William Beutler on Wikipedia

Is Wikipedia “Slowly Dying”?

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on August 5, 2011 at 11:27 am by William Beutler

Here’s a provocative blog post from Gawker’s Adrian Chen yesterday: “Is Wikipedia Slowly Dying?”. It’s based on a provocative comment by none other than Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales at Wikimania, the annual conference for Wikipedia and its sister wiki sites. Of course, that’s not quite what Wales said, but the Associated Press story Chen’s post is based on is not so far off:

“We are not replenishing our ranks,” said Wales. “It is not a crisis, but I consider it to be important.”

Administrators of the Internet’s fifth most visited website are working to simplify the way users can contribute and edit material. “A lot of it is convoluted,” Wales said. “A lot of editorial guidelines … are impenetrable to new users.”

It’s also not a new concern. In March the Wikimedia Foundation published its latest study of editor participation, showing a decline in editor participation compared with a couple years ago, although it certainly still has more contributors than a couple years before that. In my post on the subject, “Trendy Thinking: Contemplating Wikipedia Contributorship”, I included a Wikimedia-generated chart that shows what Wales is talking about:

From 2001 through 2006, participation grew exponentially, slowed at its peak in 2007, and has decreased at a steady rate in the years since. A number of theories have been floated to explain the decline. Via the AP, Wales offers a very common one: with almost 3.7 million articles in the English-language edition, the project of buiding Wikipedia has mostly already been done. But he also offers one that I hadn’t really considered before:

Wales said the typical profile of a contributor is “a 26-year-old geeky male” who moves on to other ventures, gets married and leaves the website.

There is some evidence for this in the survey results. Turn to page five of an earlier survey report (PDF) and you’ll see that more than 75% of editors (technically, survey respondents who called themselves editors) are younger than 30, and of the remaining quarter, half again are in their thirties. It may be that only 12.5% of Wikipedia editors are older than 40.

This situation points toward a perhaps unlikely but perhaps untapped editor group: retired persons. In fact, it was my expectation to find a higher percentage of older editors—something like a reverse bell curve—showing greater participation by the young and old, with those in the middle with careers and young children contributing less frequently. In my personal experience on the site, some dedicated editors—some of the best, in my estimation—are middle aged or older. Yet the survey plausibly explains why they are statistically less common:

The last group is characterised by the fact that its members started to use / contribute to Wikipedia at a comparably old age. However, since the age range of this group is very broad, it covers persons that grew up with the Internet as well as persons that had to learn to use new media past their school and university time.

Someone who was 39 when Wikipedia was created is now 49 or 50, and actuarial realities will continue to produce a general population that is ever-more Internet-savvy, and therefore ever-more inclined to edit Wikipedia. That is to say, those who were once young editors may return as old editors.

Back at Gawker, the comment section offers another complaint to which Wales only alludes. The pseudonymous SoCalMalaise writes:

I used to write and edit Wikipedia a lot. Some long articles are almost entirely written by me. It was a way to fine tune both my research and writing skills and enjoy the novelty of writing something that thousands (millions?) of people read. But soon I found that your work is frequently stifled by so-called “administrators” who are usually high school or college students with sub-par research and writing skills. These trolls have created a Kafka-esque labyrinth of self-contradictory “policies” and “guidelines” that they used to remove sentences, paragraphs, sections or even entire articles that skilled writers have volunteered to put down. They cherry-pick various parts of their rules as an excuse to act out their God complexes and strike out content. … And I’m not talking about a few bad apples. These people are everywhere! The whole writing-for-Wikipedia thing became very frustrating and just not worth my time.

It’s difficult to generalize from any one person’s experience, and who knows what common-but-non-obvious mistakes SoCalMalaise might have made, but the sentiment is certainly not unheard-of.

Thing is, for every complaint about overzealous editors and sticklers for arcane rules, there’s a complaint about uninformed editors who show little respect for common-sense rules. I have to admit, I’m more of the latter complaint—it is sticklers for policies and guidelines who enforce a minimum level of quality required for new additions, and therefore maintain a semblance of article quality. Myself, I spent a lot of time learning how Wikipedia works. It took several years before I was able to contribute at a high level, creating new entries or significantly improving existing ones. I am polite when I find someone is doing it wrong, although I know also that some are not.

Meanwhile, the organized core of the community has spent a lot of time, especially recently, trying to figure out how to retain those who give Wikipedia a try. There is the WikiLove campaign, which has received some media attention, but I’ll have to explain my skepticism another time. I’ve also heard that new account registrants are sometimes asked to identify areas of interest, which sounds like an interesting idea, but as far as I can tell it hasn’t been widely deployed.

Ultimately, whether Wikipedia’s declining user base represents a problem is not a question that exists in a vacuum. The question is really whether Wikipedia has enough editors to keep getting better or, at the very least, maintain its current level of quality. There are multiple answers here. As I’ve pointed out before, the Wikipedia community’s rapid response to breaking news is impressive: if you want a good primer on the United States debt ceiling crisis, Wikipedia has a very strong and evolving summary. But Wikipedia sometimes fares poorly with articles on many pre-Internet topics, especially in the social sciences: if you want to know about Money market funds, I’m not sure I can recommend Wikipedia.

It’s worth taking stock of the fact that Wikipedia’s decline among editors is a bit more than gradual, but does not now appear to be accelerating. The next two years will be telling, but I suspect that Wikipedia’s contributor base will find its floor, and my guess—though it is only that—is that we’re probably somewhere near it. Wikipedia is no longer the new hotness, and let’s face it, it’s an encyclopedia. To most it is far less thrilling and far more challenging than YouTube or Facebook, and we shouldn’t expect that Wikipedia’s participation will look anything like it. It’s no less popular as a destination for readers, and it would take a very significant drop in article quality for that to happen. (Like, say, if Wikipedia’s vandal patrol disappeared tomorrow… if anyone, send your WikiLove to them.)

I think the current situation also raises a question that many Wikipedians are loathe to consider, but that is the professionalization of some aspects of Wikipedia. This doesn’t necessarily mean hiring editors, but it could mean working out partnerships to share in the responsibility of maintenance and development of software and perhaps even some content. It’s an article of faith that much of Wikipedia’s early growth and unique characteristics derive from its volunteer force, but as any business professor can tell you, the skill set that launches a viable company is not the same skill set that brings that company to maturity. There is precedent for this; Wikipedia needs the Wikimedia Foundation, which does have a paid staff, although they avoid organized involvement in matters of content, except as individuals. Ultimately, Wikipedia must remain in the hands of its volunteer editors—to change that would be too fundamental a shift. But as Wikipedia grows more complex, it’s not hard to think they could use greater support.

  1. “SoCalMalaise” comment nails it. Editing Wikipedia has become a joyless experience, especially for those accustomed to writing for blogs, professors or even publications. The standards are impossibly high for new articles. It’s the equivalent of running a gauntlet, hoping that your work won’t be hacked to pieces by blood-thirsty and pedantic editors.

    The standards are arcane, contradictory and downright obnoxious. There’s entirely too many admins and editors who seem to get their kicks in tearing things down while never creating anything of their own. I’m still bitter about my experiences with trying to create a page for a radio show in Portland with plenty of valid sources to back up its worthiness. The editors/admins who decided to sink their teeth into it were completely unwilling to consider my argument, looked for the teeniest reasons to remove the article and had all the objectivity of a lynch mob.

  2. Now that most notable subjects already have an article, an ever increasing number of new articles will fail notability and be deleted. But new editors won’t know that, so will be offended and will go away mad. In the past, they would have stuck around a while, and in a year or two or three their first article would get merged or deleted and they won’t feel so bad because they’ll know the system by then.

    If new editors weren’t allowed to create articles until they had been around long enough to understand what the notability requirements are, and why they exist, then they’d have a chance to get to like editing Wikipedia and not feel rebuffed.

    Another possibility is that Wikipedia’s complex web of rules are not dysfunctional. If the rules in fact do a good job of defining a quality encyclopedia, and if they do a better job now than when there were fewer rules, then it stands to reason that working within these rules is more difficult now than it was in the past. Editors must know more now than before. If it is the case that being a good editor now is more difficult than it once was, then fewer people are qualified now to be good editors than in the past. Hence fewer editors.

    One way to test this would be to try looking things up in the online Brittanica or Grolier or World Book that you can access with most public library accounts. If you find Wikipedia inferior, then maybe the rules are hurting. If not, then perhaps all those Byzantine policies and guidelines work.

  3. The MediaWiki platform, at present, is fair to poor at supporting collaboration, and moribund WikiProject corpses are increasingly blocking the path forward toward a new paradigm for a more collaborative Wikipedia. WikiProject History’s collaboration of the month is listed as October…October 2007, from the previous decade.

    We must put ourselves in the shoes of a brand new, yet talented, editor approaching en.wikipedia for collaboration on an article rewrite. Among editors, especially the newer editors, WikiProjects create the impression that collaboration is ongoing when it often isn’t. Thus, it helps prevent new blood from launching new collaborations, stifling the collaborative environment that improves articles, fosters peace and understanding, and retains talented writers. The absence of a cordial, supportive, collaborative platform hurts retention and I think it’s fair to say this absence often leaves behind a caustic “lone wolf” culture that can repel women as well as non-autistic males from the project.

    The Wikimedia team has understood for years that in order to close the startling gender gap, editing must be a much more social experience. The potential “whittling down” each year of our pool of talented writers is the greatest threat to Wikipedia, as we must increase the number of editors, especially expert editors, to be able to fix the sprawling hellscape of weak, inaccurate and incomplete articles that drag down the project (especially in the area of the social sciences and humanities, which Sue Gardner correctly pointed out at the 2011 Wikipedia in Higher Education summit).
    Retaining good people is the greatest danger to en.wikipedia’s success; though edit warring gets more attention, WP:DONTBEADICK and dispute resolution is crucial to the extent it effects retention of editors. We really need to keep good editors around, and I believe a more social, collaborative platform would go a long way toward that goal. We also must transition to what the Wikimedia Strategic Plan to 2015 foresees as “topical groups” based on editing interests.


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