Wikipedia: Wisdom Of Crowds Or Chaperones?
Posted by Nipun Mehta on May 19, 2009
Wikipedia stats are pretty amazing -- 684 million unique visitors in the last year, 75,000 active contributors, 10 million articles in all languages (2.7M in English), 100 million volunteer hours donated. And it operates on a staff of 20 with an annual budget of $5.9 million!
However, slate reports: "Social-media sites like Wikipedia are celebrated as shining examples of Web democracy, places built by millions of Web users who all act as writers, editors, and voters. In reality, a small number of people are running the show. According to researchers in Palo Alto, 1 percent of Wikipedia users are responsible for about half of the site's edits. The site also deploys bots -- supervised by a special caste of devoted users -- that help standardize format, prevent vandalism, and root out folks who flood the site with obscenities. This is not the wisdom of the crowd. This is the wisdom of the chaperones." College OTR adds, "Most active 2%, which is 1400 people, have done 73.4% of all the edits."
Almost all social media sites show this kind of a Pareto's Power Law distribution. Top 100 Diggers, for example, submitted 44% (and 56% in 2006) of the site's top stories. Length of this "long tail" can be measured by the exponent of Pareto's Power Law, with a lower value implying a longer tail. As Fat Knowledge shows, Wikipedia's 1.16 exponent is pretty long but is similar to the exponent value of book sale distribution and net worth of Americans.
That's empowering in one sense -- you get 1400 die-hard fans, some technology skills and server power, and you've got the capacity to create a Wikipedia. In another sense, though, it shows that a pure many-to-many play is inversely proportional to scale; that is, as you scale up (even on the Internet), your capacity to build trust is weaker than that of the detractors to play foul. In turn, that forces social media platforms to rely on their power users.
Perhaps our "multiple storefronts and one warehouse" -- many small websites that share data on the backend -- approach will be a more skilful one.