When Wikipedia was launched in 2001 by Jimmy Wales, an entrepreneur who cut his teeth linking to internet porn in the 90s, its stated objective was to "compile the sum of all human knowledge" and make it freely available to the world. 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.
"Wikipedia is like any other organization," Matei told me. "Leaders matter tremendously. They invested so much of their time and seeded the collaboration process."
In this respect, Wikipedia isn't that much different from other for-profit social media companies. And like these companies, its leadership has created its own share of problems. In a publicly available audit of its volunteer editors published in 2011, the Wikimedia Foundation found that the overwhelming majority—91 percent—of its editors were male. The Foundation set itself a goal of bolstering female representation among editors to 25 percent, but as of 2013—the most recent year this data has been collected and published—84 percent of editors were male.
The number of active editors in general has also been on a decline since 2006. In 2011, the Wikimedia Foundation set itself a goal of 200,000 active editors by 2015, and today it is still 70,000 editors short of that mark.
As detailed in a 2013 feature in the MIT Technology Review, the decline of active editors with more than 10 edits under their belt has been attributed to the increasingly bureaucratic nature of the editing process. The semi-automation and stricter editing process was initially launched as a way to combat vandalism on Wikipedia pages. Although the new protocols did result in a decrease in vandalism, it also resulted in a steep drop off of new editors that stayed 2 months after their first edit.
The shrinking number and lack of diversity among Wikipedia editors is troubling. Not only does it skew the information available in the largest encyclopedia ever created toward topics geared for Western, male audiences, these biases are then also liable to crop up in the increasing number of artificial intelligences that use Wikipedia as their training data.
According to Matei, however, the solution isn't likely to be found through the distribution of content production to larger groups of people. He thinks a strong core of leaders is indispensable to Wikipedia's success so it's more about how to encourage more diverse leadership.
"You can open Wikipedia editing up to more people, but projects that do that tend to flounder," Matei said. "The better question to ask is, 'How can we diversity the people at the top?'"