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Who writes Wikipedia

There’s an interesting article on Wikipedia by Aaron Swartz. Swartz comes to a similar conclusion as I did–Wikipedia and traditional encyclopedias are actually structured similarly–but he approaches the question from an encyclopedia editor’s point of view, whereas I was generalizing from my experience as an encyclopedia contributor. Here’s what Swartz reported:

So did the Gang of 500 [central Wikipedia participants] actually write Wikipedia? Wales decided to run a simple study to find out: he counted who made the most edits to the site. . . it turns out over 50% of all the edits are done by just .7% of the users … 524 people. … And in fact the most active 2%, which is 1400 people, have done 73.4% of all the edits. . .

Curious and skeptical, I [Swartz] decided to investigate. I picked an article at random (“Alan Alda”) to see how it was written. . . Wales seems to think that the vast majority of users are just doing the first two (vandalizing or contributing small fixes) while the core group of Wikipedians writes the actual bulk of the article. But that’s not at all what I found. Almost every time I saw a substantive edit, I found the user who had contributed it was not an active user of the site. . .

If you just count edits, it appears the biggest contributors to the Alan Alda article (7 of the top 10) are registered users who (all but 2) have made thousands of edits to the site. Indeed, #4 has made over 7,000 edits while #7 has over 25,000. In other words, if you use Wales’s methods, you get Wales’s results: most of the content seems to be written by heavy editors. But when you count letters, the picture dramatically changes: few of the contributors (2 out of the top 10) are even registered and most (6 out of the top 10) have made less than 25 edits to the entire site. In fact, #9 has made exactly one edit — this one! With the more reasonable metric — indeed, the one Wales himself said he planned to use in the next revision of his study — the result completely reverses. . . .

When you put it all together, the story become clear: an outsider makes one edit to add a chunk of information, then insiders make several edits tweaking and reformatting it. In addition, insiders rack up thousands of edits doing things like changing the name of a category across the entire site — the kind of thing only insiders deeply care about. As a result, insiders account for the vast majority of the edits. But it’s the outsiders who provide nearly all of the content. . . . Other encyclopedias work similarly, just on a much smaller scale: a large group of people write articles on topics they know well, while a small staff formats them into a single work.

I would add only one comment (besides what I wrote before). Swartz writes:

And Wikipedia should too. Even if all the formatters quit the project tomorrow, Wikipedia would still be immensely valuable. For the most part, people read Wikipedia because it has the information they need, not because it has a consistent look. It certainly wouldn’t be as nice without one, but the people who (like me) care about such things would probably step up to take the place of those who had left. The formatters aid the contributors, not the other way around.

My response: I know what he’s saying here, but I don’t know if it’s so true in general. I imagine the common format is a big part of Wikipedia’s appeal–it sort of makes it into the McDonald’s of information sources. I suspect that the clean and uniform format is a large part of Wikipedia’s air of authority.

4 Comments

  1. tom s. says:

    In your comment on the article you write

    "I agree that ultimately the ocntent is more important"

    – was that a deliberate typo? It was certainly appropriate.

  2. derek c says:

    There already exists an online encyclopaedia with no imposed editorial style. It's called the World Wide Web. Those of us who like to consult Wikipedia do so because the uniform style allows us to extract the content without having to re-learn the protocols every time. In information graphics terms, it's analogous to a "small multiple display": standardized format, unique content.

  3. David Kane says:

    This is off topic, but at some point it would be fun if Andrew did a review of some of the statistics articles in Wikipedia. I like this one, but there is a lot of work left to do.

  4. Maybe I'm biased, but this seems like a really biased entry to me.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deborah_Frisch

    Where are you, dude?

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Search?search=Andrew+Gelman&go=Go&quot; rel="nofollow"&gt <a href="http://;http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Search?search=Andrew+Gelman&go=Go” target=”_blank”>;http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Search?search=Andrew+Gelman&go=Go

    Your blog is many times more interesting and scholarly than that of the fourth rate economists at george mason. You're a bigger fish in the academic statistical/decision/economic sciences slice of the pie than me and Bryan Caplan.

    <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bryan_Caplan&quot; rel="nofollow"&gt <a href="http://;http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bryan_Caplan” target=”_blank”>;http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bryan_Caplan

    Bryan's there because he's got a fan club. I'm there because I've got a foe club.

    <a href="http://donthiredeb.blogspot.com/&quot; rel="nofollow"&gt <a href="http://;http://donthiredeb.blogspot.com/” target=”_blank”>;http://donthiredeb.blogspot.com/

    But I think that given that you're the author of a statistics textbook, you're a professor at an ivy league university, etc. that you're a bigger academic fish than me and Bryan. Yet according to wikipedia, you ain't even on the map!

    wikipedia is absurdly biased toward topics of interest and information available on the web. it's like a mcdonald's mushy hamburger (a whole different can of worms from their yummy fries!) in the sense that you often want to say "where's the beef?"