The greying of Wikipedia

citation needed!Despite continued growth as one of the most-visited sites on the web, Wikipedia has a problem – it’s losing editors faster than it’s gaining new ones. Cue lots of veiled “told you so” from the Wall Street Journal [via /message]:

… as it matures, Wikipedia, one of the world’s largest crowdsourcing initiatives, is becoming less freewheeling and more like the organizations it set out to replace. Today, its rules are spelled out across hundreds of Web pages. Increasingly, newcomers who try to edit are informed that they have unwittingly broken a rule — and find their edits deleted, according to a study by researchers at Xerox Corp.

“People generally have this idea that the wisdom of crowds is a pixie dust that you sprinkle on a system and magical things happen,” says Aniket Kittur, an assistant professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied Wikipedia and other large online community projects. “Yet the more people you throw at a problem, the more difficulty you are going to have with coordinating those people. It’s too many cooks in the kitchen.”

What isn’t clear, at least from this article, is which editors are leaving. A few years ago, all you could find were articles complaining that Wikipedia had too many unskilled and uninformed editors, and that it was hence a valueless project; now that people are being deterred from fiddling because the cost of entry is too high for casual contributions, that’s the problem. C’mon, people; you can’t have it both ways.

Rather than unseating my faith in crowdsourcing, these developments at Wikipedia are pretty much in line with what I had expected to happen. The initial landslide of popularity was like a new frontier, and it inevitably attracted a lot of chancers and grifters – not least, I suspect, because the SEO Google-juice from outbound Wikipedia links is powerful stuff indeed. I’m inclined to see Wikipedia (and a lot of other web-based projects) as an emergent system, and this shedding of casual contributors makes perfect sense; not everyone cares enough to do it properly, and the system self-adjusts to exclude those low-value contributions. [image by mmetchley]

That said, Wikipedia isn’t completely emergent and spontaneous; the Wikimedia Foundation steers and directs it as it sees fit. But even so, it’s still surprisingly reliable by comparison to classically-produced encyclopedias… and those who accuse it of inherent bias have obviously never seen Conservapedia (which I’m not going to do the favour of linking to – just Google it if you fancy horrifying yourself with some ultra-conservative historical revisionism). Sure, it’s not perfect… but what is? I’d be interested to see a catalogue of the errors that a paper like the Wall Street Journal makes in the course of a year for comparison…

That said, there’s one statistic about Wikipedia that is fairly disappointing (though far from surprising):

A survey the foundation conducted last year determined that the average age of an editor is 26.8 years, and that 87% of them are men.

Um. Not so much a greying, after all.

3 thoughts on “The greying of Wikipedia”

  1. Another aspect that plays into the dynamic of the loss of editors: Wikipedia is done.

    Clearly, a good encyclopedia is never done. There is always the need for revision, correction, expansion and consolidation. But the manpower needed for maintaining even a behemoth like Wikipedia, can’t be compared with the effort to create such a thing from scratch.

    I think this loss editors is simply a sign of Wikipedia slowly shifting from “buildup” into “maintenance”-mode. The most common things in this world are already in there, in a more or less complete form. No wonder the editors become fewer.
    If you visit a Wikipedia article and it contains more knowledge about the subject than you have, there’s little left to edit for you.

  2. Fiefdoms and Warlord lands, as power arranges itself across Wikipedia. Trustworthiness melts away as the wiki talking points are etched in stone.

  3. “A few years ago, all you could find were articles complaining that Wikipedia had too many unskilled and uninformed editors… now that people are being deterred from fiddling because the cost of entry is too high for casual contributions…. C’mon, people; you can’t have it both ways.”

    You can’t have it both ways simultaneously; no reason in the world you can’t observe, accurately, that it used to be too easy to edit and now it’s too hard. (I also suspect that whether one finds it too “easy” or “hard” to edit according to standards has a lot to do with which article’s being edited and who else reads that subject matter.)

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