Though Wikipedia is widely known as the encyclopedia that “anyone can edit” (for cynics, this is a pejorative description), anyone familiar with the community knows that most of the heavy lifting on the site is done by just a few thousand volunteers. These are the users who create new pages, upload images, and police the edits day to day. If you’re not part of this elite circle that’s obsessed with citations and notability and neutrality, and any number of arcane Wikipedia rules, you’re unlikely to ever do more than add a sentence or perhaps correct some grammar on a Wikipedia article.
But perhaps these casual editors are more important than we might think. Clive Thompson tracked down such a casual user (a woman named Sumeera Younis) who had made a quick correction to Marissa Mayer’s Wikipedia article, and reached this fascinating revelation:
From the perspective of dopes like me, who are prone to believe erroneous info—and who rely on the beneficence of people like Younis to fix mistakes — there’s another lesson in this tale: The value of “microcontributions,” as the author Michael Neilsen calls them in his book Reinventing Discovery. If you want to have diverse input into a big collaborative project, you want to encourage tons of people to pitch in, even if only for a teensy bit of labor, as with Younis. The broader the base of people pitching in, the better. If a billion people each bring a grain of sand, you can build a beach in minutes. In fact, the single most common edit on all Wikipedia pages is a grain of sand—someone changing a single word, phrase, or fact. A microcontribution. Now, most microcontributors probably behave the way Younis did; they get intrigued by the collaborative project, intrigued by Wikipedia, excitedly do a bit of work, then drift away. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s the nature of microcontributions.
Of course, in an ideal world you want to diversify not just the population of microcontributors, but the heavily-involved pool of “active editors”. These are the 31,000 Wikipedia volunteers who do more sustained work on a weekly, daily or even hourly basis. That group, and the even more rarified coterie of volunteer “administrators” (there are only just over 600 now), have even more influence on what happens at Wikipedia. But the thing is, heavy contributors begin life as microcontributors, too. That’s the gateway in: noticing an erroneous fact, fixing it, and feeling awesome about contributing to world knowledge. The more often people can easily walk in the door and quickly do something fun and useful, the more likely it’ll be they hang around.