In less than a decade, Wikipedia has grown from a frequently ridiculed experiment to one of the world’s most popular websites. The online encyclopedia has reached near-ubiquity among Internet users and is often invoked as a synecdoche for user-generated content communities, crowdsourcing, peer production, and Web 2.0. As such, it is hardly surprising that a number of high-impact statistics demonstrating the project’s unexpected success are frequently mentioned in the public sphere. As of April 2012, there have been 528 million edits made to the English-language version and a total of 1.29 billion edits across all language versions. Other commentators describe the project in terms of its article content, not the amount of work put into those articles, and such figures are equally daunting: 19 million encyclopedia articles contain 8 billion words in 270 languages, and the English-language Wikipedia alone has 3.9 million articles containing 2.5 billion words.

While most of these and other statistics are backed up by a substantial amount of empirical research, estimations of the total number of labor-hours contributed to Wikipedia are one notable exception. However, this has not stopped champions of the project from stating with more and less certainty that Wikipedia is one of the largest projects in human history…

…[A] well-documented and often-repeated labor hour estimation is that of the Empire State Building, which took 3,000 laborers a total of 7 million labor-hours to construct. Figures for the construction of the Channel Tunnel report a total 170 million labor-hours, while estimations of the Great Pyramid at Giza range from 880 million to 3.5 billion labor-hours. The first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica was written and published by 3 employees authoring 24 pages a week for 100 weeks, which is around 12,000 labor-hours assuming 40 hour work week…

…Summing the duration of all continuous editing sessions and single edit sessions, we identified 41,018,804 total labor-hours expended in the English-language version of Wikipedia… Extrapolating to all language version of Wikipedia based on the total number of edits made to each project, we estimate that 61,706,883 total labor-hours have been contributed in edit sessions for non-English language Wikipedias, for a total of 102,673,683 total labor-hours to all Wikipedia versions.

R. Stuart Geiger and Aaron Halfaker, Using Edit Sessions to Measure Participation in Wikipedia (PDF).

FJP: That’s approximately 11,720 years of peer production. 

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