Saturday, June 30, 2007


The barrier to entry at Wikipedia

You might have seen my response to Andrew Lih's blog entry, "Wikipedia Plateau?". If not, go ahead and read Andrew's essay, and the various responses his thoughts provoked. Somehow, he managed to attract a wide variety of people, not all of whom are the usual voices when it comes to Wikipedia -- which I commend him for, and makes his post all the more worth reading.

I'm not sure we understood each other, but one thing Andrew wrote in reply to my comment got me thinking:
The task of article improvement -- copyediting, fact checking, grammar usage and cross article consistency -- has historically been less popular than the immediate gratificiation of content creation and features addition. The former activities are likely to be less social, and pertain to certain personal pet peeves and hangups. ... Another problem with the "least work" hypothesis is that it takes a lot of work to find that "least work." What that means is you need to be quite adept in navigating to and interpreting the Community Portal to access the queues of pending requests and outstanding tasks that now make up the easiest and most requested ones from the community.

On one hand, I think Andrew misses my point of how the drop in new article creation is related to the idea that "all of the low-hanging fruit has been plucked". For some reason, he believes that newbie Wikipedians make a conscious effort to satisfy the requests of other users when they write articles -- which has rarely been the case. Speaking from my own experience, which has been verified by anecdotal evidence, becoming a Wikipedian is a far more organic, unplanned process. It usually starts by fixing obvious typos or grammatical errors, or maybe supplying a fact or two -- the same actions that Andrew says "has historically been less popular than the immediate gratificiation of content creation." Yes, there have been people who have waded into Wikipedia by creating an article from scratch -- or debating content with another editor -- but it is the simple things that prove to the newbie that Wikipedia has a low barrier to entry that gives her or him the confidence to quickly move from the simpler tasks to the more challenging ones.

But to stand by that alone would be simply a qubbling or trivial details. People write the articles for Wikipedia that they believe Wikipedia should contain -- and there are a lot of topics for articles that Wikipedia does not yet have. I was reminded of this last weekend when I thumbed through my copy of Peterson's Field Guide to Shell of the Pacific Coast and Hawaii, and quickly discovered about 50 species in my Peterson's did not have articles -- not even stubs.

As I reflected on the process that led me into Wikipedia, I began to realize that had I discovered Wikipedia today, and followed the same steps that I had taken almost five years ago, I don't know if I would have stayed with it for more than a few weeks or months. Comparing my experience to the experience I witness many newbies have with joining Wikipedia, I find that it is harder to become a Wikipedian now than it was even 18 months ago. Years ago, the community was more welcoming, and less dogma-driven than it is now. For example, out of all of the articles I created in the first year I was part of Wikipedia, I can only think of two where I supplied sources -- and that only because I suspected that in those cases no one would believe that I hadn't made up the material out unless I supplied some form of sources. In one case, I simply added a couple of scholarly articles I had used to write the article (and within a couple of days, I had to go back and revert the changes another experienced editor had made -- she evidently did not know the proper bibliographic style to quote an article); in the other I quoted a paragraph from a usenet post -- a medium is still considered by some Wikipedians without exception an unreliable source.

I don't mean to make it sound as if the early days was a paradise that fame and popularity took from us. But at the same time, anyone who made a change to an article was not greeted with the stern words

Do not copy text from other websites without a GFDL-compatible license. It will be deleted.

Contributors did not have to worry about biographies they wrote on living people being reduced arbitrarily to a one-sentence stub -- or swiftly deleted because someone thought the article was an attempt to slip some free advetising in. (Hopefully the Business FAQ will reduce this possibility.) Asking a stupid questions did not result with a brusque answer or being branded a troll. And creating an article that was a synthesis of various incidents into a general survey did not bring the risk of having it deleted for being "original research."

I'll admit that I've been on the other side, treating a new Wikipedian with undeserved contempt for a trivial act. And the community has a new problem with people who think they need to have an account on Wikipedia -- but have no interest in writing an encyclopedia, or anything other than editting their user pages and their friend's talk pages. Yet, whenever the words grow heated over the perennial topic of "following process" and "ignore all rules", I can't stop from wondering if the participants consider whether they are providing the wrong examples for new users. Both tools are increasingly abused to claim the existence of a consensus and force their preference upon everyone else -- and requests to slow things down and talk are arrogantly dismissed. (Wikipedia has seen a number of discussions in the last few months that were "speedily closed" -- which only prolonged the discussion and made the parties more acrimonious.)

While I admit I'm saddened by this development, it is not necessarily a bad one. About 10 years ago, the community around developing the Linux kernel was about as flat as the Wikipedia community is now: anyone could present a patch or change to Linus Torwalds, and if he liked the code it went into the next release. Nowdays, kernel development is very hierarchical, and there is the impression that would-be coders should read the Linux kernel development mailing list for several weeks before sending out their first email -- and even then, many are treated brutally. Yet the community produces code that has been favorably reviewed.

Jimbo Wales has often stated that wiki is simply a tool to create an encyclopedia, that there is no permanent commitment to this approach. Because it can be jettisoned at any point if the tool no longer works, there is no guarrantee than in five or 10 years Wikipedia won't adopt a structure similar to the Linux development community. However, I wonder when that comes to happen who will populate the structure of that future project -- and if the peole will have a more favorable proportion of qualified people than other possible models.


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