikipedia has adopted a bunch of rules that are - everyone recognizes are good rules - for making sure that things that are added to Wikipedia, you know, work - should be there. And - but the kind of downside of those rules is that it's…
CONAN: Is that they're rules.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MANJOO: Right. And it's reduced the sense of, kind of, free-willing sense that people had and enjoyed about Wikipedia, and that's some researchers say is, kind of, what caused growth to slow down.
CONAN: And let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-9898-255. Email us, email@example.com. We'll start with James - James calling from San Antonio.
JAMES (Caller): Yes. I just - I've been on Wikipedia for some time and I think one of its downfalls is the politicization of - like, for example, nobody knows who Senator Palin is in, you know, July of 2008. And then, by September, you have people going on. They're saying, you know, she had an affair with a polar bear and stuff like that, and then it having to be corrected. And I think some of the legitimacy is gone because they have to lock articles when they become newsworthy.
CONAN: Indeed. They did have a big change of those rules that we have been talking about, Farhad, when they said because of some hoaxes - indeed, like the polar bear one - they had to put a lock on the articles about living persons.
Mr. MANJOO: Right. So they're now in the process of hashing out these new rules which could lead to, kind of, a new layer of editorial control over Wikipedia and basically, this would mean - if it's implemented and it, sort of - Wikipedia works as a collective, so it's unclear how it's going to shape - end up in the final rule.
But, basically, it could mean that any edits to article about living people like Sarah Palin or anyone else would - before they go live on the site, they would need to be approved by some senior Wikipedia member, someone who's sort of more qualified and been on the site longer.
CONAN: So are you getting discouraged, James.
JAMES: Well, I - (unintelligible) some of the legitimacy, perhaps it was never there, but it seems to have passed - I think it's also in danger of becoming where people go to get updated on the latest comic book storyline because there's thousands of entries on that. And I - I don't know. I just…
CONAN: I hadn't thought of that, of - get updates.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Great. Thank you, James.
CONAN: Bye-bye. It is - is it also possible, Farhad, that they've just, you know, the ease, the low-hanging fruit is all gone. If you wanted to write an article about Isaac Newton, well, that's been done. The obvious articles have all been written.
Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, that's one of the theories that researchers have. You know, it's - Wikipedia grew really fast and it grew because it was sort of consuming all knowledge. It was trying to add everything that people knew about the world. But now - you know, now, those stuffs that's left is very esoteric and there are only few people who know, you know, about certain very specific subjects.
And so, it requires a much more diverse and expert group of people to add stuff to it and it might be much harder to add those entries than something, you know, then the stuff everyone already knows about.
CONAN: Let's go to Kate(ph), Kate with us from Palo Alto.
KATE (Caller): Hi.
KATE: I have observed, among colleagues of mine - I'm a politically progressive person - some people who when they try to post things that have political subject matter, they're consistently rejected, and the people doing a rejecting are known conservatives. And it's like they're rejecting things on the subject matter, even though, you know, there may not be that many people who know about them and it's something very new happening. It - it's like there's an internal sensor there, and it feels like it's been infiltrated for ideological reasons.
CONAN: Is that an issue, Farhad?
Mr. MANJOO: I've heard of that being an issue. I mean, I think the general phenomenon that she's referring to is something that one research called Wikilawyering(ph). And that basically means that in order to add something to the site, the people who have most success in having their changes stick are people who are extremely familiar with the rules of Wikipedia and can fight them and can argue about them in Wikipedia's forums.
And the people who aren't familiar with those often find themselves getting shut down. And so, I think - you know, this is noticed in high profile controversial articles and, you know, political subjects, but it's also people noticed it in scientific subjects and others where there are people who are very well versed in the rules who, sort of, dominate the entire encyclopedia.
CONAN: Okay. Kate, thanks very much.
KATE: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Sheila(ph), Sheila with us from Corning, New York.
SHEILA (Caller): Hi.
SHEILA: So I was listening and I heard people asking about why people stop using and/or adding to it. And I'm an acknowledged expert in my field and when I went to Wikipedia to look up what they had and the subject I was researching, I noticed a lot of factual errors. And so, I signed up just to maybe correct those and I had my knowledge to it, and also to just maybe grammatically correct some things as well.
And literally, within 20 minutes - an hour, I had been reverted, as you say, or things had bounced back. And thought I would give it one more try. And then I noticed that as I try it again, more people jumped on, trying to revert it, but then they also plagiarize some things that I wrote to incorporate and to what they had written previously. So, now, of course, when I look up any subjects, something I'm not an expert in, something I'm completely neophyte in, I have to suspect who's writing it and who really has the credentials. Of course, that's been the question with Wikipedia all the time. Who were the (unintelligible).
CONAN: It's interesting you use the word plagiarize. Aren't they, sort of, adapting some of your ideas? Isn't that the whole idea here?
SHEILA: Yeah, it is. You know, you threw the question of whether that's plagiarism or not. But, you know, it's like, if someone takes the literal phrasing that I use, but then they, you know, they maybe changed a couple of words or something. It's almost like a student coming in and saying, well, that was really my idea, I just changed a word or two here, so it's really mine.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: All right. Sheila, thanks very much. And what field is this, by the way?
SHEILA: Art history for me. I mean, there's certainly a more particular subject matter but - so that I don't merit more disgruntled reversions, I won't say which particular area.
CONAN: Okay. Thanks very much, Sheila. That's appreciated.
CONAN: We're talking about Wikipedia and the flattening number of people donating new articles to the crowd-sourced encyclopedia on the Web. And we're talking with Farhad Manjoo a technology columnist at slate.com. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can go next to Andrew. Andrew with us from Buffalo.
ANDREW (Caller): Hey.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
ANDREW: I guess what I'm wondering is, you know, the standard notion in information communication technology is called adoption curve. It's a -looks like an S, starts out slowly. It grows kind of what (unintelligible) increment…
ANDREW: …exponentially and then it kind of tails off and looks a little bit more logarithmic. And I'm wondering if what we're seeing is not so much the peak of something that's going to be on its way to decline, but something that's sort of hitting that plateau but is going to continue just a much slower upward trend.
CONAN: Well, you write about that too, Farhad.
Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, there's a big question among people who study Wikipedia about, you know, the future in general. I mean, there are some people who say this peak is a precursor to an actual decline, and that, you know, people will - this indicates that people are getting turned off from Wikipedia right now and people are going to continue to get turned off and then we're going to see, you know, fewer actual - fewer people participating.
But there are others who say, well, this is just sort of a natural way that - this may be the natural way that a community like this grows. And then at some point, it's just impossible to keep adding more people and you're just going to get, you know, much slower growth curve. And so…
CONAN: In fact, we have an email on exactly that point from Noah. Why is the end of growth a bad thing? Perhaps the size of the encyclopedia is reaching what it should be. The resource being depleted is the amount of material worthy of being posted. It's still the source of information for everyone. World Book Encyclopedia didn't grow for a long time but it was still very successful and very good.
Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, that's certainly one view. The problem that even people at the Wikimedia Foundation, which manages Wikipedia, they -even they acknowledges that the - Wikipedia needs growth because at the moment it's not very diverse.
Many of the additions, many of the kind of committed Wikipedians right now are basically of the same type. They're mostly men. They're mostly smart, a lot of grad students, a lot of people in Western countries. There aren't very many people in Africa, in places where Internet penetration isn't very high, so that's sort of understandable, and there aren't very many women. I mean, in one survey, they found that only 13 percent of contributors were women.
So, Wikipedia - the president of - the director of the foundation, I spoke to her and she considers this one of the major problems and one of the major things they want to address is try to get it more diverse and try to get a more diverse viewpoints and contributors to the site.
CONAN: Andrew, thanks very much for the call.
And the other thing that looks a little scary in your article is some people predict that Wikipedia may vanish in five or 10 years.
Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. Some people do. It's a big question. I mean, everyone at Wikipedia thinks - that I spoke to - thinks that, you know, that's not likely. And even some - and the researchers who are looking at this think that it's not likely to end in five years. But in 10 years time, nobody really knows. I mean, Wikipedia is actually younger than 10 years.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MANJOO: So, predicting that far out is a little difficult. But they are - I mean, the thing to remember about Wikipedia is that it's an amazing experiment and no one would have predicted that it would've -that something like this could have worked before it started. So the fact that it is working is kind of, you know, astonishing. And so that kind of leads you to wonder whether the whole thing could blow up at some point.
CONAN: Well, you talk about this idea of, you know, this originally very freewheeling, exciting thing becomes less freewheeling and less exciting as it gets bigger and bigger, which is perhaps the nature of all human organizations. But if crowdsourcing is not the model, what is the model?
Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, that's a big question that people have. I mean, crowdsourcing seems to work in certain instances. I mean, it certainly has worked for Wikipedia so far. But it could be that crowdsourcing has kind of a natural limit and that at some point, it can't continue to grow and have this amazing success that it's had before.
One thing we saw this week, Netflix awarded a prize to - it had a contest to see who could - who around the world could improve its recommendation site. And this kind of prize by innovation combines the best aspects of crowdsourcing where people from all over the world with diverse backgrounds can work together. But it has another benefit that's kind of better than kind of the very open crowdsourcing, which is that it keeps people focused because they're working on - working toward a goal. In this case, Netflix offered $1 million prize. And that seem to work very well, so maybe that's another model of crowdsourcing with a prize at the end.
CONAN: Thank you, Farhad.
Mr. MANJOO: Great. Thanks so much.
CONAN: Farhad Manjoo joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. He's a technology columnist at slate.com and his article appears in the current issue of Time Magazine. You can find the link to it at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Tomorrow, every health bill in Congress would require almost everyone to buy insurance. We'll talk about mandatory coverage, what it might mean for you and for the future of the health care bill.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.