Open Codex HISTORICAL entry

2009 Sep 11 | Goldman on Wikipedia's Failure (i.e., "Labor Squeeze")

I just finished reading Eric Goldman's "Wikipedia’s Labor Squeeze and its Consequences" and it is a more reasoned argument than the hyperbolic prediction of Wikipedia's failure. In fact, the claim that there is a tension between openness and protecting against disruption shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that is familiar with online communities. Wikipedia has always had to balance the merits and challenges of openness (i.e., collaboration and disruption). Goldman's paper is a nice treatment of this tension, here's my summary:

The author poses the feature of "free editability" against the need to defend against unproductive contributions. Noting that technological restrictions to date have been "fairly modest", he suggests Flagged Revision features may be a significant change. The plateau of Wikipedian growth is likely caused by editor turnover, an inability to attract and keep new editors, and the lack of incentive mechanisms (e.g., relying only upon intrinsic motivation). The author endorses technological barriers that further constrain "free editability," and the recruitment and maintenance of new contributors, including converting readers into contributors, recruiting cash-motivated individuals, companies, academics, and students to participate.

I have two substantive comments on the paper. First, I am surprised that he even made the failure claim, or that the observation of this tension is novel, given that he quotes a 2005 email by Jimmy Wales. Last week, when I wrote that an open community was not the founding vision of Wikipedia, but a surprisingly productive means, I did not include one of the most compelling -- but later -- messages on that topic. Goldman quotes one sentence from Wales' 2005 message:

Wikipedia is first and foremost an effort to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language. . . .

However, the rest of that paragraph that Goldman doesn't include shows that Wales was purposely highlighting the encyclopedia as the goal, and the community as a means:

. . . Asking whether the community comes before or after this goal is really asking the wrong question: the entire purpose of the community is precisely this goal.

Furthermore, Wales writes:

The community does not come before our task, the community is organized around our task. The difference is simply that decisions ought to always be made not on the grounds of social expediency or popular majority, but in light of the requirements of the job we have set for ourselves. (Wales2005w)

I recommend you read the whole message.

Second, Goldman characterizes Wikipedia as atypical in rejecting contributions from paid/professional content creators. He is conflating the conflict of interest policy with the means of production. Yes, free and open source developers are often paid for their work, and while this hasn't taken off at Wikipedia (the market/incentives are different), I am not aware of any Wikipedia policy that prohibits the adoption of professionally produced content if it is appropriate to the encyclopedia and under a compatible license. However, Wikipedia is rightfully careful about contributors who edit articles about their own financial or reputational interests. This is the difference between incorporating content written by a paid expert on their topic of expertise, and rejecting their edits to their own biography.

So, on this note, what are some examples of content that was produced for pay at the Wikimedia Foundation? I can think of some archival material, such as the use of some material form the 11th edition of Britannica and images now in Commons.

Posted by Mike.lifeguard at Sat Sep 12 10:25:39 2009
User:Whiteknight got a grant from the Perl Foundation to write the Perl 6 manual on enwikibooks:

Posted by Joseph Reagle at Sat Sep 12 18:25:21 2009
Thanks Mike. There was also some discussion on the list at:

Posted by pfctdayelise at Sun Sep 13 08:23:48 2009
Some links of interest:
* (gosh, it's "historical" already... that was just a few weeks ago)
* The Linguist LIST paid for grad students to improve linguistics articles:

Posted by pfctdayelise at Sun Sep 13 08:25:37 2009
Also... these comments are soooooooooo tiny :) maybe the text size could be a tiny bit bigger?

Posted by Joseph Reagle at Mon Sep 14 10:22:09 2009
Thanks for the links Brianna, and I hope the fonts are better now.

Posted by Gregory Kohs at Tue Sep 15 15:39:03 2009
Also of some interest to you, Joseph, may be:

As the founder of MyWikiBiz, I could be persuaded to speak with you offline about certain paid editing engagements that I was party to.

Posted by Joseph Reagle at Tue Sep 15 16:33:08 2009
Hi Gregory, you are not the only one to write about discussing such a thing offline, however, I was mostly hoping to collect public instances of known "compensated contribution" that were acceptable (or even) encouraged by Wikipedia because I believe that we too often confuse compensated contribution with self-interested contribution, and this need not be so. However, my points is different from the position that even self-interested contribution can be a good thing.

Posted by Gregory Kohs at Wed Sep 16 16:03:31 2009
Joseph, I have to assume, of course, that you are familiar already with Wikipedia's Reward Board?

A relatively easy offer for $35 went unanswered.

However, others have been fulfilled, and it might be interesting for you to review that history:

You would also want to look into the publicly-disclosed relationship between one "David Shankbone" (a pseudonym) and the government of Israel, as well as the (mostly) failed effort of one Mr. Greenspun -- -- to populate Wikimedia Foundation projects with useful images and graphics.  I'm sure that pfctdayelise (above) could tell you more about that.

Posted by Joseph Reagle at Wed Sep 16 16:33:25 2009
Gregory, I didn't think of the reward board, but that is spot on! Thanks.

Open Communities, Media, Source, and Standards

by Joseph Reagle