Social freeloaders: Is there a collective wisdom and can the Web obtain it?

Social freeloaders: Is there a collective wisdom and can the Web obtain it?

Summary: Wikipedia, itself, warns those consulting Wikipedia as an “encyclopedia

TOPICS: Browser

DMM61706WKL.JPGThe latest look at Wikipedia’s “anyone can edit” philosophy talks about how the proliferation of "nonsense pages,” "revert wars" and “vandalism” at “The Free Encyclopedia” has led to a qualification of the site’s seemingly universal open editing claim.

Wikipedia, itself, warns those consulting Wikipedia as an “encyclopedia” about the dangers of misinformation and vandalism at the site:

Because Wikipedia is an ongoing work to which in principle anybody can contribute, it differs from a paper-based reference source in some very important ways. In particular, older articles tend to be more comprehensive and balanced, while newer articles may still contain significant misinformation, unencyclopedic content, or vandalism. Users need to be aware of this in order to obtain valid information and avoid misinformation which has been recently added and not yet removed.

The New York Times (NYT) “Growing Wikipedia Revises Its 'Anyone Can Edit' Policy” describes Jimmy Wales’, Wikipedia's founder, mission as offering “free knowledge to everybody on the planet” and quotes Wales:

Protection is a tool for quality control, but it hardly defines Wikipedia…What does define Wikipedia is the volunteer community and the open participation.

While the NYT parses the meaning of “open participation,” it is also important to quantify the “volunteer community.” Wikipedia says it is “written collaboratively by people from all around the world.” Wales acknowledges, however:

A lot of people think of Wikipedia as being 10 million people, each adding one sentence…But really the vast majority of work is done by this small core community.

According to the NYT:

The bulk of the writing and editing on Wikipedia is done by a geographically diffuse group of 1,000 or so regulars, many of whom are administrators on the site. The administrators are all volunteers, most of them in their 20's. They are in constant communication — in real-time online chats, on "talk" pages connected to each entry and via Internet mailing lists. The volunteers share the job of watching for vandalism, or what Mr. Wales called "drive-by nonsense." Customized software — written by volunteers — also monitors changes to articles….It has a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control, delete unsuitable articles and protect those that are vulnerable to vandalism.

Wikipedia’s “small core community” that does the vast majority of the work reflects the extremely low ratio of contributing users to non-contributing users throughout the new social Web that relies on user contributions for its content.

From Wikipedia to, and from YouTube to Riya, both not-for-profit endeavors and purely commercial enterprises are staking their entire existence on user-generated content that is unreliable, inconsistent and difficult to come by.

The average YouTube user is watching the content, not generating it, “while more than 35 million videos are viewed daily, only 35,000 are uploaded” and at Riya photo search, “searchers outnumber the uploaders…20 to 1.”

Perhaps the social Web will come to be known for its freeloaders, rather than its uploaders.

For more on the Social Web see "Buzzwords 2.0" and “Tags, diggs and comments: coaxing a 'delicious' social Web" and “Social media–the new growth hormone"

UPDATE: CNET reports that Jimmy Wales, has asked that college students refrain from citing Wikipedia as a source of academic research: Speaking at the Annenberg School for Communication, Wales said that while Wikipedia is useful for many things, he would like to make it known that he does not recommend it to college students for serious research and that Wikipedia has considered putting out a fact sheet on the site, it would explain the nature of Wikipedia and why it's not always a definitive source. Teachers could hand it out, he said.

Topic: Browser

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  • true

    Wikipedia is the last place I'd go looking for information
    Cosmo Kramer
  • Still useful to a point

    You raise valid points about the small core of people publishing and verifying information for the majority. While I wouldn't bet my life on the content of sites like Wikipedia, I find it useful for locating information on esoteric subjects and personalities. You routinely find items of interest you would never learn about in mass academic books or encyclopedias. More isn't always better, however. And Wikipedia itself infers that the longer an article is reviewed and edited by its members, the more accurate the information is likely to be. I think that educational institutions are currently justified in keeping a respectable distance from collaborative effort web sites.
  • *nothing like a free staff*

    it's great when you can get it all done by volunteers,'s a trend started years ago by portals like (I had an experience with them back when they were actively engaged in seeking freelance writers to build their portal. Part of the process was applying with a sample of material on the particular subject one wanted to "specialize" in. So I applied, but was soon declined, although the material I gave them still appeared on their site VERBATIM under some other persons' name anyway).

    Youtube, IMO is a sad reminder of how thousands of people are choosing to spend their "spare" time. I gave it a passing glance,
  • 80/20 rule in action

    pretty much any retail owner will tell you that 80% of their business will be done by 20% of their customers, and vice versa. That truth exists online as well.

    Exhibit A: ZDNet. ANYone who spends any length of time on the talkback forums can name at least two names: Linux Geek and No_Axe_To_Grind. Of course there are more than that, but those are two people who have made high quantities of contributions to the forums, regardless of whether or not we agree with them.

    Exhibit B: take a look at the people with high levels there. I'm sure 20%, tops, have ratings above 10. Those are the contributors, and I doubt many are regulars at ZDNet. At, we have a different 20%.

    Exhibit C: Youtube. the 35,000 : 35,000,000 numbers are very likely, but here's my question - how many youtube uploaders are viewers? can you possibly tell me that there are people who only upload their videos and don't view them? and since youtube allows for linking to the videos, how many are 'drive by' viewings of videos posted on someone's myspace? do they count?

    Exhibit D: Linux. With all the Linux flavors and developers thereof, how many program it over how many run it? with Apache being the de facto web server on the net, and how many companies running to various extents, you undoubtedly have more users than contributers.

    The thing is that everyone is a part of a 20% somewhere. So, the the fact that wikipedia has more viewers than contributors is irrelevant. Heck, there's no one complaining about how many people read Encarta vs. how many read it? yanno, I'll even bet that there are more people editing Wikipedia than edit Encarta! And I'll add to that the likelihood that there isn't as diverse a group editing Encarta as edit Wikipedia.

    So yeah. Ask me if I'm worried.

  • Freeloaders