Love, hate, and the Wikipedia contributor culture problem

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Love and hate

Last fall, a group of researchers at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) released a study showing an abrupt leveling off in the number of editors and edits to Wikipedia, starting in about 2007.

There is a great summation of the findings in a set of posts by Dr. Ed H Chi, Lead Scientist at the PARC Augmented Social Cognition group here, here, here, and here.

I've been thinking a lot over the past few months about what might be causing the slowing rate of contributions, as have many others. I particularly liked Niel Robertson's post last week on the Enterprise Irregulars site.

Niel's thesis is that Wikipedia has failed to continue to develop innovative ways to motivate its community, falling behind as other communities and companies have implemented more creative new techniques. Niel goes on to identify seven types of motivation for crowdsourcing (yes, I still dislike that word) efforts, of which he says Wikipedia is only using a couple.

I think he is on to something. But Wikipedia is operating at a scale that dwarfs almost every other crowdsourcing effort in history. It takes a massive bureaucracy of editors and administrators to keep the whole thing going.

And if traditional bureaucracies (like those in governments and large companies) tend to stifle innovation, what happens in a bureaucracy where the bureaucrats aren't getting paid and aren't getting any recognition for their efforts?

From my point of view, this is Wikipedia's next great challenge:

How does it convince the world to love and recognize its contributors?

I think Niel's post has some pretty good ideas for how Wikipedia could motivate its community of editors and administrators. But for me, it goes beyond simple motivation. The best contributors must truly feel loved and appreciated. Right now, the only attention most editors and administrators get is in the form of hate, whether they deserve it or not.

The bureaucracy of Wikipedia has a brand problem, probably caused in large part by an underlying culture problem. Search for "hate Wikipedia" in Google and you'll return about 13,000,000 results, which mostly fall into one of two categories: people complaining about inaccurate or politizised entries or contributors complaining about malicious editors and draconian administrators.

Are these accusations true? I'm sure many of them are. In fact, Wikipedia itself has a brilliantly-edited page describing all of the criticisms of Wikipedia in great detail.

Can Wikipedia rehabilitate the reputation of its editors and contributors and eliminate some of the worst offenses of the bureaucracy? I think so. But to do so will take significant cultural changes. Some questions I've been pondering:

  • How can Wikipedia reward and recognize editors who do exceptional work while rooting out those editors who stifle the exceptional work of others?
  • How can Wikipedia reward true leadership and make heroes out of those who make the largest contribution? We love our superstars, whether in sports, politics, literature, or any other field, yet we don't even know the names of our Wikipedia heroes yet.
  • Could (and should) Wikipedia make the shift from being a culture of near-anonymous contribution and service to one where contribution and service are rewarded in very public ways?

I love Wikipedia, and I am not alone (a Google search for "love Wikipedia" brings back 109,000,000 entries—almost 10x the number for hate). So if you love Wikipedia too (or even if you don't), please share some of your ideas below.

How can we help Wikipedia improve its culture of contribution to ensure it continues to grow and improve as a useful resource for years to come?

Let me know what you think.



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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)


At, the maintainers for each project (e.g. a contributed module or theme) are spotlighted in a box at the top left of the project's page, for example . In addition to linking to each maintainer's page, you can see how active they've been and how recently they contributed. (Contributors who are not maintainers are given credit in the release notes.) This information is available about Wikipedia contributors, it's just not spotlighted.

Drupal is a great example! And I've noticed more and more open source projects beginning to do similar things to highlight their contributors... I wonder if Wikipedia holds back for historical reasons or philosophical reasons? There is a weird hint on the Wikipedia About page here:

"Users can contribute anonymously, under a pseudonym, or with their real identity, if they choose, though the latter is discouraged for safety reasons."

Is contributor safety the reason? Seems like people contribute all over the web now with their real names, on Twitter, Facebook, etc. Perhaps this reason is becoming outdated?

I use Wikipedia a lot, but I soured on it when Jimmy Wales came out and said, basically, that anyone paid to write Wikipedia articles would be banned:

I can't understand this. If someone wants to pay to have a qualified person write a Wikipedia article, and that article meets all of the style guidelines and requirements of the site, what's the big deal? Writing good Wikipedia articles is a skill like any other, and I can't understand his insistence on it remaining am amateur endeavor.

would you pay for something that can be modifyed by anyone? i don't see how can the removal of the rule you mention increase the number of contribution. i do not think this is something urgent.

i think the will to contribute to make wikipedia great has fallen. it IS great. if the contributions are falling, this should not be necessarily a problem, as long as the number is still positive.

try to focus on quality now. do not be always excessively concerned about growth...

Provide some user stats in wikipedia frontpage, like a block, as already suggested in first comment. In this way everyone can see the how people are contributing. This stats should be calculated by a mix of article quantity an quality (but there are many involved factors to archive some kind of value).
Also creating some donation form specific for people present in top stats could be a more fair rewarding, in this way wikipedia don't pay directly to persons, and this payment can be done by the community based on work.

Wrote this in December of 2006:

This is a dormant blog. The quotes in the post were current at the time, but the page they came from at Wikipedia is much changed. All the comments on this blog are from men who were then actively hunting others like ME.

Once burned, twice warned. (source: Common knowledge) ;-)

WikiDashboard is a <a href="">prototype that we created that would show the contribution and make the people/editors much more visitable on each wikipedia page.</a>

Wikipedia was created in 2001, when social web was still in its infancy. During the ensuing 9 years, it has changed very little, and I would argue have not kept up with the times in terms of "Social Web" cultural norms (e.g. no way to log in with OpenID", no way to verifying your email address so you can get notifications, no way to reveal real names confidently if you want to, etc.)

Maybe it is finally time for Wikipedia to implement a feature like WikiDashboard, so that there is more social transparency on who is editing what page. -> "hate Wikipedia" -> next -> next -> ... -> "Results 441 - 441 of 441 for hate Wikipedia. (0.55 seconds) "

"In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 441 already displayed. If you like, you can repeat the search with the omitted results included."

I wouldn't trust the XY million results numbers. even if it counts all "wikipedia".org with "hate" word inside. Which of course doesn't mean that someone hates wikipedia...

i found 12,8 M in google search....

I am fascinated by the wealth of comments on this topic and other blogs that have been covering it. I've been contacted by a number of Wikipedia administrative contributors that claim many of the multi-modal motivations i mentioned in my article are actually in place behind the scenes. It will be interesting to see if Wikipedia makes the leap to expose those to the rest of us. Whether its Mahalo or Foursquare, the participation generation wants credit and acknowledgement for where they spend their time.

Nice post, Chris. Thanks for illuminating one of the biggest challenges facing the Wikimedia Foundation. I have had the chance to meet and work with a few Wikimedians in the past year and have been introduced to their 5-year strategic planning process. They are conducting what I would consider to be one of the most transparent, community-involved strategic planning efforts ever. You can not only read every scrap of their thinking but participate here: For deeper insight into the challenge of increasing participation look here: The ideas are not rocket science. It's good old community building -- creating supportive mechanisms and then getting out of the way so the community can do its work.

Thanks for the great comments, everyone! I posted a followup article today about the Wikimedia Foundation strategic planning process:

And I've posted some interesting articles about the process from HBR and from the project lead in the "What we're reading" column of the business channel.

Exciting stuff--

Wikipedia is terminally hopeless because its system is designed to reach a certain level but no higher. Its model of throwing everyone into one system where an 18-year-old with Asperger's who devotes 18 hours per day to Wikipedia is equal to a PhD from MIT means it will ever be an endeavor of the amateur. Show me an outstanding article at Wikipedia and I will in most cases 1) show why it really is not excellent; or, 2) explain how this is an obscure topic where an expert can actually work on it and have it left pretty much alone.

I no longer have the patience or the energy to educate some of the more gullible among you, but... seeing as how the comments have elicited notes about paid editing, about the Strategy wiki, and the blog post itself talked of the need for "significant cultural changes", I might as well provide a few links for those of you who aren't completely duped yet by this Wikipedia scam.

First off, I am this guy:

Here are two examples of my work, and their counterpart articles in Wikipedia:

In both cases, clearly the MyWikiBiz article is superior to that found in Wikipedia; but MyWikiBiz is banned from editing Wikipedia, thanks to the hostile reaction of Jimmy Wales toward any form of paid editing.

Now, what about Jimmy Wales?

Wales will shut down any paid editor making $50 or $60 for a couple of hours' work editing freely licensed content; but meanwhile, Wikipedia is driving over 21,000 outbound external links to Jimmy's for-profit enterprise,*

Is anyone else here detecting the hypocrisy?

Here's an interesting page regarding the Wikimedia Strategic Planning wiki... Look how many voices the coordinator of that wiki has silenced:

Finally, the one time the Wikimedia Foundation tried to utilize a grant to pay editors for content (a $20,000 gift from Philip Greenspun), the WMF decided to turn over the management of grant distribution to a volunteer who'd never done that before. Result? About $800 distributed properly to content creators, and about $19,200 returned to Mr. Greenspun:

Now... who here still believes that Wikipedia is even capable of a "significant cultural change"?

By the way, if you put quotation marks around "love Wikipedia" and "hate Wikipedia" (as you should, to more accurately gauge this measure), the results are much closer -- 39,600 in the "love" column, versus 29,200 in the "hate" column.

But, I'm just spinning my wheels. I've already demonstrated how the majority of those who say they "love Wikipedia" are either saying it in jest or are not of sound mind:

The comment above that struck me most clearly was the claim that Wikipedia's article on "criticisms of Wikipedia" is a "brilliantly-edited page" that describes "all" of those criticisms. Unless it's changed significantly since I last looked at it, that page really only addresses criticisms for which Wikipedia has settled responses; it omits or downplays those for which Wikipedia cannot come up with a satisfactory answer. (Perhaps this is what you meant by "brilliantly edited".)

In any case, if Wikipedia wants to convince the world to love its contributors, it should start by getting rid of those contributors whose participation in Wikipedia is for the purpose of advancing a political or ideological agenda. However, Wikipedia lacks both the will and the means to do this.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should reveal that I am a former contributor to Wikipedia who left as the hypocrisy and fundamental unworkability of the Wikipedia enterprise become increasingly apparent.

wah wah whiners in the comments i see.

Sign the Petition

Petition is full of fake signatures; it claims I signed it, but I didn't. Unsurprisingly, it's become a troll target, as will any petition site that doesn't do some form of identity verification.

Ban Wikipedia -

I have witnessed the conversation on IRC covering this topic and this is what they have to say:

[19:08] <GorillaWarfare> Hahaha oh man, have you guys seen this?
[19:08] <Loki> Ah okay.
[19:09] <Loki> Pilif12p: I only ask because when I made my account back in the day, I don't think any eyes went into it O.o
[19:09] <Pilif12p> oh
[19:09] <PeterSymonds> BarkingFish, well, I doubt that'll be the end result.
[19:09] <Pilif12p> BarkingFish: so, option 1 won?
[19:09] == Dragonfly6-7 [… has joined #wikipedia-en
[19:09] <PeterSymonds> Says my secret-pro-PC opinion.
[19:09] <{Soap}> A Nobody is signing a petition to "ban Wikipedia" ?
[19:09] <Dragonfly6-7> [[Stereotypes of groups within the United States]]
[19:09] <Loki> I have low # of edits, but my account has been around since I think 2007 or 2006 Pilif12p
[19:09] <PeterSymonds> Which is not-so-secret now.
[19:09] <Dragonfly6-7> {Soap} - lnk me?
[19:09] <Sky2042> GorillaWarfare: I like the goal number of sigs.
[19:10] * Sky2042 chuckles.
[19:10] <Pilif12p> (having 3 options for keep and 1 for trash is totally unfair)
[19:10] <Sky2042> Obvious fake petition is obvious fake.
[19:10] <GorillaWarfare> Sky2042: My favorite is "it is almost 100% entirely inaccurate"
[19:10] <{Soap}> A Nobody's name is not on there, but his talk page was recently host to something related
[19:10] <BarkingFish> PeterSymonds, you think it'll be manipulated so WMF again gets its own way?
[19:10] <PeterSymonds> I wouldn't put it quite like that.
[19:10] <{Soap}>
[19:11] <PeterSymonds> It's clear that the majority want PC to continue in some form.
[19:11] <{Soap}> that could just be someone posing as him though now that I think of it
[19:11] <MuZemike> I call bullshit
[19:11] <GorillaWarfare> I saw the petition on another person's talk page

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