Do Online Communities Have a Decay Rate?

    January 27, 2009
    WebProNews Staff

Does the “decay rate” at community sites like 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.