William Beutler on Wikipedia

From the Annals of Bad Wikipedia Commentary

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on January 4, 2016 at 9:30 am by William Beutler

Wikipedia’s ubiquity in Internet culture is matched by its inscrutability to those looking from the outside in. This makes it an attractive topic for occasional visitation by journalists and public intellectuals alike, but it is not the easiest subject to write about. Bad Wikipedia journalism is abundant, although in my experience most journalists will try to learn something about Wikipedia before covering it.

Alas, the same does not seem to be true for Internet pundits.

This brings us to the long holiday weekend, when two widely-followed Internet writers found a real study—“The Rise and Decline of an Open Collaboration System: How Wikipedia’s reaction to popularity is causing its decline”—by very wiki-knowledgeable academic researchers, linked to it for readers, added some well-meaning commentary, and curiosity-provoking headlines, and actually caused their readership to become less informed about the current state of Wikipedia as a result.

First up, “The rise and decline of Wikipedia?” by economist Tyler Cowen at his long-running blog, Marginal Revolution:

Halfaker, Geiger, Morgan, and Riedl have a new paper on this topic … This is an interesting paper, but I think it undervalues the hypothesis that potential contributors simply prefer to be in on things which are both new and cool. Wikipedia, which is no longer new, cannot be so cool. That is why Beethoven’s 5th does not top the pop charts, though if it were new it might.

And here’s The New Republic’s Jeet Heer, writing for the site’s blog, under the matter-of-fact header “Wikipedia is dying”:

And its treatment of volunteer editors is the culprit. The genius of Wikipedia has been its use of such editors, who do the grunt work that allows the site to maintain a consistent quality. Yet these very volunteers might be the undoing of the site. A new academic paper, flagged by economist Tyler Cowen, reveals that the number of volunteers peaked in March 2007 and has been in steady decline ever since.

So what’s wrong here? Simple: this study isn’t new! As one can verify quite easily on Aaron Halfaker’s website (and Stu Geiger’s as well) this study was published in 2013 (and circulated in late 2012).

Moreover, the question of what’s happening to Wikipedia’s community, particularly the overall number of active editors, has since then become less clear and perhaps more interesting. As first identified by editor WereSpielChequers, later examined by the community’s Wikipedia Signpost, and also by Halfaker himself in a post at the Wikimedia Foundation’s blog, Wikipedia’s “decline” is less obvious than it once was:

The English Wikipedia’s population of very active editors—registered contributors with more than 100 edits per month—appears to have stabilized after a period of decline. We’re seeing some of the same trends globally on other language Wikipedias. … Broadly speaking, it appears the number of very active editors has recovered from a mid-2013 drop and, for the moment, is continuing upward aseasonally.

You would not know this by reading Cowen and Heer! The former post has 76 comments, none of which (that I can tell) point out this survey isn’t new. And while TNR does not allow comments on posts, Heer’s tweet announcing the blog post has been liked, retweeted or replied to about fifty times, without anyone pointing this out, either.

To be sure, Wikipedia still has many problems that cannot alone be addressed by a modest uptick in active participation. That still doesn’t make it OK to pass off outdated scholarship as a new development, and without a considered appreciation of the topic—Wikipedia in 2015 had fewer editors than 2007, a new paper “reveals”!

It’s not hard to see how a dominant storyline about an interesting but little-understood phenomenon (like Wikipedia) can become an entrenched meme, easily passed along from writer to reader, reinforced by feedback and becoming resistant to new information. And we need public intellectuals to help correct this kind of misinformation. Cowen and Heer should update their blog posts, and I’ll update this one if and when they do.