Wikipedia falling victim to a war of words

Is the dream over for Wikipedia? The “free encyclopaedia anyone can edit” was meant to demonstrate the democratic possibilities of the internet, but a study by Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid has found that editors are abandoning it.

In the first three months of 2009, the English-language site had a net loss of more than 49 000 volunteers, compared with only 4 900 in the same period last year.

That’s not to say Wikipedia isn’t a success: it’s the sixth most popular website in the world. So why do fewer volunteers want to edit it?

Perhaps it’s because editing isn’t as much fun as it was three years ago, when the pool of contributors was growing at its fastest rate. Back then, it was easy to insert anything, even if that was an article about your dog, or the “fact” that stingrays hate Australian people.

As Wikipedia tries to be more robust, editing has become less straightforward. Click on “edit this page” and you’re presented with a series of directives encouraging you to create an account and absorb key Wikipedia principles if you want your contributions to stand. Go to an article on a current event, or a celebrity, and you’re likely to find that it’s been “protected” from tinkering by newcomers.

Wikipedia’s most loyal volunteers aren’t worried. “Wikipedia was really hot in 2007,” says Charles Matthews, one of the site’s most prolific editors. “After that peak, we were left with those who are relatively serious about the encyclopaedia.”

But it could be that the collaborative aspect itself is driving people away. Disenchanted ex-volunteers say they are burned by squabbling with established editors over their contributions, and some claim the site is run by an impenetrable inner circle that controls all its content. “It’s colloquially known as the cabal, although it’s more like a hierarchy of power cliques, each one staking out its territory,” says former contributor Barry Kort.

There’s also the chance that Wikipedia may be the victim of its own success. With more than three million English language articles, perhaps the editors have simply run out of things to say.—



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