(2 of 2)
Chi thinks something more drastic has occurred: the Web's first major ecosystem collapse. Think of Wikipedia's community of volunteer editors as a family of bunnies left to roam freely over an abundant green prairie. In early, fat times, their numbers grow geometrically. More bunnies consume more resources, though, and at some point, the prairie becomes depleted, and the population crashes.
Instead of prairie grasses, Wikipedia's natural resource is an emotion. "There's the rush of joy that you get the first time you make an edit to Wikipedia, and you realize that 330 million people are seeing it live," says Sue Gardner, Wikimedia Foundation's executive director. In Wikipedia's early days, every new addition to the site had a roughly equal chance of surviving editors' scrutiny. Over time, though, a class system emerged; now revisions made by infrequent contributors are much likelier to be undone by élite Wikipedians. Chi also notes the rise of wiki-lawyering: for your edits to stick, you've got to learn to cite the complex laws of Wikipedia in arguments with other editors. Together, these changes have created a community not very hospitable to newcomers. Chi says, "People begin to wonder, 'Why should I contribute anymore?'" and suddenly, like rabbits out of food, Wikipedia's population stops growing.
The foundation has been working to address some of these issues; for example, it is improving the site's antiquated, often incomprehensible editing interface. But as for the larger issue of trying to attract a more diverse constituency, it has no specific plan only a goal. "The average Wikipedian is a young man in a wealthy country who's probably a grad student somebody who's smart, literate, engaged in the world of ideas, thinking, learning, writing all the time," Gardner says. Those people are invaluable, she notes, but the encyclopedia is missing the voices of people in developing countries, women and experts in various specialties that have traditionally been divorced from tech. "We're just starting to get our heads around this. It's a genuinely difficult problem," Gardner says. "Obviously, Wikipedia is pretty good now. It works. But our challenge is to build a rich, diverse, broad culture of people, which is harder than it looks."
Before Wikipedia, nobody would have believed that an anonymous band of strangers could create something so useful. So is it crazy to imagine that, given the difficulties it faces, someday the whole experiment might blow up? "There are some bloggers out there who say, 'Oh, yeah, Wikipedia will be gone in five years,'" Chi says. "I think that's sensational. But our data does suggest its existence in 10 or 15 years may be in question."
Ten years is a long time on the Internet longer than Wikipedia has even existed. Michael Snow, the foundation's chairman, says he's got a "fair amount of confidence" that Wikipedia will go on. It remains a precious resource a completely free journal available to anyone and the model for a mode of online collaboration once hailed as revolutionary. Still, Wikipedia's troubles suggest the limits of Web 2.0 that when an idealized community gets too big, it starts becoming dysfunctional. Just like every other human organization.