Proposal:Improving our platform

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Every proposal should be tied to one of the strategic priorities below.

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  1. Achieve continued growth in readership
  2. Focus on quality content
  3. Increase Participation
  4. Stabilize and improve the infrastructure
  5. Encourage Innovation

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Note: The following is a first draft. I will try to finish it within the next days --Frank Schulenburg 02:02, 25 November 2009 (UTC)

Question / Problem

How can Wikimedia increase and broaden participation?


Wikimedia should focus resources on improving the software platform.

Propositions at a glance

This proposal argues for 7 measures that improve Wikipedia's software platform by

  • making it easier to register as a user,
  • fighting the "everything-is-done" impression,
  • removing technical barriers for participation,
  • improving social interaction between registered users.


Description and analysis of the status quo

Figure 1: The "Low-hanging fruits theory" is not the only answer…

Wikipedia's success is based on the contributions on thousands of volunteers worldwide. Its quality depends largely on whether knowledgeable people from a many different areas of interests feel encouraged to improve Wikipedia's content. This applies particularly for articles on topics that are not yet as well-represented on Wikipedia as others. Therefore, increasing and broadening Wikipedia's contributor base has to be one of our key objectives if we aim at providing our readers with “the sum of all knowledge.”

Recent studies show that Wikipedia's editor growth has declined substantially over the last two years.[1] Since its peak in March 2007, the number of monthly active editors on Wikipedia has plateaued. At the same time, there is an overall slowdown in global editing activity in Wikipedia.[2] Moreover, “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” [3] As a result, Wikipedia suffers systemic bias that naturally grows from its contributors' demographic groups, manifesting as imbalanced coverage of a subject.[4]

The most often expressed explanation for the slowdown in both editor and content growth has been the "Low-hanging fruits theory". E.g. “There were the articles that were like fruit on the ground (say, “apple” or “Africa”) that were tackled early in the project. Slightly more specialized articles quickly followed (so-called “low-hanging fruit”). Finally there are the fruit at the top of the trees, which, after three million articles, are also largely in the bushel basket.”[5]

A comparison of the development in the number of new authors signing up on a more mature language version like the German Wikipedia and a smaller language version like the Swedish Wikipedia shows a similar development for both language editions (Figure 1). The number of new contributors is not only decreasing on the much bigger German Wikipedia, but on the smaller Swedish Wikipedia as well. Therefore, the "Low-hanging fruits theory" can't be the only answer to the question why the number of new editors is dropping.


If the low-hanging-fruits-theory is not the only explanation for the decrease in new Wikipedians, there must be other reasons for the slowdown and stagnation.

Lack of knowledge about Wikpedia's culture and how to edit. Among the answers that have been proposed so far is the argument that the steep initial learning curve (wiki syntax, increasing complexity of rules and Wikipedia culture) prevents non-contributors from editing. The first multilingual survey of Wikipedia readers and contributors in 20 languages, conducted by the Wikimedia Foundation and UNU-Merit at the end of 2008[6] confirmed this assumption to a certain extend.[7] Hence, in fall 2009 the Wikimedia Foundation initiated a project to create a core set of educational materials designed to recruit new Wikipedia editors by increasing their awareness and interest, fostering excitement, and providing the training tools new editors need to get started ("The Bookshelf Project".)[8]

Not knowing which areas need help. The results of the UNU-Merit survey indicated that a significant amount of the non-contributors is unclear about where help is needed. 42.2% of the respondents stated they were much more likely to edit Wikipedia if they knew “there were specific topic areas that needed my help”.[9]

Missing opportunities for social interaction. The simultaneous growth of social networking sites suggests that today's generation of web users is looking for personal contacts/exchanges in a different way that they did ten years ago and that Wikipedia can't meet this demand. Currently, social networking sites are driving the web's growth. In September 2009, the Nielsen Company came to the following conclusion:

"Americans have nearly tripled the amount of time they spend at social networking and blog sites such as Facebook and MySpace from a year ago, according to a new report from The Nielsen Company. In August 2009, 17 percent of all time spent on the Internet was at social networking sites, up from 6 percent in August 2008.
“This growth suggests a wholesale change in the way the Internet is used,” said Jon Gibs, vice president, media and agency insights, Nielsen’s online division. “While video and text content remain central to the Web experience – the desire of online consumers to connect, communicate and share is increasingly driving the medium’s growth.”"[10]

The popularity of Hudong (chinese "interaction"), the rival of Wikipedia in China, backs up this argument. Hudong has become the largest wiki-based encyclopedia in the language since its founding in 2005. Experts attribute this to Hudong's social networking features that are extremely popular among the growing community.[11]

Technical barriers.

Hostility of the existing editor community towards new contributors.


  • Wikipedia's editor base will not restart growing without the addition of major new software features (analogy: market for mobile phones saturated – iPhone: "reinventing" the phone)
  • Improving the platform is a key strategy to create and preserve participation incentives for all target groups

Proposed measures

Making it easier to join Wikipedia as an editor / giving new editors a human face

  • Proposed measure #1: Leading users through an easier registration process
  • Proposed measure #2: Setting up your user page / uploading your picture as part of the account creation process (optional)

Rationale: Out-of-date culture: you don't see the people behind Wikipedia, today's generation is looking for personal contacts/exchanges in a different way that they did ten years ago

Facts: A growing number of non-contributors complain about anonymity on Wikipedia, e.g.:

“Aber einmal angenommen, ein Neuling holt sich einen Login, meldet sich an und beginnt an einem Artikel zu ändern. Dann passieren einige Dinge und eine Menge Dinge nicht. Ausgehend auf meinen Erfahrungen und denen der von mir befragten nicht repräsentativen Stichprobe gibt es keine Kontaktaufnahme von Person zu Person und auch kein kurzes konkretes Howto mit Beispielen 'So geht's - und so nicht': Wikipedia bleibt ein anonymes Objekt und versäumt die Chance, sich ein persönliches Gesicht zu geben.”

Christian Köhntopp, Communitygift, November 11, 2009. Köhntopp's blog posting received wide attention in the German blogoshere and press. Consequently, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published an Interview with Köhntopp and Wikimedia Germany's press officer Catrin Schoneville[12]

Fight the "everything-is-done" / "I-don't-know-where-to-start" impression

  • Proposed measure #3: Specifying areas of interest during account creation; create an "articles of your area of interest that need help today" feature

This should not be restricted to just writing articles. If someone says they have access to good research and would be willing to help, show them articles that need references. If someone says they are good at giving feedback, then show them articles that have a request for peer review. Things like that.

Rationale: …

Embrace non-tech savvy users: add WYSIWYG editing functionality

  • Proposed measure #4: Add WYSIWYG editing funtionality

In February 2007, Jason Calacanis, founder of the web-directory speculated on his blog,

“Wikipedia doesn’t use a WYSIWYG because if they did more people could edit the pages –people without technology skills– and that would make the entire system collapse […]”[13]

People who joined the German Wikipedia before February 2004 will agree with Calacanis to a certain extend: a large number of new authors can create a high pressure on existing Wikipedians. As in the case of the famous “Spiegel article”, an article about Wikipedia in the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel that drew a huge wave of non-contributors to the German language edition. In March 2004, 10,000 new editors created new user accounts on the German Wikipedia (compared to 3,300 in February).[14] Many anecdotes are told about that time, when the stress level of the core community members increased dramatically. All those new users asked questions, made mistakes, needed help. Today, some of them are still active. They are among the most productive Wikipedians on the German edition, they wrote thousands of articles and they helped to make the German language edition as comprehensive and successful as it is now.

But nobody will seriously agree with Calacanis that Wikipedia sticks to the HTML-like editing interface to keep the number of new participants artificially low. Because online communities that are unable to attract and incorporate a steady amount of new users become insular in their views and habits. Their culture will stagnate. For Wikipedia, embracing non-tech savvy users hence not only means to grow the community of active editors in numbers, but to change its social structure. If we want to convert more non-tech savvy readers to authors, if we want to attract more women and senior citizens, we need to make our product easier to use. Or, as Danny Horn, Product Manager at Wikia and responsible for making Wikia's wikis easier to use for readers and contributors, pointed out at the RecentChangesCamp 2009,

“If wikis are going to be a socially transformative technology, then they need to be designed so that everyone can use them. Right now, MediaWiki is a very powerful tool, but it's powerful like the cockpit of a plane – there are tons of controls, and you need to have special training and experience to feel comfortable using it.”[15]

The success of Apple's iPhone shows that usability matters today. Therefore, reinventing Wikipedia in a way like Apple “reinvented the phone” eventually means to be more competitive in the future:

“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.”[16]

In the past, Wikipedia's competitors (Citizendium, Knol) haven't been very successful. But there might be a day when a new and better prepared competitor shows up on the stage. With that in mind, removing technical barriers to entry is a strategical need.

Add social networking features / add incentives to get back to Wikipedia

Add social networking features to MediaWiki to improve Wikipedia's collaborativity:

  • Proposed measure #5: Connect with your friends on Wikipedia / invite your friends to Wikipedia
  • Proposed measure #6: Status updates: "10 articles your friends recently edited / commented on", "How many people looked at your articles", "Who looked at your userpage today"
  • Proposed measure #7: New editors in your field of interest seeking help

Rationale: Sideeffect: Attract women (social-collaborative vs. ego-competitive)

Potential Costs



  1. Bongwon Suh, Gregorio Convertino, Ed H. Chi, Peter Pirolli, The Singularity is Not Near: Slowing Growth of Wikipedia, October 2009, PDF
  2. Ed Chi (et al.), The Singularity is Not Near, p. 4.
  3. Farhad Manjoo, Is Wikipedia a Victim of Its Own Success?, Time, September 28, 2009.
  4. See
  5. Noam Cohen, Look This Up on Wikipedia: How Big Is Too Big?, New York Times Technology Blog, August 29, 2009.
  6. Ruediger Glott, Philipp Schmidt and Rishab Ghosh, Wikipedia Survey – First Results, Working Draft (9 April 2009) PDF
  7. About one fifth of the respondents claim to be willing to contribute just “if someone showed them how to do it”. Ruediger Glott et al., Wikipedia Survey, p. 8.
  8. See Wikimedia Blog, Wikimedia launches bookshelf project, November 4, 2009.
  9. Ruediger Glott et al., Wikipedia Survey, p. 8.
  10. Nielsen blog, Social Networking and Blog Sites Capture More Internet Time and Advertising, September 24, 2009
  11. Owen Fletcher, 'Chinese Wikipedia' Offers Social Networking Too, PC World Business Center, May 22, 2009
  12. Interview mit Catrin Schoneville, Wikimedia e.V. und Kris Köhntopp, IT Experte, November 23, 2009.
  13. Jason Calacanis, Wikipedia’s Technological Obscurification: Three ways Wikipedia keeps 99% of the population from participating, February 20, 2007.
  14. Erik Zachte, Wikipedia Statistics, New Wikipedians.
  15. Danny Horn, WYSIWYG Wiki Editing, RecentChangesCamp February 2009, Portland, Oregon.
  16. Ian Lamont, Wikipedia loses editors: A crowdsourcing reality check, or a failure of a different kind?, author of The Social Enterprise blog on, November 24, 2009

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