Wikipedia may have reached the upper limits of what can be done with crowdsourcing, according to a researcher in Spain.
Felipe Ortega, a researcher at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, notes that Wikipedia is at risk because its core editors can't continue to keep up their current pace. And if Wikipedia doesn't recruit more volunteers its content could suffer.
Ortega's research, the basis of his Ph.D. thesis, was highlighted by the Wall Street Journal. The PDF of the thesis contains more than you'll ever want to know about how Wikipedia works. It's worth reading at least a few pages---it's 162 pages before you hit the bibliography.
The main conclusion that we can infer from the overall results of our quantitative analysis is that there exists a severe risk on the capacity of the top-ten Wikipedias, to maintain their current activity level in due course. According to our graphs and numbers, the inequality level of the contributions from logged authors is becoming more and more biased towards the core of very active authors. At the same time, the monthly Gini coefficients show that the inequality level of contributions from logged authors has remained stable over time, at the cost of demanding more and more contributions from active authors to alleviate this deficit of monthly revisions.
Furthermore, we have seen that the distribution of the total number of revisions per author follows an upper truncated Pareto distribution. While more core authors begin to reach the upper limit of their human contribution capacity, we will see a point in the future of this language versions in which the steady-state of the monthly Gini coefficient will start to decrease. This situation would not pose a problem in itself, unless for the fact that we have demonstrated that the most significant part of the content creation effort in Wikipedia is not undertaken by casual, passing-by authors, but by members of the core of very active contributors.
On top of that, the lack of new core members seriously threaten the scalability of the top-ten language versions regarding the quality of their content.
Simply put, active editors are carrying too much weight. In the first three months of 2009, Wikipedia lost more than 49,000 editors, compared to 4,900 a year earlier. In the Journal story, Wikipedia officials maintained that the foundation could carry on fine with fewer volunteers, but that premise is questionable given the size of Wikipedia. As Wikipedia is reproduced in more languages it should need a larger army of volunteer editors.
It's possible that Wikipedia is already being stretched. Ortega noted in the Journal story that the site is becoming increasingly hostile.
Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, tells the Journal it's unclear what the optimal number of volunteers is, but the hostility can be corrected.
The larger question is whether crowdsourcing has a cap or not. Is there a point where crowdsourcing gets so big that it crumbles under its own weight? It's a worth asking the question, but let's put this in a little perspective. If Wikipedia somehow imploded it would still be one of the best examples of the Web at work. For corporate purposes, you could crowdsource R&D, get huge, perhaps create some neat products and dismantle if it got unwieldy.
Overall, there's a big coordination problem at work here. But Wikipedia is at the collaboration forefront in terms of doing it at scale. Whatever happens from here with Wikipedia is going to be educational.
Post script: I wonder if the economy has something to do with Wikipedia's drop-off in volunteers. Let's say you were an active volunteer with a job. Let's say you were laid off. Would you spend your time managing Wikipedia or looking for a job? It may be worth looking into other volunteer-based organizations and what happens during a downturn. Do people volunteer more or less?