William Beutler on Wikipedia

Bloggingheads.tv: “Wikipedia’s Newbie Problem”

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on September 11, 2013 at 2:37 pm by William Beutler

In the past few weeks, I’ve begun hosting a new maybe-series on Bloggingheads.tv covering technology, tech policy, business and media. For my second installment, I decided to ask Andrew “Fuzheado” Lih—a longtime Wikimedian and author of the first book-length treatment of Wikipedia’s origins—to join me.

He graciously accepted, and we discussed the Wikipedia community’s reaction to the Visual Editor, whether Wikipedia might be “disrupted”, and how to add more video to the site. You can watch it here, and it’s about 54 minutes:

  1. Great show — really good hosts and interesting discussion! It would be great if you provide these in audio form (MP3/OGG) in the future so I can listen to them on the go (which is how I listen to most podcasts).

    I’d add one more ‘threat’ to Wikipedia; as you rightly pointed out, most of the time a user is looking to find an answer to their question on the internet. Wikipedia’s prosaic form is not suitable for this.

    Enter Stack Exchange. I’m sure that Andrew, as a computer science graduate (=> programmer, sysadmin) has had very helpful answers on Stack Overflow and the like. It’s very tightly moderated to the point that moderators strike out significant portions in question descriptions that are seen as irrelevant. Its most popular sites are all CS-related, but nevertheless, the Stack Exchange network now consists of over 100 mini-sites.

    I don’t think there is really a direct threat to Wikipedia; even without a WYSIWYG editor. As for contributions though, the MediaWiki API has improved drastically over the years. OpenLinkMap, Google Maps and Google Knowledge Graph are examples of users of the API that take away that all-important ‘Edit’ button. The user is generally not made aware that the data comes from Wikipedia and do not have easy access to it so they can edit the source material. In my view, the increasing importance of applications that work with each other via REST APIs has obsoleted a significant amount of visits to Wikipedia. I use the DuckDuckGo search engine for instance which has a really cool feature known as ‘zero-click info’. 90% of my Wikipedia browsing is done by just reading the first sentence from DDG’s zero-click info bar.

    So all in all, I don’t think Wikipedia will ever be disrupted. If anything, more and more external applications will deliver innovation using its large body of knowledge and data. This will be the real disruption to Wikipedia. Let’s not forget that Wikipedia is the meant to be sum of the world’s knowledge. It fills more than just the role of encyclopedia. It is these additional roles that can be fulfilled better by other web applications, such as the Stack Exchange network and Quora. These will soak up a significant amount of potential contributors. There is no doubt that there will always be a need for information presented in a prosaic manner; however, it is not suitable for everything and many people cannot stand Wikipedia’s uppity style and lengthy sentences in flawless grammar.

    In conclusion, it is better to ask yourself: what is the purpose of Wikipedia to users? What roles does it fulfill? The trend right now is that Wikipedia fills many roles for many people, but not so well. It will be replaced by others in those fields, who might just use open data from the Wikimedia Foundation and filter it to the relevant portions.

    I think I repeated myself a few times there, but I’m sure you get the gist. :D

    As for the visual editor, it can only be a good thing in terms of maintaining the editor count at a reasonable level.

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