Nearly All of Wikipedia Is Written By Just 1 Percent of Its Editors

Daniel Oberhaus at Motherboard: “…Sixteen years later, the free encyclopedia and fifth most popular website in the world is well on its way to this goal. Today, Wikipedia is home to 43 million articles in 285 languages and all of these articles are written and edited by an autonomous group of international volunteers.

Although the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation diligently keeps track of how editors and users interact with the site, until recently it was unclear how content production on Wikipedia was distributed among editors. According to the results of a recent study that looked at the 250 million edits made on Wikipedia during its first ten years, only about 1 percent of Wikipedia’s editors have generated 77 percent of the site’s content.

“Wikipedia is both an organization and a social movement,” Sorin Matei, the director of the Purdue University Data Storytelling Network and lead author of the study, told me on the phone. “The assumption is that it’s a creation of the crowd, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Wikipedia wouldn’t have been possible without a dedicated leadership.”

At the time of writing, there are roughly 132,000 registered editors who have been active on Wikipedia in the last month (there are also an unknown number of unregistered Wikipedians who contribute to the site). So statistically speaking, only about 1,300 people are creating over three-quarters of the 600 new articles posted to Wikipedia every day.

Of course, these “1 percenters” have changed over the last decade and a half. According to Matei, roughly 40 percent of the top 1 percent of editors bow out about every five weeks. In the early days, when there were only a few hundred thousand people collaborating on Wikipedia, Matei said the content production was significantly more equitable. But as the encyclopedia grew, and the number of collaborators grew with it, a cadre of die-hard editors emerged that have accounted for the bulk of Wikipedia’s growth ever since.

Matei and his colleague Brian Britt, an assistant professor of journalism at South Dakota State University, used a machine learning algorithm to crawl the quarter of a billion publicly available edit logs from Wikipedia’s first decade of existence. The results of this research, published September as a book, suggests that for all of Wikipedia’s pretension to being a site produced by a network of freely collaborating peers, “some peers are more equal than others,” according to Matei.

Matei and Britt argue that rather than being a decentralized, spontaneously evolving organization, Wikipedia is better described as an “adhocracy“—a stable hierarchical power structure which nevertheless allows for a high degree of individual mobility within that hierarchy….(More)”.