Hobbies Don’t Need “Incentives for Participation”

Eric Goldman

Eric Goldman

Ars Technica writes up law professor Eric Goldman’s argument that Wikipedia is doomed. Since 2005, Goldman has been predicting that Wikipedia would start to decline by 2010, and to his credit (I guess) he has stuck by his prediction despite mounting evidence to the contrary. His latest effort is a law review article laying out his case with a surfeit of footnotes.

For the most part, the paper re-hashes the same arguments that Wikipedia’s critics have always made: that editing Wikipedia brings few financial or other extrinsic rewards, and that Wikipedia will therefore have difficulty recruiting enough people to make the site viable. As Goldman himself acknowledges, this is not a new argument. Goldman’s novel claim is that “xenophobia” and rising barriers to entry will drive away new editors. And without new editors, Wikipedia will experience a “labor squeeze” as veteran editors move onto new activities. Goldman explains the xenophobia point like this:

Unregistered or unsophisticated users do not comply with Wikipedia’s cultural rituals, such as signing talk pages. By failing to conform to the rituals, these contributors implicitly signal that they are Wikipedia outsiders, which increases the odds that Wikipedia insiders will target their contributions as a threat. As one book says, “If you’re editing and aren’t logged in, you’re in some sense a second-class citizen on the site. Expect less tolerance of minor infractions of policy and guidelines.” This insider xenophobia is a more significant incursion on free editability than any technological measure because it leads to quick screening of user contributions—both illegitimate and legitimate.

There’s an awful lot of hand-waving going on here. It’s obviously true that people who conform to Wikipedia’s various policies and traditions are more likely to have their edits respected than those who don’t. But this doesn’t tell us about the significance of this effect. Goldman cites research suggesting that 25 percent of edits by novice editors are reverted, up from 10 percent in 2003. Both the figure and the trend strike me as totally consistent with a healthy Wikipedia. Obviously, as Wikipedia matures, there will be fewer opportunities for constructive edits and more occasion for vandalism, so we’d expect the figure to rise over time. And the 25 percent of edits that get reverted obviously aren’t going to be randomly distributed. Some of them will be troublemakers, bad spellers, or people with political axes to grind. If you know what you’re talking about and make a sincere effort to improve an article, your reversion rate will be less than 25 percent.

3813804642_9bdf8e1281One of the most important rules of Wikipedia is to “ignore all rules” if they conflict with making Wikipedia better, and Wikipedians take this principle seriously. Contributors who contribute useful content but fail to observe all of Wikipedia’s niceties will likely find their contribution “cleaned up” by an experienced editor, and may receive a note from that editor explaining the relevant policy. Moreover, Wikipedians tend to evaluate edits, not editors. Figuring out whether an editor is an “insider” or not is more work than seeing whether the person’s edits made any sense.

These problems aside, I think the fundamental problem with Goldman’s analysis—and that of most of Wikipedia’s critics—is that he misunderstands what Wikipedia is. Wikipedia isn’t a commercial effort that needs to recruit a “labor force.” It’s a hobby like fly fishing or knitting. And the pool of potential “labor” for hobbies is enormous relative to Wikipedia’s needs. As usual, Clay Shirky makes the point best:

If you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is.

Goldman thinks editing Wikipedia sounds tedious and unrewarding. I feel the same way about gardening. Yet lots of people spend hours every week trying to get their azaleas to bloom. This is only puzzling to economists and law professors who have gotten used to thinking like them. Keeping the world’s free encyclopedia tidy requires a small fraction of the effort required to keep the world’s gardens well-tended. Wikipedia will be undermined by its lack of incentives around the same time the nation’s gardens go to seed because people realize they’re never going to be profitable.

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