Wikipedia loses editors: Crowdsourcing reality check?

The moral of the story: If a product is too hard or frustrating to use, or there are too many barriers to entry, people will turn away

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia built on the backs of a seemingly never-ending supply of free labor, is in a bit of a bind: Many contributors are throwing in the towel. As reported in a page one story in Monday's Wall Street Journal, "unprecedented numbers of the millions of online volunteers who write, edit and police it are quitting." And, the article adds, not enough new blood is coming online to replace the quitters.

While it may be tempting to view this as a failure of the "crowdsourcing" model, the article hints at another issue that has bedeviled software for decades: Barriers to entry increasing to the point where users no longer want to use it. Wikipedia's obscure markup language has always been a turnoff for new contributors, but the introduction of various rules over the years to counteract spam, vandalism, conflicts of interest and other problems has made contributing even minor updates an exercise in frustration. Try linking to a blog containing more information on the subject at hand, or creating an entry for a topic or person that is not yet included in Wikipedia. If the contribution isn't blocked or changed, there's a good chance it will be deleted by overzealous editors who think it's not worthy of inclusion (see "Deletionpedia: Where Wikipedia entries go to die"). The Wall Street Journal notes that dealing with the angry debates over certain articles can wear down even experienced editors. It's not at all surprising that many people simply say, why bother?

But is this situation really much different than the frustrations people encounter with other kinds of software that are difficult to understand or operate, or present other barriers to entry? Marc Benioff's book Behind The Cloud cites an old Gartner research stat that claimed 65% of Siebel licenses were never used. The implication: The Siebel CRM applications were too hard to install and too hard to use, so many people didn't even try.

One doesn't have to look far for other examples. Who in your office has actually figured out how to use the advanced features of Lotus Notes or Microsoft Word? How many people in your circle of friends have given up trying to update their antivirus software or device drivers because the stupid installation disc is nowhere to be found?

The moral of the story: If a product is too hard or frustrating to use, or there are too many barriers to entry, people will turn away -- or turn to something else. Apple's successes with iTunes, the iPod, and now the iPhone are proof that easy-to-use software and hardware not only can attract new users, but also can leave established competitors in the dust. Wikipedia is fortunate in that there isn't any other broadly focused online encyclopedia that offers a better experience for contributions. But if Google figures out a way to supercharge its languishing Knol service -- or Wikipedia's PageRank value declines in Google searches -- there might be an opening for an alternative service to flourish.

Sources and research: Wall Street Journal, Behind The Cloud, TheStandard.com

Follow Ian on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ilamont. Industry Standard updates and asides are available at twitter.com/the_standard and in our newsletters. You can also join our Industry Standard Facebook page and LinkedIn group.

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Ian Lamont

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