And its treatment of volunteer editors is the culprit. The genius of Wikipedia has been its use of such editors, who do the grunt work that allows the site to maintain a consistent quality. Yet these very volunteers might be the undoing of the site.
A new academic paper, flagged by economist Tyler Cowen, reveals that the number of volunteers peaked in March 2007 and has been in steady decline ever since. This problem is especially acute because Wikipedia editors are unrepresentative of the population. As the paper notes, “only 9 percent of edits are made by female editors,” and “articles of particular interest to women are shorter than articles of interest to men.”
So why is Wikipedia losing editors and failing to recruit female volunteers? The paper suggests the main reason is that, when it expanded rapidly between 2004 and 2007, Wikipedia responded by instituting restrictive policies that drove away eager new volunteers: “Over time, these changes resulted in a new Wikipedia, in which newcomers are rudely greeted by automated quality control systems and are overwhelmed by the complexity of the rule system.”