Why Wikipedia’s “Editor Exodus” Doesn’t Matter: A Closer Look at the Data

30 11 2009

On November 23, the Wall Street Journal reported that “unprecedented” numbers of Wikipedians were leaving the site and suggested that Wikipedia was in grave danger.  The story was later picked up by CNet and other sources.

Wikimedia produced a rebuttal saying that everything was fine.  However, the media is portraying the battle as a “he said / she said” affair where it is not clear whether Wikipedia is in trouble or not.  We think this fails to credit Wikipedia as holding the stronger of the two positions.

In this article, we discuss why Wikipedia’s “editor exodus” doesn’t matter.  Simply put, the WSJ has (1) interpreted the data incorrectly, (2) ignored the fact that most content on Wikipedia is created by a small, core group of editors [a fact validated by researchers at U. Minnesota], (3) ignored social science research indicating that having fewer editors may increase article quality, and (4) ignored the exodus of spammers.

The exodus described is the leaving of 49,000 editors from the English language version during the first three months of 2009, where only 4,900 left in the same quarter a year earlier.  It is stated that editors are leaving faster than new editors are joining.  All the statements made in the WSJ article are supported only by data provided by Dr. Felipe Ortega of the Universidad Rey San Carlos in Madrid.  The data is in his thesis on Wikipedia (the relevant data starts on page 116).

Ortega’s Analysis

Dr. Ortega shows that more editors are leaving Wikipedia than joining it, as shown by the greater number of editor deaths than births in the following graph.  He defines a birth as the moment when someone edits Wikipedia for the first time.  He defines a death as the moment when someone makes their last edit to Wikipedia, which is not followed by any further edits.

The 49,000 “log-offs” reported by the WSJ are what Dr. Ortega would call in his thesis 49,000 deaths.

The following image is the birth/death graph for the English version of Wikipedia from page 123 of Dr. Ortega’s thesis.

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