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Wikipedia Is Losing Contributors. How Can We Find Replacement Geeks?

Could we be hitting peak Wikipedia? At this year’s annual Wikipedia conference, the website’s founder Jimmy Wales carefully denied that the site was facing a “crisis,” but he did confirm an important problem: “We are not replenishing our ranks.” Apparently the free encyclopedia is having trouble maintaining its supply of contributors. Wales speculated on a few reasons for the shortage: First and foremost, Wikipedia has over three million articles, so there aren’t a lot of topics left to cover. (When was the last time you couldn’t find a Wikipedia article on something?) Additionally, Wales says, the archetypal contributor—a geeky male in his 20s—is now grown up and concerned with work and family. But who will serve as the replacement?

Luckily, thanks to a 2009 paper by four researchers from Japan, Germany, and the U.S., we can begin to sort out effective and high-quality Wikipedia users. In “Analyzing the Creative Editing Behavior of Wikipedia Editors Through Dynamic Social Network Analysis,” the authors investigate the “very small number of contributors” who do most of the editing on Wikipedia. They identify one type of user as the site’s “indispensable backbone”: the “coolfarmers,” users who produce widely-read work and who tend to coordinate the development of articles. At the other extreme of those model citizens are users the authors term “egoboosters,” the troublemakers in it for personal glory. “Egoboosters” doctor pages about themselves and falsely claim to be experts in order to authoritatively edit other pages. Since the authors believe strongly in the importance of high-quality contributors, their paper is an attempt to design a metric which separates the “coolfarmers” from the “egoboosters.” And what is to be done, once this determination is made? The authors propose appealing to the clout of virtuous users: “Debunking the egoboosters takes a lot of moral authority, and who better to apply that moral authority by removing and/or reprimanding egoboosters than the coolfarmers.” Who, indeed?