William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Wishlist Survey’

Why Aren’t There More Wikipedia Editors?

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on July 16, 2018 at 11:15 am

Why do some people contribute to Wikipedia? Conversely, why don’t others? Ever since Wikipedia became a self-aware community, this question has vexed those who participate in it, and would like to see more people pitch in and help build the encyclopedia. After all, Wikipedia was created by a community of individuals with diverse interests and motivations. Some stay for a short while, and others stay much longer, but no one can stay forever. For this reason, the community must analyze itself and attempt to address the problems which hold it back. But this is a very, very difficult topic to grapple with.

Wikimania_2012_Group_Photograph-0001In mid-June, an editor named Ziko van Dijk, who happens to be one of the longest-running active contributors, posed a version of this question on a Facebook group for Wikipedia editors called Wikipedia Weekly. In the post, van Dijk noted the difficulty of finding new contributors, and speculated that a big reason is “simply that most people don’t like the hobby that is Wikipedia”—it’s a rather abstruse pursuit. Few people enjoy writing, and those who do prefer to express themselves, rather than impersonally collate facts. Meanwhile, other “occupations” on Wikipedia, such as clerical work involving categorizing pages is similarly unappealing. Therefore, in his view, existing Wikipedians must be clearer about what being a Wikipedian really means.

A discussion ensued, and weeks later, the thread had grown to more than 100 comments, with numerous current and former editors, including Wikimedia Foundation personnel, weighing in. I was a participant near the beginning, and in returning to the thread last week, I found the discussion in its whole a fascinating and perhaps useful compilation of views about Wikipedia’s problems recruiting new editors and retaining existing ones. This blog post is an attempt to summarize some of the more interesting arguments; the following are presented without judgment as to their correctness, but simply to describe the views in circulation:

Why aren’t there more people joining Wikipedia in the first place?

  • Many people simply do not know that they can edit Wikipedia. This seems difficult to believe, when Wikipedia is one of the most-visited sites in the world and has been for more than a decade, but the fact remains: we can’t assume that everyone who reads Wikipedia understands how its articles come to be written in the first place.
  • As van Dijk suggests, most people are not writers. Despite the rise of social media, few people write very much or at length—Instagram is bigger than Twitter, and most people who use Twitter simply read, rather than tweet. Moreover, the kind of writing necessary to produce Wikipedia articles is slow, laborious, and exhausting. However energizing a Wikipedian might find the work involved, it’s not hard to see why others might find it enervating.
  • Those who do write tend toward personal expression, sharing opinions and experiences. Wikipedia is the opposite of this: it’s not a place to write what you know, but a place to record what others have written about what they know. Similarly, most who write like to have their name attached to it—even if it’s not their real name. But Wikipedia is not a place for brand-building; it’s a matter of policy that Wikipedia articles are unattributed to their authors, only to the sources the authors used to compile them.
  • Those who try may be surprised that Wikipedia places unexpected restrictions on what they can write. You can’t just copy material from another source into Wikipedia wholesale, for example. And the range of acceptable sources is fairly limited. Wikipedia’s content rules are complex, and many of them are non-intuitive for those not steeped in Wikipedia’s community.
  • Some who try writing or editing an article may have just one topic they really care about, and are uninterested in going beyond that to work on many articles. Once they’ve said their piece, or tried and failed, their interest in the project has been exhausted.
  • A lot of what’s involved in contributing to Wikipedia amounts to clerical work. For many people, this sounds like, well, work. People who work in information jobs, especially, may find that Wikipedia is not a break from the kind of tasks they have to do in their real jobs, so Wikipedia feels too much like more of the same.
  • Potential contributors may associate Wikipedia merely with writing, and not with the myriad other tasks necessary to build the encyclopedia. These include contributing photographs and illustrations, coding templates and writing software, curating information, reviewing content, or patrolling new changes to keep articles free from vandalism or nonsense. You can be a Wikipedian even if you never write an article! But this isn’t readily apparent.
  • Wikipedia is simply too difficult to understand, and finding your way around can be head-spinning. As one participant put it: “Wikipedia is a maze without walls.”

Even if they want to join, the barriers to contributing are quite high

  • Wikipedia now has more than 5.6 million articles: all of the “low-hanging fruit” has been picked and there are fewer opportunities to create new articles. Meanwhile, expanding or revising existing articles may be less enticing to new contributors than the possibility of creating new ones. This is not at all to say that Wikipedia has created all or even most of the articles that it should eventually include, but it does mean these remaining opportunities are likely to be on more esoteric topics.
  • Wikipedia’s rules are very difficult to discover and master. There is no comprehensive list, nor a clear order in which they should be read. Should you begin with Policies and guidelines, Key policies and guidelines, or List of policies and guidelines? Who knows? And once you’ve found them, they can take awhile to read, not to mention internalize.
  • Another potential problem is a lack of clear goals for the Wikipedia community: back when Wikipedia was much smaller, it was easier to say that the goal was to get to 50,000 articles, 100,000 articles, or 1 million articles. Growing the encyclopedia is no longer the focus—that seems to happen almost on its own these days—but what goal replaces it? Reach? Quality? It’s not clear.
  • The “confidence factor” may play a role in a few ways. One is simply by getting started editing, one exposes themselves to evaluation, judgment, and criticism for their work. That’s not inherently a lot of fun. Additionally, with so much already written, new contributors may be reluctant to “interfere” with the work of those who have come before. After all, Wikipedia seems to have done quite well without their input, so why start now?

Harassment is a problem, but how much of a problem?

  • A recurring theme in the discussion was the degree to which harassment, especially of women, on Wikipedia is really a problem. Many editors have experienced it or seen it, but disagreement exists about whether it is a truly pervasive problem that is turning off potential contributors, or if the worst examples are rare but memorable.
  • Prevalence of harassment is difficult to measure for the same reason that crimes of violence often are: victims may be unlikely to report it, because doing so is daunting, and more so when the default assumption of Wikipedia discussions is that they occur in public. Were ANI to feature a private reporting feature, perhaps this would be mitigated.
  • A related question: don’t you have to contribute to Wikipedia first in order to experience harassment? The thinking being, it doesn’t really make sense to discuss in terms of new editors. Still, it’s possible would-be contributors have heard horror stories. And regardless of the reality on the ground (or the page) you can be certain this is a topic that will come up when these questions are raised.
  • Lastly, was Wikipedia ever a friendlier place than it is now? One suggestion was: no, it only seemed that way because there were more wide open spaces between content and there were fewer opportunities for contention and confrontation. Also, because Wikipedia had not yet become a global brand, there was less vandalism, and fewer COI problems. It doesn’t change anything now, but it’s interesting to consider.

What might some potential solutions look like?

  • There are as many potential solutions as there are problems. Maybe more? Here is a short list of ideas floated in the discussion thread, relating to the explanations listed above. Like before, they are presented without judgment, but in some cases with a little bit of supplementary commentary mixed in.
  • Wikipedia’s information pages must explain better what participation means before new users sign up. Wikipedia:Introduction is intended to be the starting point, but it doesn’t really offer any context for what to do. Not only is a better community portal for first-time editors a possible solution, but perhaps “better” isn’t the same for everyone, and there should be more than one point of entry based on one’s background or intentions.
  • Spotlight other things people can do than simply edit articles: patrol changes, review articles for GA or FA status, contribute photos, produce cartography, create templates, write bots, or fix grammar and spelling. A “101 ways to contribute” video or similar presentation could help spread awareness.
  • Better integration of tools from the community; VisualEditor is the WYSYWIG editing interface new contributors are encouraged to try, and Wikipedia Teahouse is the place for new editors to ask questions of veterans, but you can’t use the VisualEditor at the Teahouse.
  • For those who want recognition for their contributions to Wikipedia, perhaps Wikipedia’s articles could be re-designed slightly to include randomized lists of contributors to the article. Every once in awhile, you would get to see your name in lights. (Un-discussed: what if you don’t want your name in lights?)
  • “Stop over-policing contributions and under-policing behavior”. This is a fascinating insight, but also one that appears to run counter to the long-observed community advice to “focus on the edit, not on the editor”.
  • Stop pretending that everyone should be an editor, and find ways to support those who do. Additionally, find out why current contributors do so, and find ways for Wikipedia’s support teams and infrastructure to better nurture these motivations. Showcase stories of editors explaining why they are personally motivated to contribute.
  • More outreach projects to specific communities who are actually likely to edit Wikipedia: in science, literature, and especially at libraries.
  • Find ways to surface specific tasks to be done within different modes of contribution. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit all have feeds with new content to consume, but Wikipedia has no such centralized resource, whether communal or individualized. A new editor-focused dashboard was a popular suggestion in the 2016 Community Wishlist Survey, but not much has happened with it recently.

Ultimately, to borrow a phrase from academic work, mentioned in the thread: “further research in this area is needed”. Hopefully, in the meantime, discussions like this can help shape more rigorous explorations of this subject matter, and point toward solutions that benefit Wikipedia and its contributors, present and future.

Photograph of 2012 Wikimania participants via Helpameout licensed under Creative Commons.