The reluctant crowdsourcer: a decade of Wikipedia

February 11th, 2011 by

microtask_wikipedia_10yearsThere’s something hard to resist about Wikipedia. Like a giant, virtual fact-monster, the site sucks you in and won’t let go.

You click over for a quick fact check – to find out the year eBay was founded, say – and suddenly it’s thirty minutes later and you’re halfway through an article on Dutch Tulip Mania.

2011 is Wikipedia’s tenth anniversary and the world’s media has joined in celebration with fans/addicts of fascinating/useless trivia. The site is such a fact of internet life that I actually assumed it was older. It’s weird to think that although Wikipedia was created before Facebook (founded 2004), it’s still in kindergarten compared to Google (1998) or eBay (1995).

Just like using the site, when discussing Wikipedia it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer scale of it. 17 million articles, 365 million readers, the 7th most popular website in the world. Wikipedia is, of course, written, edited and funded by users – the last donation drive raised over $16 million.

Geeky, cheeky and clique-y?
Okay, enough statistical drooling. In the old days (I’m thinking pre 2005) accuracy was Wikipedia’s big controversy. At first, the whole idea of user-generated content raised academic eyebrows – if a college professor asked “Did you get that fact off Wikipedia?”, they definitely weren’t complementing your techie research skills. In recent years however, tighter editing and fewer new articles have improved Wikipedia’s reputation (along with countless homework assignments).

The more recent concern for the online dictionary is who the contributors are, and how this affects content. Research shows Wikipedia contributors are, on average, under 30 and an overwhelming 87% male. The danger is that Wikipedia is becoming a nerds-only encyclopedia: great if you need descriptions of every Star Trek episode, but not so great if you want to learn about Mozart sonatas. Recently, the site announced plans to combat this lack of diversity. Sue Gardener, head of the Wikimedia Foundation has set a target of 25% women contributors by 2015.

Working Women
It’s interesting to compare the gender of Wikipedia contributors with crowdsourced workers. A 2010 survey of Mechanical Turk found roughly equal numbers of male and female Turkers – in the US, women were actually the majority. The question is: why isn’t this active, female crowd also churning out Wikipedia articles? We know crowdsourced workers aren’t just in it for the money and that many prefer complex and rewarding tasks.

One factor could be the attitude of those in charge at Wikipedia. It’s well known that Wikipedia’s founders, including Jimmy Wales himself, don’t like the term “crowdsourcing”. You get the feeling that many Wikipedia enthusiasts view the dictionary as collaboration, but see distributed work as exploitation. If this is in fact the case, it seems to me to be a counter-productive oversimplification. Wouldn’t it be better to actively encourage crowdsourcing crossover? For Mechanical Turk to become a kind of gateway drug to Wikipedia?

The changes are a pending
Let’s be clear, I’m definitely not anti-Wikipedia (hey, some of my best friends are Wikipedia contributors). I’m happy to admit that the paid crowdsourcing industry has a lot to learn from the site: better collaboration, better organization, how to stick around for a whole decade et cetera. At the same time, I think it’s a two-way street. Crowdsourcing startups have come up with some innovative ways of attracting a diverse crowd: using social networks, gamification, simple APIs, and solid reward structures. If Wikipedians looked down from their ivory tower, they might just learn something from the current generation of crowd-led projects.

In the meantime, if any women reading this blog are experts on obscure Mozart music (though I’m guessing that Venn diagram has a pretty narrow overlap), I suggest they get over to Wikipedia and help make the web a better place.