Do Online Communities Have a Decay Rate?

Professor looks into it

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Does the “decay rate” at community sites like Epinions.com spell eventual doom for Wikipedia? Technology and Marketing Law blogger Eric Goldman thinks so, and, not to put any more pressure on him, is working on an academic paper to show why.

The site’s decay rate—the rate at which community members become less devoted to a site over time—is just one part of Goldman’s larger argument. At his blog he pulls up some data regarding Epinions, which relies on paid community member reviews.

On his blog, Goldman writes, “I looked at Epinions’ top 20 most popular authors in 1999 to see if they were still active on the site, which I defined as writing at least one opinion in the past 12 months (i.e., in 2008). I manually reviewed each of the top 20 reviewers’ profile pages. According to my definition, only seven of the top 20 (35%) still actively contribute to Epinions, meaning that 65% of those early power users have turned over in 9 years."

The crux of the argument seems to be that if users who actually are paid for and get credit their work lose interest over time, what hope does Wikipedia have when relying on anonymous and free content labor?

It will be interesting to see Goldman’s conclusion once he’s finished his study. He readily acknowledges in his blog post that Wikipedia is a different animal from Epinions and thus might be subject to different laws of community nature. A foil for the comparison could lie in the book Predictably Irrational, a great outline of which you can read at The Book Outline Wiki.

According to the studies mentioned there, humans don’t behave rationally when it comes to economic matters. For example, people don’t mind working for free via volunteer or charity work, but balk at doing the same job for a discounted rate. Lawyers, in one instance, wouldn’t work at a discounted $30 per hour rate to help the poor, but were eager to offer pro bono services for the same cause.

It seems to me, then, that it’s possible Wikipedia works on a different level because it is work for the greater good—for which humans require neither pay nor recognition—while Epinions may offer a discount on a person’s valued opinion. Even if everybody knows it’s only worth two cents. 

Do Online Communities Have a Decay Rate?
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  • Danielle

    I think it’s unfortunate that Mr. Goldman didn’t delve further into his research. He should, perhaps, consider interviewing members of the epinions site before finalizing his paper.

    In 1999, epinions was a fledgling site, much different than the site as it appears and works today. Some of those early “power members” left for various reasons. Many others have stayed and withstood the test of time. The latter members should be the ones to take into consideration when determining the “decay rate” of the site. The top 20 reviewers in a brand-new site is not the best or most accurate data to use.

    I have not myself looked into this (but will now, out of curiosity). However, the year 2000 may be a better one to use as it was the first full year epinions existed.

    As for the members being “paid” for their reviews, that’s a relative term. Members receive IS (income share) each month. Some reviews never earn a penny, some earn a few. Every once in a while one gets lucky and may make a few dollars. Hard work is also helpful as there are small bonuses given to members who have earned the titles of Category Lead, Advisor, or Top Reviewer.

    Just some things to think about. I wish Mr. Goldman luck in his research and on his academic paper. I hope he keeps in mind that no research is complete until all avenues available are exhausted.


  • Thomas Wikman

    I have been a contributing member of I don’t know how many web forums of various kinds since 1999. I joined MySpace and later quit and they are not decaying as far as I can see. People come and go and that does not say much about decay. The conclusion obviously does not follow from the data.

  • Guest

    I would guess that those watching, adding to, and monitoring Wikipedia entries probably have a passion for the topic. They don’t get paid. They simply care about a given topic or topics. That might or might not keep them watching.

    Epinions lost some of those early on members, because the pay dropped drastically. One member who caught the gravy train said he made $10K the first year. Of course, he was not going to be happy with $50 or $100 a month and more work involved. And, that is talking power members and income.

    In addition, there’s no common thread for many EP members. Sure. Some groups get tight and write in a certain category or meet at off site boards and become buddies. Others simply write and write and write and about all sorts of products for a few dollars per month. Without passion and direction and friends, it becomes just another job – would you like fries with that? But, it’s pennies on the hour rather than dollars.

  • KWW

    The problem I see with Goldman’s thesis is that it doesn’t seem to account for the obsessive-compulsive hobbyist. What does that mean? Mr. Miller alluded to it – it’s the enthusiast, but he/she is only an enthusiast until the next hobby comes along. I share this trait with many friends. We might really be into vintage Parker 51 fountain pens for a year, learning everything about them, racking up 1,000 posts on fountain pen message boards, etc. Then, we tire of fountain pens and move on to mechanical watches – same deal. Our fountain pen message board accounts go stale, we no longer contribute to wiki entries, etc.

    Even with our cyclical enthusiasm, there is always someone new to fill the void. Just because seniority isn’t retained doesn’t mean that the site will fail. Of course, the quality of the content is another issue.

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