Take This Blog and Shove It!

By Dokoupil, Tony; Wu, Angela | Newsweek, August 16, 2010 | Go to article overview

Take This Blog and Shove It!


Dokoupil, Tony, Wu, Angela, Newsweek


Byline: Tony Dokoupil and Angela Wu

When utopian ideals crash into human nature--sloth triumphs.

In the history of the web, last spring may figure as a tipping point. That's when Wikipedia, "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit"--a site that grew from 100,000 articles in 2003 to more than 15 million today--began to falter as a social movement. Thousands of volunteer editors, the loyal Wikipedians who actually write, fact-check, and update all those articles, logged off--many for good. For the first time, more contributors appeared to be dropping out than joining up. Activity on the site has remained stagnant, according to a spokesperson for the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit behind the site, and it's become "a really serious issue." So serious, in fact, that this fall Wikipedia will turn to something it has never needed before: recruiters.

There's no shortage of theories on why Wikipedia has stalled. One holds that the site is virtually complete. Another suggests that aggressive editors and a tangle of anti-vandalism rules have scared off casual users. But such explanations overlook a far deeper and enduring truth about human nature: most people simply don't want to work for free. They like the idea of the Web as a place where no one goes unheard and the contributions of millions of amateurs can change the world. But when they come home from a hard day at work and turn on their computer, it turns out many of them would rather watch funny videos of kittens or shop for cheap airfares than contribute to the greater good. Even the Internet is no match for sloth.

That's why Wikipedia's new recruiting push will not rely merely on highfalutin promises about pooled greatness and "the sum of all human knowledge." Instead, the organization is hoping to get students to write and edit entries as part of their coursework. The Wikimedia Foundation teamed up with eight professors at schools including George Washington and Princeton to integrate the once frowned-upon research tool into public-policy curricula. As part of the program, Wikipedia's "campus ambassadors" will lead in-class training sessions on how to edit the site and help start Wikipedia student groups.

Tech writers continue to tout social media as a transformative phenomenon in its infancy. That's certainly true for such sites as Facebook, which boasts more than 500 million active users, or Flickr, which hosts some 4 billion photos. YouTube also shows no sign of slowing down. But those sites offer clear benefits to users, including the ability to easily stay in touch with friends, indulge in a game of Mob Wars, share baby pictures, or watch videos of fashion models falling down, in exchange for their time and efforts.

Many other elements of the user-generated revolution, meanwhile, are beginning to look sluggish. The practice of crowd sourcing, in particular, worked because the early Web inspired a kind of collective fever, one that made the slog of writing encyclopedia entries feel new, cool, fun. But with three out of four American households online, contributions to the hive mind can seem a bit passe, and Web participation, well, boring--kind of like writing encyclopedia entries for free.

Evidence of this ennui is everywhere. Amateur blogs, the original embodiment of Web democracy, are showing signs of decline. While professional bloggers are "a rising class," according to Technorati, hobbyists are in retreat, and about 95 percent of blogs are launched and quickly abandoned. A recent Pew study found that blogging has withered as a pastime, with the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who identify themselves as bloggers declining by half between 2006 and 2009. A shift to Twitter--or microblogging, as it's called--partly accounts for these numbers. But while Twitter carries more than 50 million tweets per day, its army of keystrokers may not be as large as it seems. As many as 90 percent of tweets come from 10 percent of users, according to a 2009 Harvard study. …

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