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Is Wikipedia a Victim of Its Own Success?

Submitted by Leo Klein on Wed, 9/23/09 (2:59pm)
Pub Date: 

Looking back, it was naive to expect Wikipedia's joyride to last forever. Since its inception in 2001, the user-written online encyclopedia has expanded just as everything else online has: exponentially. Up until about two years ago, Wikipedians were adding, on average, some 2,200 new articles to the project every day. The English version hit the 2 million — article mark in September 2007 and then the 3 million mark in August 2009 — surpassing the 600-year-old Chinese Yongle Encyclopedia as the largest collection of general knowledge ever compiled (well, at least according to Wikipedia's entry on itself).

But early in 2007, something strange happened: Wikipedia's growth line flattened. People suddenly became reluctant to create new articles or fix errors or add their kernels of wisdom to existing pages. "When we first noticed it, we thought it was a blip," says Ed Chi, a computer scientist at California's Palo Alto Research Center whose lab has studied Wikipedia extensively. But Wikipedia peaked in March 2007 at about 820,000 contributors; the site hasn't seen as many editors since. "By the middle of 2009, we realized that this was a real phenomenon," says Chi. "It's no longer growing exponentially. Something very different is happening now."