alt.projects and emergent needs in mature open collaborations

The ongoing story of how the world’s largest encyclopedia gets written comprises several distinct historical eras. An initial linear growth phase, followed by an era of rapid exponential growth, and over the past 7 years a maturation phase characterized by slower growth in article creation and a gradual decline in regular participation among the core community of Wikipedia editors.

Crowd researchers have learned a lot about collaboration from studying Wikipedia during the “peak editing” era. Peak editing (after like peak oil) roughly comprises the years 2006 – 2008 when Wikipedia’s increasing popularity created a huge demand for new content, and there was plenty of encyclopedia work to go around.

Now that Wikipedia is a mature collaboration, does it still have anything new to teach us?

One key to Wikipedias success during this period were WikiProjects, collaborative workspaces (and the teams of workers that inhabit them), focused on coordinating particular kinds of work. Traditionally, that work of WikiProjects has involved editing articles within a particular topic, like Feminism or Military History.

Graph showing the number of editors participating in WikiProjects over time.
Conventional Wikipedia WikiProjects focus on encyclopedia topics ranging from Medicine to Public Art.

WikiProjects don’t control the article pages they focus on, and you don’t have to belong to a project to edit those articles. What’s more, anyone can create a new WikiProject at any time. Over a thousand WikiProjects have been created over Wikipedia’s 13 year history, and tens of thousands of Wikipedia editors have participated in these projects. Hundreds of these WikiProjects are active on Wikipedia today.

We interviewed 18 WikiProject members and examined almost 1,000 WikiProjects. Our research reveals that while the conventional view of WikiProjects (topic-based, production-focused) offers a fair description of many projects, this view fails to account for an important subset of projects.

We refer to these as alternative WikiProjects, or alt.projects.

Graph showing the number of editors participating in WikiProjects over time.
alt.projects tackle a wide range of meta-work and community support tasks, beyond editing articles.

Our research shows that work within alt.projects has remained steady, and even increased by some measures, even as activity within conventional projects (and Wikipedia as a whole) has declined. Through a series of case studies, we show that these alt.projects play a crucial role in:

  • maintaining content quality as wikiwork shifts increasingly away from content creation and towards curation activities
  • supporting community cohesion in an increasingly complex and challenging work context.
  • meeting emergent community needs in response to environmental shifts in Wikipedia caused by external events
Graph showing the number of editors participating in WikiProjects over time.
WikiProject activity, 2002-2012. alt.project participation bucks the general decline trend. In the 2010s, an increasing proportion of wikiwork is managed by alt.projects.

The work necessary to build and maintain Wikipedia has changed. Wikipedia is a different place in the 2010s than it was in the 2000s, as both a community and an encyclopedia. It seems that Wikiprojects, being highly adaptable and informal mechanisms, have evolved to fill many new niches in the Wikipedia ecology.

alt.projects provide a useful model for other open collaborations, like established citizen science projects, where it could be advantageous to be able to rapidly “spin up” new self-organized project teams to deal with new issues or take advantage of new opportunities.

alt.project case studies

The Editor Retention project brainstorms solutions to fostering a positive social atmosphere and increasing retention of veteran Wikipedians. Acknowledges hard working community members with a featured “Editor of the Week”.

WikiProject Cooperation is developing a model of cooperation with paid editors, and maintaining a help board on which paid editors can come and have their drafts reviewed

Today’s Article for Improvement organizes a site-wide collaboration focused on improving articles in need and teaching newcomers the ropes of editing in a supportive and engaging environment. A different article is featured every day.

WikiProject Wikify coordinates editing activities that improve the quality of the entire encyclopedia, not just a particular topic area, through simple tasks like standardizing headers and linking to related articles.

For more, see our full paper, Editing Beyond Articles: Diversity & Dynamics of Teamwork in Open Collaborations. presented at CSCW 2014
Jonathan T. Morgan, Wikimedia Foundation
Michael Gilbert, University of Washington
David W. McDonald, University of Washington
Mark Zachry, University of Washington

About the author


Seattle-based UX researcher, affiliated with the University of Washington. Research Strategist with the Wikimedia Foudation. Mongrel scholar, tool-user and watcher of clouds.

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