A Baffling Fact About Wikipedia ūü§Ē

27 Nov 2022


I was reading through Andrew Chen's book "The Cold Start Problem" when I stumbled across some rather interesting statistics about Wikipedia. According to Chen:

  • Although Wikipedia has over 55 million articles, there are only 100,000 active contributions to Wikipedia each month with 4,000 users actively making more than 100+ edits to wikipages a month. As a ratio, active contributors only represent 0.02% of the total number of Wikipedia users.¬†

  • What's more is that¬†Wikipedia editors are not paid; they publish content on Wikipedia on a¬†volunteer basis.

For me personally, I am absolutely baffled as to how Wikipedia's editors can sustain an entire website on a volunteer basis without getting paid. What's more, the quality of content on Wikipedia isn't actually half-bad and provides a nice "starting point" for you to learn more about a topic. It's not as if Wikipedia's editors are producing poor quality content just for the sake of getting something "out there". To the contrary: Wikipages are heavily referenced and frequently updated. 

Given this, I'm peculiarly interested in what continues to motivate an extremely small pool of writers to continue publishing quality content on Wikipedia over a long period of time without any monetary incentive. 

While I understand the power of volunteering and don't mind doing things for free myself, sometimes you need some kind of monetary reward as an "extra boost" to make hard things worth doing. This is especially true for writing. The process of reading, writing and editing is by no means easy (as most of my fellow BULBers would know!!). The thought of money might be just enough to tip some over the edge to continue the process. 

This said, let's explore. 

Possible Motivations Behind Wikipedia's Editors Writing Free Content Consistently

Chen presents several motivators which might be behind Wikipedia's editors doing what they do. All of these can be summarised with one word: Community.

  • Wikipedia's editors are motivated by social feedback, status¬†and other community dynamics.

  • People within the community thank and praise editors for showing their expertise and continually updating pages. As a result, editors are awarded¬†social status¬†within the online Wikipedia community.

  • Editors continually revising the work of others affords¬†satisfaction to the editor.

  • There is also a sense of camaraderie amongst Wikipedia editors which is what forges social bonds and helps retain editors in the community.

In essence, it is the community of editors and the support from the readers which creates a positive feedback loop that keeps editors editing and readers reading. Although readers and editors might be dispersed geographically, the sense of togetherness is what matters most and differentiates failed online communities from successful ones. 

Although readers and editors might be dispersed geographically, the sense of togetherness is what matters most and differentiates failed online communities from successful ones. 

Does this Answer Everything? 

While Chen's hypothesis is compelling, I am still not overly convinced that this answers all my questions.

YouTube, for instance, is an example of an online community which may have gone in the same direction as Wikipedia. Like Wikipedia, YouTube content creators fall into the minority with the majority of users consuming content. Content creators can also connect with each other on the platform while viewers can offer praise (or criticism) through YouTube comments, likes and subscribing to a content creator's YouTube channel. In short, it's not hard to create a sense of community similar to that of Wikipedia. 

That said, YouTube still offers monetary incentives to content creators in the form of advertisement revenue and for making good quality content for YouTube shorts. 

Why, then, did YouTube feel the need to reward content creators whereas Wikipedia doesn't have to? 

For me, I am still scratching my head as to how Wikipedia is so unique. I think there must be something truly special about the community of Wikipedia editors which keeps them going. Maybe they know each other on a personal level? Perhaps they are also intrinsically motivated by a general desire to publish good quality information on the internet free of charge and they share this source of motivation, making it easy for them to 'gel' with their fellow editors. Or maybe removing the financial reward removes the possibility of money corrupting peoples' work. 

These are only speculations but I'd love to know the answer, the why.

What do you think? 


Johnson Chau
What amazes me the most is that wiki has so many contributors that voluntarily update information on a regular basis. This type of community is what makes wiki special and still so big, despite being from the web 1.0 era!
Rare to see a platform making money without the use of ad revenue, impressive for sure