Wikipedia looks like it might be running out of editors and administrators -- the humble volunteers who keep the world's sixth most popular website running smoothly.

The problem seems to be affecting both official administrators (who have the power to lock and delete pages) and volunteer editors who regularly take time to maintain the site. Since active participation from its users is the very lifeblood of Wikipedia, this could be a serious problem for keeping it relevant and up to date.

The issue was first raised by Robinson Meyer over at the Atlantic, and a glance at the usage stats for Wikipedia does indeed show that the number of people who regularly make more than five edits a month (across all languages) peaked in mid-2007. Since then there's been a slight decline in that editor army, despite the total number of articles on the site almost doubling.

When asked Jimmy Wales about this he dismissed any worries by arguing that a closer look at the stats shows the number of regular editors has actually stabilised, with "75-80k active, and 10-11k very active". Those "very active" editors are those who make, on average, more than ten edits a month. When asked about the difficulties people face in becoming administrators, he said that it was "old news" that "it's been harder to be promoted to admin for at least two years".

The process to become an admin (or "sysops" in the jargon of the site) used to be very simple in Wikipedia's early days, where often all it took to be given extra privileges was a simple recommendation from another friendly mod. In less than a week that nomination might have been seconded, and the new admin would be granted extra privileges.

Now the process is far more rigorous, and beyond screening the user's past editing history there are also written tests on copyright law and determining whether something deserves its own page or not. The community's reputation for "biting newcomers" certainly hasn't helped. There are currently 1,460 administrators on Wikipedia -- and while the site's list of admins doesn't include those who have stepped down from the role, it's not hard to notice a pattern in the dates. 50 of those admins listed were first promoted in 2008, 25 in 2009, eight in 2010, and a grand total of one in 2011.

Of course, being a Wikipedia editor or administrator is an often thankless task -- it's a volunteer position which carries a lot of responsiblity but very little reward beyond the thrill of civic duty. A look at the Wikimedia Foundation's 2011-2012 annual report shows that it lists the number one problem facing Wikipedia is "editor decline", which is an "intractable problem". It states the the Foundation is "responding with a multi-faceted approach" that includes changing the site's design to emphasise to users that anyone can actually edit it, and also a recruitment drive in places like Brazil and Indonesia where the site is still growing at a high rate.

Whether that will work, or whether Wikipedia has reached a ceiling in the number of people willing to work on it for free, remains to be seen.


  1. It sounds like Jimmy Wales has a very dismissive attitude when presented with very real and factually-supported problems associated with "his" invention, Wikipedia. But, of course, this is "old news" given that Wales has been doing this for at least two years.  

    Gregory Kohs
    Jul 21st 2012
  2. Such a dramatic decline in Wikipedia Admins is alarming. One of the reasons for fewer admins may be that the free-labor approach proves to be difficult to sustain long-term. It's not surprising that many experienced Wikipedians would rather provide their services for hire by working for agencies such as
    If wikipedia wish to reach their goal of 1 billion users by 2015 perhaps they need to change their business model and start paying expert editors for their time.

    john lee
    Feb 10th 2013

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