Chances are you'll go to Wikipedia to look something up today. But the number of people writing those articles is falling, according to company founder Jimmy Wales. At the annual Wikipedia conference this week, Wales told the Associated Press that the "typical contributor to the site is a '26-year-old geeky male' who moves on to other ventures, gets married and leaves the website."
Stuart Geiger, who's a Ph.D student at Berkeley and a Wikipedia researcher, says attracting new members can be hard. "On the technical side of things, the interface is actually very difficult to use," Geiger says. "If you go to any Wiki article, click edit, not going to get same interface as you get with blogging software or email or Facebook; you get Wiki markup, where you have to write code in specialized computer language."
Geiger says contributors also need more positive feedback. As the organization has focused more on quality, contributions have become more likely to be rejected by Wikipedia editors. Geiger says the rejection can be enough of a blow to keep people away from future contributions.
Wikipedia has a couple plans to attract a new set of geeks. Among other things, it's set up a system called Wikilove that allows readers to send quick notes of appreciation (including images of kittens or baklava) to contributors.
Andrew Famiglietti, who teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas, says fewer contributors could change Wikipedia as we know it. "The biggest risk is Wikipedia would end up becoming less open," Famigleietti says. He thinks if the volunteer pool gets too low, Wikipedia would need to lock down pages so there'd be fewer things to edit and correct.
But Famiglietti thinks there's also potential in the problem. He says the shortage of users provides Wikipedia an incentive to reach out to other people, "women, older people, to people who are outside of the developed world, then they're going to be able to tap into new contributors who they're otherwise missing."
Also on today's show: the joys of letter writing.
Ivan Cash has launched the month-long project, Snail Mail My Email. It works like this: you email a note and an address to the site, then a volunteer hand writes your note and mails it to your recipient. They'll even include a doodle or a kiss.
Cash says he wanted to remind people of the joys of letters. "I think it involves certain level of intimacy," he says, "thinking about other person, and how they're going to receive this and you're holding it, and they're going to hold it."