William Beutler on Wikipedia

Archive for March 2011

Wikipedia is Everywhere: AT&T Edition

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on March 22, 2011 at 9:23 am

You might not have noticed, but it’s even in a recent AT&T television spot advertising the iPhone 4. Actually, let me phrase that differently. This is an iPhone 4 TV spot advertising AT&T. The point of the commercial is that one can use both voice and data simultaneously on AT&T’s network, which rival iPhone carrier Verizon presently does not.

In this case, the protagonist of our thirty-second tale is arguing about pop culture nostalgia with a friend—the release year of “Whoomp! (There It Is!)”—and you don’t need me to tell you which resource he consults to settle the question once and for all:

What I’d like to know is what browser or app he’s supposed to be using. As an iPhone user myself, I can verify that is not the Safari browser, nor is it the official Wikimedia Mobile app, nor popular alternatives Wikipanion or Articles. I suppose it could even be a made-up app, for obscure legal reasons. If you know the answer, please share in the comments.

Update: In the comments, Nihiltres has the answer: a relatively new (paid) app called iWiki. Looks nice, though I’ll probably just stick with the mobile site.

Trendy Thinking: Contemplating Wikipedia Contributorship

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on March 17, 2011 at 8:49 am

Last week, the Wikimedia Foundation published some early results in an ongoing study of trends in editor participation, both in a detailed analysis by the survey’s leaders and a general summary by Wikimedia executive director Sue Gardner. I’d actually started writing a summary of my own before I read Gardner’s letter… only to find that Gardner had already made the exact same “Eternal September” comparison as I had planned. (Which makes sense, since I first learned of the term from Wikipedia.) Anyhow, both are worth reading if you are so inclined, but here’s a key excerpt from Gardner’s summary:

Between 2005 and 2007, newbies started having real trouble successfully joining the Wikimedia community. Before 2005 in the English Wikipedia, nearly 40% of new editors would still be active a year after their first edit. After 2007, only about 12-15% of new editors were still active a year after their first edit. Post-2007, lots of people were still trying to become Wikipedia editors. What had changed, though, is that they were increasingly failing to integrate into the Wikipedia community, and failing increasingly quickly. The Wikimedia community had become too hard to penetrate.

In the first half of Wikipedia’s first ten years, it experienced exponential growth in the absolute number of editors, from barely 100 active participants in 2001 to about 44,000 in 2006. The community continued to grow in 2007, cresting at nearly 52,000 active editors. Interestingly, though, 2007 brought fewer new editors: the peak owed to a one-year spike in retention. Thereafter, the number of total editors (and new editors) has dropped each year, with about 33,000 active contributors in 2010. Granted, that’s a pretty big drop. While it hasn’t bottomed out, it does seem to be stabilizing.

At the moment, Wikipedia has somewhat fewer editors than it had in 2006 and more than double the editors it had in 2005. But it only has slightly more new editors than it did that year: about 13,000 in 2010 compared to 12,200 new editors in 2005. For a better understanding of these trends, see this chart prepared for the survey:

Gardner continues:

Our new study shows that our communities are aging, probably as a direct result of these trends. I don’t mean that the average age of editors is increasing: I’m talking about tenure. Newbies are making up a smaller percentage of editors overall than ever before, and the absolute number of newbies is dropping as well. That’s a problem for everyone, because it means that experienced editors are needing to shoulder an ever-increasing workload, and bureaucrat and administrator positions are growing ever-harder to fill.

My initial reaction is to say this is not necessarily a problem. Yes, over time the proportion of new editors is shrinking, but this is the flipside of editor retention. The community “growing older” as a proportion of all editors does not necessarily mean number of editors is getting smaller, but that longtime editors are sticking around. Except that the community actually is getting smaller.

How many Wikipedians does the community really need to sustain itself? This is another open question. Some editors may point to the rapid development of impressive new articles such as Fukushima I nuclear accidents whereas interesting but less timely articles (let’s pick on the Assassination Records Review Board) languish.

If you joined Wikipedia in 2004, there is about a 40% chance you were still editing Wikipedia after one year. All things considered, that’s a pretty solid number, but that’s about as good as it got: by mid-2005 those retention rates started plummeting. If you joined in early 2007, there was about a 15% chance you were still editing after one year. Interestingly, the drop in retention more or less coincides with the explosion in new contributors: new editorship grew most between early 2005 and early 2007; the drop in retention begins about the same time and continued falling into the middle of 2007.

This makes some sense: those were the years with the greatest number of new editors, so it makes sense that a larger number would wash out. On the other hand, even as trends have stabilized, only about 10% of editors who joined in 2009 are still editing today. That’s a pretty remarkable drop-off in retention, and so the class of 2004 and 2009 today have about the same number of editors currently active.

Why the drop-off? Hard to say, but as the study’s authors put it: “[W]e do know something drastically changed during this time period, which corresponds to the period of massive influx of New Wikipedians.” This almost sounds like the influx of new editors drove the old ones out, although there’s no way to know that. So this raises an interesting question: were all those new editors necessarily good for the community?

For a snapshot of editor participation trends based on which year one joined, see this chart:

Wikipedia is an incredible resource and, like natural resources, it needs to be both developed and preserved. That means more editors are needed, and this study is just one step in a long process of figuring out how best to do that. Fortunately, there is time.

Is Quora the Next Wikipedia? Part IV: If Personnel is Policy, then Userbase is Destiny

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on March 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm

In three posts last week, I considered how buzzy Q&A website Quora is more like Wikipedia than not. In this post, I’ll address how the different organizations behind them may affect the communities surrounding each.

For all of Quora’s upbeat talk about wanting to become “the best place” for answering questions on any conceivable topic, it is first and foremost a for-profit enterprise, and one allegedly worth somewhere between $300 million and $1 billion. It’s not hard to imagine how outside pressures (such as those from investors) might eventually force Quora to choose between the best thing for its community’s experience and the best thing for its financial well-being.

In fact, this probably has already discouraged one type of editor: the free culture / free software crowd, who helped build Wikipedia. One would think these folks might otherwise be interested in building a universal repository of information—but not if it’s a closed system. As we’ve seen in the unhapphiness of some Huffington Post bloggers following that site’s sale to AOL, one needn’t be a close follower of Richard Stallman to have questions about spending a lot of time helping to build a resource that may never produce a monetary return. Now, I am not saying those complaining about HuffPo are right, or discounting that participation on such platforms can be rewarding for non-monetary reasons. But it’s something Quora will have to look out for.

Wikipedia and Quora logosA good example involves an incident well-known at Wikipedia where, in the site’s early years, a significant number of editors on Wikipedia’s nascent Spanish-language edition decamped over such concerns. Among several reasons for the split, the most significant involved a suggestion (not even a real proposal) that Wikipedia would pay the bills by selling ads on the website. At the time, Wikipedia belonged to a private company owned by Jimmy Wales, and its url was www.wikipedia.com. So they left and started a competitor, Enciclopedia Libre Universal. The Spanish-language Wikipedia eventually recovered and outpaced its rival, but not for several years. (Wikipedians call this the “Spanish Fork”; for more information see this Jauary 2011 interview and Andrew Lih’s book, The Wikipedia Revolution.)

It probably doesn’t matter whether Quora might one day include advertising, because these types of editors would never have showed up in the first place. Let’s imagine, just for the moment, that they did open up advertising. One way or another, that would end up influencing content, which would be hard to reconcile with their stated goal that “each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.” Even if advertising didn’t influence content, it would inevitably interfere with it.

A handy comparison is Twitter: a few years back, one of it co-founders inadvisably pledged the site would “never” have advertising. They came up with a clever solution in Promoted Tweets, but there are still backlashes in store, like the one this past weekend over the “quickbar” added to Twitter’s iPhone app. And remember, the question here is not whether Quora will alienate participants so much they all leave—but whether enough disengage or never show up to keep it from competing with Wikipedia for mindshare in a serious way.

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Of course, it must be acknowledged that Wikipedia’s being a non-profit foundation (taking over for Wales’ dot com in 2003) comes with its own drawbacks. Late last year, many readers expressed displeasure with the months-long banner campaign featuring Wales and others “begging” for money. But they say this about NPR, too. And while its listeners put up with it (even as they sometimes put in for it) there is a huge audience of people who like neither the content nor the management, and stay away.

Apple vs. AndroidOne thing about being a hot new startup does help Quora: it has a dedicated design team actively working on the site design, and can make decisions more quickly. Wikipedia often struggles to make big changes, and with implementation of Flagged revisions or the debate over paid editing, disagreement can lead to paralysis and a default to the status quo.

At the moment, which is better remains a philosophical question: Wikipedia’s open and free nature vs. Quora’s closed and proprietary model. If you think that sounds like an easy question, consider the debate between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. The two operating systems are currently very competitive, and it’s an open question which will pull ahead. Applications within Apple’s closely-regulated App Store are far more reliable and considered to be of higher quality than those within Google’s open app marketplace.

For any number of reasons, this may not be a great analogy for discussing Wikipedia and Quora. But consider how competitive the Android platform might be if it had debuted not one year after Apple’s iPhone but ten years. If Quora had launched at the beginning of the 2000s instead of its end, we might be talking about a very different competition. Right now, it is difficult to see how Quora can close the gap (more like a vast gulf) between itself and Wikipedia. At least, it won’t happen anytime soon.

But perhaps the Wikipedia comparison is setting the bar too high. Quora is an interesting platform, and I don’t see why it needs to achieve a Wikipedia-like ubiquity to become useful. It certainly needs to displace Yahoo! Answers, and it needs to start showing up in Google search results. If its community continues to grow and build out its content in areas that Wikipedia doesn’t want to cover, then it just might have a chance. The philosophical difference is resolvable only with data: as Quora develops in months and years to come, we’ll see how it stacks up. I’ll still be spending most of my time on Wikipedia, both as a reader and an editor. But if I can’t find it there, my next stop will definitely be Quora.

Follow me on Quora, if you are so inclined.

Is Quora the Next Wikipedia? Part III: It’s the Little Differences

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on March 4, 2011 at 9:39 am

In two previous posts, I have explored a comparison between Wikipedia and the upstart platform Quora, the first setting the stage for discussion, and the second explaining the (acknowledged) debt one owes the other. In this post, I will discuss how they differ in ways you’ve surely noticed—and ways you might not.

Writing a detailed explanation of how Wikipedia and Quora differ is a foolhardy assignment (and an even more foolish self-assignment). Because one is descended from the paper encyclopedia and the other comes from the Q&A genre, it’s hard to know where to begin. But we can make some observations:

The most significant difference between Quora and Wikipedia is a philosophical one: they simply do not share the same definition of “knowledge”. As you might imagine, this matters quite a bit and, in fact, Jimmy Wales’ best-known quote is arguably the following:

“Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.”

That is certainly what a Wikipedian might say he or she is doing. Your average Quoran (if that’s the preferred nomenclature) might not immediately find reason to disagree. But given further investigation they may find Wikipedia to be something less than that. Perhaps the best summary of these competing viewpoints comes from the Seb Paquet essay at The Quora Review linked in my first post. In it, he writes:

Wikipedia reflects consensus reality, or tries very hard to do so. In this respect, you could say that Wikipedia is past-bound: it offers knowledge of what has been known. However, there’s another segment of the world’s knowledge that is hazy and tentative. It is emphatically not validated. It is contentious. It is controversial. It’s messy. You could call it pre-knowledge.

On Wikipedia, the most concise definition of Wikipedia considers useful knowledge is encapsulated in the “General notability guideline”, which states:

If a topic has received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject, it is presumed to satisfy the inclusion criteria for a stand-alone article or stand-alone list.

Quora has yet to develop anything quite so pithy, although its About page contains numerous statements which altogether produce a clear vision. As “notability” is the primary basis for inclusion at Wikipedia, “reusability” seems to play the same role at Quora:

“Each question page on Quora is a reusable resource that should help everyone who has the question that the page is about. … There is only one version of each distinct question on the site, so everyone who is interested in or knows about that material is focused on that one place.”

We can leave aside a careful exploration of what consitutes “reusable”, in part because so has Quora: to date they have not placed too many limits on what readers can contribute, only in what format they may contribute it. Wikipedia, on the other hand, has already developed a lengthy list of things that it does not wish to do, helpfully titled “What Wikipedia is not”. Among these, Wikipedia is not a “publisher of original thought”, nor a “manual, guidebook” or “crystal ball”. Quora seems OK with all that.

One effect of Wikipedia’s “narrow” focus is that it serves as a handy guide for other websites (and their backers) to identify a niche that avoids competing directly with Wikipedia. While other electronic encyclopedias have fallen to Wikipedia, specialization has worked for other projects. A good example of how this works is Wikia, founded by none other than Jimbo Wales himself, which smartly capitalizes on “what Wikipedia is not” and finds opportunities on the other side; because Wikipedia policies imply a limited appetite and minimum standards for information about Star Wars, the Wikia-hosted Wookiepedia is there to take up the slack.

Wikipedia and Quora logosAn example from outside the family might be the Internet Movie Database. Although IMDb’s original incarnation predates Wikipedia by more than 20 years, the point is that it has survived, and even thrived. For all kinds of information about motion pictures, IMDb is better because it wants more of that kind of information than Wikipedia does.

Quora too wants more information than Wikipedia, except it wants more of everything. In some respects this has its advantages; as Paquet goes on to say, Wikipedia is “past-bound” whereas Quora is “future-oriented”. I think that may be a little too rosy an assessment; one cannot overlook the possibility that Quora won’t necessarily be good at either. If you want to be everything to everybody, pretty soon you’ll be nothing to nobody. But I do think Quora recognizes this, and is watching to see how things develop, and will probably introduce more restrictions as time goes on.

And that brings us to another key difference: the organizations behind the websites and their relationship to users. I’ll get to those in the fourth (and final?) installment of this series. Look for that next week.

Why not follow me on Quora? Indeed, why not.

Is Quora the Next Wikipedia? Part II: Follow the Leader

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on March 1, 2011 at 3:40 pm

The first part of this series is available here: Is Quora the Next Wikipedia? Part I.

I’m not persuaded that Quora is necessarily an attempt to displace Wikipedia, but I do believe it was designed to emulate aspects of “the encyclopedia anyone can edit” that make sense for Quora while trying a different approach. Mike Arrington has said that Quora is about creating a “better” Wikipedia, but it isn’t clear just yet that its approach is actually better. In some ways, I’ll bet it’s worse.
Wikipedia and Quora logos
But before we compare the pluses and minuses of each model, let’s first consider the ways in which Quora consciously follows Wikipedia’s lead.

First and foremost, Arrington and company aren’t making the comparison to Wikipedia without a strong hint from the site itself. Indeed, calling Quora a “Q&A website” is a bit like saying Bill Simmons is a “sportswriter”; no one will say you’re wrong, but that misses the bigger picture. And Quora doesn’t hide its ambitions; the very first paragraph of its About page declares:

“Quora is a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it. The most important thing is to have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.”

Except for the “question” part, that sounds a heck of a lot like Wikipedia. A few paragraphs later:

“People use Quora to document the world around them. Over time, the database of knowledge should grow and grow until almost everything that anyone wants to know is available in the system.”

Other Quora policies clarify that, yes, you may ask easy questions and, yes, you may ask questions you already know the answer to. How else could the system grow to encompass virtually everything under the sun?

Based on the above and nothing more, I’d say one could describe Quora as a “reverse Wikipedia”: rather than presenting a set of facts on a general topic answering many hypothetical questions, as Wikipedia does, Quora wants to organize the same information around very non-hypothetical questions.

Read a little further into Quora’s list of policies and the hints go from “strong” to “explicit”. Asked about spelling and capitalization, Quora punts:

“When possible, use Wikipedia as a guide. … For things that Wikipedia doesn’t provide a model for, try to use the same pattern that Wikipedia uses for similar things.”

The same goes for naming topics:

“When there is controversy over a topic’s name, we generally prefer Wikipedia’s conventions.”

Asked about limits on acceptable user behavior, Quora policy states:

“Users are also not allowed to post content or adopt a tone that would be interpreted by a reasonable observer as [list of horribles]. This policy is based on Wikipedia’s policy on harassment.”

A related guideline points to Wikipedia’s policy on personal attacks. One can call it copy-catting, but I’d say it shows respect for the thought and effort Wikipedia’s contributors have put into the challenges of categorization and cultivation of community.

And there is more still. While Quora remains in the early stages of development, its creators have already declared some future plans. One is something no other Q&A site has attempted, and that is introducing a preferred format for citing sources. It’s currently quite primitive, and I have not much seen them much in use, but their intentions are clear. Quora policies allow that citations are optional, but promises their use will be rewarded:

A good reason [to use the format] is that when/if Quora adds real footnote support, footnotes following these guidelines will be automatically converted.

So far, Quora has proven to be extraordinarily well thought out. Of course they’ve had considerable help, but to their credit they’ve certainly nodded in the direction of their inspiration.

Now that we’ve established that Quora is indeed a lot like Wikipedia, we still need to analyze how the two platforms differ. Then we can discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each. And that’s my next post.

If you are so inclined, you may follow me on Quora.