There have been a lot of stories recently reporting on the slow decline of participation in Wikipedia. Most of the stories have come to the conclusion that people are just sort of not interested in helping anymore as there is an abundance of information available on all topics. The fun of building a global utility has been usurped by the utility of using the result. Another common comment is that as Wikipedia has grown, the friction of participation has gone up (due to the necessity of enforcing quality). One now has to log in to edit, there are more administrative processes involved in making changes, and some pages are simply uneditable unless you’re a sanctioned member of the crowd. While I think there are some elements of each hypothesis that are correct, I think what Wikipedia is suffering from is what other crowdsourcing companies are learning to take advantage of: humans have different motivation systems and you have to cater to all of them.
While there is some debate over semantics, most recognize Wikipedia as one of the first and most successful examples of the crowdsourcing model. Multiple authors create something bigger than themselves to someone (everyone) else’s benefit. Wikipedia got its start many years ago (in 2001) before crowdsourcing was even a common term. Since then the crowdsourcing industry has matured a lot, and its understanding of what works and what makes a crowd sustainable has matured as well. I think Wikipedia’s fundamental problem is that it hasn’t kept up with the times.
One of the most fascinating things I have learned from talking to all sorts of crowdsourcing companies in the last 18 months (Mahalo, uTest, Get Satisfaction, Threadless, etc.) is that the reason for human participation is both widely varying and also not singular. Surveying the crowdsourcing landscape, I have found 7 basic types of human motivation that crowdsourcing companies integrate into their systems:
1) Monetary Compensation: The company outlines what you need to do to make money. You do it. You make some money (the amount varies widely). Rinse and repeat.
2) Points and Rewards (Non-Monetary Compensation): You do something good or you contribute in a certain way and you get some quantifiable but not directly monetizable reward. Many companies have some type of “points.” Keeping score matters here (see below for more on this). Sometimes these rewards in the end are monetizable either by exchange (turning them in for prizes) or indirectly monetizable (using points to get access to more of the system).
3) Leaderboards and Competitive Standing: Many companies let you know where you stand against your peers. Leaderboards usually reflect you standing using some other form of motivation (earned money, earned points, badges, etc.). What’s key is that you understand from the physics of the system you’re using how to positively affect your leaderboard status. Leaderboards are always public. This plays to people’s desire to compete publicly.
4) Badges and Goal Completion: The system you work with defines levels of achievement or specific goals to complete and you are awarded something (even just a graphical badge) that denotes your accomplishments. Necessary in this motivation (like leaderboards) is that the badges are publically viewable (this is the boy scout badges concept and is basically the way Zynga learned to dominate the social gaming industry) and a core part of Foursquare’s philosophy.
5) Reputation: The system has some mechanism (usually a combination of all the other things I mentioned above) to help you express to others (and self evaluate) what you reputation is in the system. Foursquare uses the Mayor concept, Zynga uses a ranking system for player titles and Mahalo uses a martial arts belt system. All of these approaches make it easy for someone to understand that someone has a general standing greater or less than them.
6) Community: You can participate in and communicate with a community of similar people interested in similar things.
7) Collaboration: You can work collaboratively with other people on something larger than you could create yourself and the results are publicly (or at least partially publicly) on display. Your group effort is visible.
I mentioned that in any group activity there is always a diversity of motivations that people have. In any long-term situation, people need multiple types of motivation to keep them engaged. If this sounds at all familiar, it’s because you experience it every day in your personal life (why should your online life be any different). A simple example of this is how people think about their jobs. A high salary is rarely a long-term retention strategy or the best way to get the optimal contribution from someone. Some people value job security, others value recognition, some value medical benefits, and others value being able to correlate their work directly to the outcome of the company (or a division of it). Most people value heavily favor one of these (study after study shows it’s not salary at the top of the list), but always place value on more than one.
In my view, usage on Wikipedia is declining because they don’t understand the dynamic that successful crowdsourcing is about multiple forms of motivation. They have relied on only one (or maybe two) dimensions for a long time: collaboration being the primary mechanism. Wikipedia’s premise is that the motivation to contribute to something that everyone uses is enough to keep people engaged for the long haul. I don’t believe this is true. I wouldn’t believe it was true if they had used money as the sole motivation either. I think Wikipedia had a good long run with one kind of motivation and now the wheels are starting to fall off. Clearly I am not ringing the death knell of Wikipedia, rather I’m rooting for them to adapt to the changing environment they operate in.
Why not have a leaderboard that tells the world (and me) how many contributions I have made versus others? Where is the quantifiable metric of what my contribution has done (even just page view counts on all the pages I have worked on)? Where is the structure for goal completion (“Your page is PR1 on Google!”, “You’ve contributed to 100 pages – you’re now in the Century Club”, “You’ve earned blackbelt status!”). All of these things are woefully missing (okay you can earn your way into the ranks of “Wikipedia Adminstratorship” but that’s not the point is for a general contributor). You don’t have to look too far to see a gaggle of content creation companies nipping at Wikipedia’s heels with a multi-modal strategy.
Take Mahalo, or Demand Media, or Associated Content, or the Examiner. All of these companies in their own way are all about collaborative content generation. In varying degrees, they get the multi-modal experience right. I spent 30 minutes on Mahalo a while ago and contributed 3 answers to questions, made about 0.70 cents, earned 25 points, got three “Good jobs from their community” and was told what the next level of achievement was. If I was going to spend more time contributing content to a website, guess if I’d spend it on Mahalo or on Wikipedia?
This is a subject I will write a lot more about in the next few months. We think it’s critical to our long-term success at Trada, and I think it’s critical to the success of crowdsourced businesses. To be fair, we haven’t incorporated all of these 7 motivations yet and some of the motivations we have are at the early stages of being integrated into the core experience. But you can bet we’re working on it!
Of course not all crowdsourced businesses will need, want, or benefit from all types of motivation. Many companies will argue quite justly that they can build a powerful long-term crowdsourced business without a dime of monetary motivation. Those who don’t recognize that humans are not one dimensionally motivated though will likely see the similar early growth and then plateauing curve that Wikipedia is now experiencing. The good news for Wikipedia is that they can change this. I will look forward to seeing my name in the Leaderboard.
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