The decline of Wikipedia

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:


Open collaboration systems like Wikipedia need to maintain a pool of volunteer contributors in order to remain relevant. Wikipedia was created through a tremendous number of contributions by millions of contributors. However, recent research has shown that the number of active contributors in Wikipedia has been declining steadily for years, and suggests that a sharp decline in the retention of newcomers is the cause. This paper presents data that show that several changes the Wikipedia community made to manage quality and consistency in the face of a massive growth in participation have ironically crippled the very growth they were designed to manage. Specifically, the restrictiveness of the encyclopedia’s primary quality control mechanism and the algorithmic tools used to reject contributions are implicated as key causes of decreased newcomer retention. Further, the community’s formal mechanisms for norm articulation are shown to have calcified against changes – especially changes proposed by newer editors.

To deal with the massive influx of new editors between 2004 and 2007, Wikipedians built automated quality control tools and solidified their rules of governance. These reasonable and effective strategies for maintaining the quality of the encyclopedia have come at the cost of decreased retention of desirable newcomers.

The decline represents a change in the rate of retention of desirable, good-faith newcomers.

The proportion of newcomers that edit in good-faith has not changed since 2006.

These desirable newcomers are more likely to have their work rejected since 2007.

This increased rejection predicts the observed decline in retention.

Semi-autonomous vandal fighting tools (like Huggle) are partially at fault.

An increasing proportion of desirable newcomers are having their work rejected by automated tools.

These automated reverts exacerbate the predicted negative effects of rejection on retention.

Users of Huggle tend to not engage in the best practices for discussing the reverts they perform.

New users are being pushed out of policy articulation.

The formalized process for vetting new policies and changes to policies ensures that newcomers’ edits do not survive.

Both newcomers and experienced editors are moving increasingly toward less formal spaces.