William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for February 2011

Is Quora the Next Wikipedia? Part I

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on February 28, 2011 at 10:13 am

In the past few months, I’ve become increasingly interested in the hit startup website Quora. If you’re not familiar with it, the simplest explanation is that it’s a Q&A website that gets right what earlier incarnations got wrong.* A longer explanation would include a discussion of why it is much more ambitious.

To expand on the point: Answers.com is a wasteland of unanswered questions and no visible community, while Quora has real enthusiasts. ChaCha has more reliable respondents, but they are paid generalists who may not know much about a given topic. Yahoo! Answers seems to have a genuine community, albeit one full of know-nothings. Quora, on the other hand, has attracted the participation of experts (at least in tech) who volunteer their time to create new content on topics of their own interest.

Does this sound like any other websites you know?

Quora’s strengths as a social media platform and Q&A site are evident: it looks sharp and stylish, seems to be well thought out, and has followed the Facebook-Twitter model of starting with a core group of likeminded users before gradually expanding its user base. While it is very far from being a household word, it is often enough compared to those two social media juggernauts, and in fact has early Facebook employees on board. But more and more it is being compared to Wikipedia, which answers the question (so to speak) about why I’ve become so fascinated by it.

To wit: A recent post by Techcrunch editor Mike Arrington declared that Quora was about building “a better Wikipedia”. John Keehler at Random Culture recently called it “Wikipedia, Evolved”. In response to these, Teluq-UQAM professor Seb Paquet published an essay at The Quora Review titled “Why Quora is Not Wikipedia”.

But if Quora’s goal is to “beat” Wikipedia—and I have not heard its founders claim this as a goal—it is very far from doing so now. For virtually every topic Wikipedia addresses, the site is usually found at or near the top of relevant search engine results. Its ubiquity is so great that some have speculated Google purposefully elevates Wikipedia in search results (the more likely reason is that wiki software does many things Google bots look for, and many people link to it). Quora, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found in most searches.

Wikipedia contains 3.5 million separate articles (in its English edition alone), each of which may cover several related topics in detail. And with a few million more “redirects” also catching the eye of Google’s crawlers, the number of opportunities for Wikipedia to land a prominent position on a search results page may be in the neighborhood of ten million. The number of questions on Quora is, at present, not public information.

Any way you slice the numbers, Wikipedia is one of the top ten websites in the United States and the entire world. According to Alexa, Quora is at best the 1,269th website in the United States, and is so far limited to the English language. Wikipedia has been around for more than ten years; Quora, less than two. Whatever Quora might achieve in the future, it has not yet. Wikipedia certainly has.

Quora and Wikipedia are unique in many ways, but to focus on where they are different is to gloss over what they have in common. Meanwhile, Arrington’s flat statement that Quora is “better” greatly oversimplifies the matter. Instead, I’d like to examine what they do have in common, and how they may compete with or complement each other.

In my next post, that’s just what I’ll do.

P.S. If you’d like, you can follow me on Quora.

* On Twitter, Matt Bucher reminds me of Ask MetaFilter, which is different in several ways from the sites discussed above. He is right to identify it as a quality site; the MetaFilter community has been well-cultivated in its decade-plus existence, and is a fine and frequently thoughtful resource for its community. However, I think that’s all it ever plans to be: one section of a larger online community.

Wikipedia’s Endless Pool Party (Not Quite What it Sounds Like)

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on February 16, 2011 at 11:26 am

There’s no longer a question of whether the English-language Wikipedia will hit the four million article mark: only when. While new topics may become increasingly difficult to come by, five, six million or more articles is not out of the question. And when Wikipedians are not busy working on making that happen, sometimes they like to place guesses on when those things will happen. If you visit Wikipedia’s vast backstage, you can find several current and past betting pools these milestones and others through the years.

One of the first was the Half-million pool, in June 2004, in which several dozen editors took part. When Wikipedia passed 500,000 articles on March 17, 2005 the winner (an active Wikipedian to this day) had guessed March 18, narrowly beating another who had guessed March 15. Since then, more recent pools have focused on landmarks including the Million pool (passed March 1, 2006) and the 300-million edits pool (a matter of dispute, but certainly in 2009). Though there are just more than 3.5 million articles today, if you’d like to guess when Wikipedia’s four-millionth article will be created… I’m afraid you’re out of luck. No further guesses were taken after February 2010.

Among pools still open, one of two versions of the Five-million pool is still open, as is the Ten-million pool and the Twenty-million pool. In the latter category, one unlucky soul guessed 2007, several picks would have this achievement within the next decade, but more have placed their bets in the 2015-2025 range, and more still in the 2026-2100 range. A few have placed their bets on “Never”; time will tell… or not.

There are some more outlandish pools as well, including something like a dead pool: the Last topic pool. What will be the last article created on Wikipedia? There are some swell guesses; among my favorites are: “2100 Wikimedia server room fire” and “Why the zombies won”.

Want in on the fun? You can test your powers of prediction at Wikipedia:Pools. And if you do win, what exactly do you win? Is there any money involved here? Alas, no. Each page makes sure to note: “The person who comes closest to the actual date is the winner (of eternal fame).”

Photograph by Finlay McWalter, via Wikipedia.

Wikipedia’s Most Wanted

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on February 13, 2011 at 9:06 am

With more than 3.5 million articles on the English-language Wikipedia, it’s almost difficult to believe there could be much left to write. Although Wikipedia’s “hockey stick” growth has begun to slow down somewhat, the truth is that it still is growing very quickly—the English Wikipedia passed 3 million articles last August, and may well hit 4 million this year.

Indeed gaps do remain, and finding them can be a challenge. Now Magnus Manske, one of Wikipedia’s longest-active contributors (and the programmer of many different cool things) has created (actually, re-created after a long absence) a new DIY service called “Most wanted articles”.

Manske’s tool searches Wikipedia for “redlinks”. You’ve probably seen these around Wikipedia, and they are what they sound like: anchor text which is colored red because there is no article behind it. By contrast, links on Wikipedia that are colored blue will actually take you somewhere. Redlinks are sometimes considered unsightly, and they can be, if overused. Used selectively, they can highlight new subjects possibly deserving of new Wikipedia articles. Until that time comes—theoretically speaking—one can determine which are the “most wanted” by counting redlinks.

What follows is a list of the most-wanted Wikipedia articles, as of February 7, 2011:

  1. British films of 2011 (1842)
  2. British films of 2012 (1841)
  3. List of Argentine films of 2011 (1712)
  4. Bazinaprine (1204)
  5. Tetrindole (1203)
  6. Sercloremine (1203)
  7. Befol (1203)
  8. Esuprone (1134)
  9. Siddapur, Belgaum (1117)
  10. Milacemide (1059)

More than 1,000 redlinks for each of these topics? How did this happen? The answer is templates, especially “navboxes” which sit at the bottom of various articles, helping to group topics together. In each of the above-listed non-articles, redlinks to prospective articles have appeared in the following templates: Cinema of the UK, Cinema of Argentina, Dopaminergics and Belgaum district.

It might be more interesting to find out which articles were the most-wanted according to organically-created redlinks in article text, but that’s a bit more challenging; such a list may or may not be forthcoming. That said, the more of these articles created or otherwise dealt with, the closer we’ll get to those ones, further down the list.

And in fact, as I post this on February 13, 2011, the list has changed as some of these articles have been created—almost certainly based on discussion among Wikipedia editors about this list. The next time you find yourself looking for information about Bazinaprine, a monoamine oxidase inhibitor believed to be useful for the treatment of depression, then you have Manske (and of course the editor who took up the cause) to thank.

The Wikipedian Mystique: Do Women Participate Enough in Wikipedia?

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on February 7, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Could it really be that just 13% of Wikipedia editors are women? That statistic comes from a survey of Wikipedia users (whether contributing or just reading) sponsored by the Wikimedia Foundation, first previewed in fall 2009 and eventually published in full in March 2010. Last week, Wikimedia executive director Susan Gardner announced plans to try raising this number to 25% by 2015. Thanks to coverage by Noam Cohen in The New York Times, the topic has dominated Interweb discussion of Wikipedia since then.

This participatory imbalance is not a new phenomenon, and hardly unique to Wikipedia. Cohen points to op-ed pages, and the same is considered to be true in their virtual equivalent, the political blogosphere. While there are some very prominent female contributors to all of the above, most surveys tend to show that men nevertheless lead these sectors.

On the other hand, as a female colleague pointed out to me, if you were to look at online forums about health care, animals, or the environment, the gender balance is likely to flip. The same is true with regard to professions; some are predominantly male or female, and many fall somewhere in between. Some combination of biological programming and social reinforcement produces a society with masculine and feminine traits. However, just because many stereotypes have a basis in reality does not mean they should be taken for granted or used as an excuse. Just because something is natural doesn’t make it right.

Among the many words expended on the topic, probably the best is by veteran Wikipedia contributor Kat Walsh; the entirety of it is worth reading, but here is the conclusion:

The big problem is that the current Wikipedia community is what came about by letting things develop naturally–trying to influence it in another direction is no longer the easiest path, and requires conscious effort to change. How do you become more inclusive without breaking the qualities that make the project happen to begin with? (Any easy, obvious answer to this question is probably wrong.) That Wikipedia works at all is an improbable thing; that it works, for the most part, well, nearly miraculous. Wikipedia’s culture doesn’t have to be hostile or unfriendly to a group for it to be underrepresented–it merely has to be not one of the most attractive options.

It so happens that “unfriendliness” has been identified as one possible reason. And it’s not that Wikipedia doesn’t have policies designed to address this issue: Wikipedia:Civility and Wikipedia:No personal attacks are core, non-negotiable site policies, augmented by further guidelines such as Wikipedia:Please do not bite the newcomers. The message is simple: Be polite to other editors, or you can be blocked. However, any experienced editor also knows that enforcement is uneven. Wikipedia is a very big place, where many editors are used to working in isolation. If someone comes along and starts behaving abusively, it can often feel like there is nowhere to turn. Even if you do know where to go for help, one actually must petition for a resolution, and this can be an unpleasant process. It’s also probably worth pointing out that this is an already issue on the presumably male-dominated website, so it is far from just women who feel this way.

Another issue worth considering is that no one actually knows for sure how many women are on the site. Anonymity on Wikipedia is guaranteed; hence the survey. But it’s trickier than that still, as I found out personally.

An early draft of the script for The State of Wikipedia video included the same detail from the survey Cohen cites. To make sure I had the details right, I sought the input of Erik Zachte, a data analyst for the Wikimedia Foundation and curator of information at the great Infodisiac website.

What he pointed out is that the survey had a significant problem with self-selection bias; more than a quarter of survey respondents came from Russia, for example. Among survey respondents, it is true somewhat less than 13% were female contributors. Slice it another way, and among contributors to the website, slightly more than 16% were female. Meanwhile, just 25% of survey-takers identified themselves as female. Therefore, the information concerning women on WIkipedia is considerably less likely to be accurate compared with men, but it still seems probable the percentage of female contributors is somewhere south of the 25% Gardner would like it to be.

The question then is what exactly she plans to do about it, and that discussion is underway now. If you want to be part of it, the Wikimedia Foundation has set up a mailing list to address the topic that is open to the public, and the Wikipedians you will find there are likely to be among the most thoughtful and welcoming. I certainly have my doubts that much will come of it, or that we’ll be able to reliably measure it. Wikipedia is a challenge to most people, from all walks of life, and any effort to artificially boost participation from any one group over the other is likely bound to meet with failure. If any solutions do arise, my guess is that will not necessarily be gender-specific.

As a final note, I find some irony in the fact that one reason put forth to explain why women don’t participate in Wikipedia is that they may not feel confident in their contributions, because on this particular topic, I don’t feel confident in my observations. Just for the record, on one hand I find that I am writing something because it’s a big topic and I don’t want to let it pass me by entirely; on the other hand, I think there is far more to be said about the subject than even a lengthy blog post can address. So I publish this now, unsure whether I’ve actually said anything worthwhile. Or maybe I’m overthinking it.