Wikipedia losing contributors, founder says

DANIEL ESTRIN
Last updated 10:55 05/08/2011

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Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that is written entirely by volunteers and allows anyone to edit its entries, is losing contributors, its founder complained Thursday.

Speaking with The Associated Press on the sidelines of the website's annual conference, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said the nonprofit company that runs the site is scrambling to simplify editing procedures in an attempt to retain volunteers.

"We are not replenishing our ranks," said Wales. "It is not a crisis, but I consider it to be important."

Administrators of the internet's fifth most visited website are working to simplify the way users can contribute and edit material. "A lot of it is convoluted," Wales said. "A lot of editorial guidelines ... are impenetrable to new users."

Wikipedia has more than 3 million entries but has been marred by subjective entries and pranks. Even so, Wikipedia cites studies that compare the website's accuracy favourably to more conventional encyclopedias, while other studies give it lower marks.

Despite Wikipedia's wide-reaching popularity, Wales said the typical profile of a contributor is "a 26-year-old geeky male" who moves on to other ventures, gets married and leaves the website. Other contributors leave because, 10 years after the website was launched, there are fewer new entries to add, he said.

By March, Wikipedia had about 90,000 active contributors. The goal is to tack on another 5000 by June of next year, said Sue Gardner, executive director of the nonprofit that runs the website.

Among its steps, Gardner said the nonprofit is expanding a program that encourages university professors to assign the writing of Wikipedia entries to their students, particularly in India, Brazil, Canada, Germany and Britain.

The website has also introduced a new feature called WikiLove aimed at keeping users engaged. Visitors to the website select a graphic icon - choices include kittens, stars and the Mediterranean dessert baklava - and send it with a message of appreciation to a page contributor as encouragement. "It's like a 'like' on Facebook," Wales said.

The seventh annual Wikipedia conference, hosted this year in Israel, was attended by some 650 Wikipedia contributors and enthusiasts from 56 countries. Two contributors attended from Venezuela and Indonesia, though neither country has diplomatic relations with Israel. A Palestinian from the West Bank also attended, with Israeli military permission.

Wikipedia's leaders assured the audience that the website's reputation is strong - no longer drawing the ire of teachers and journalists claiming that its entries are unreliable.

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"Making fun of Wikipedia is so 2007," Gardner said to a cheering crowd, quoting what a French journalist recently told her.

Even so, Wales said Wikipedia must be used with care.

"Particularly be careful if we say 'the neutrality of this article is disputed,' or 'the following section doesn't cite any sources.' That's probably a good warning," he said.

- AP

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