Public weighs in on Flagged Revisions

Andrew Lih’s blog post “English Wikipedia ready for Flagged Revisions?” is a nice overview of the big news this week: it seems likely that some form of the Flagged Revisions extension is finally going to be used. For more details on the on-wiki discussion, this soon-to-be published Signpost article is a good place to start.

The comments on the NYT blog story on this development give a nice cross-section of public perceptions of Wikipedia among the Times’ audience, and their reactions to the possible change in the way the site works. Some choice quotes:

  • It’s a cesspool of misinformation and bias. Now that the Wikipedians are in charge, it will become even more useless as a reliable resource.

    Someone needs to be monitoring the Wikipedians. They are not to be trusted with the interpretation of things. -Wango

  • It’s a living, multidimensional document and I’m of the mind that it should be left the frak alone […] WIKIPEDIA NEEDS MISTAKES if it is to remain the vital document that it is today. Living things change, static dead things are perfect and immutable. -jengod
  • It’s not arrogant for wikipedia – or any source of authoritative information – to want to be right […] Grafitti on the wall may be instructive, but it does not make the wall more valuable or more purposeful. -Frank
  • Any edit beyond spelling, grammar and syntax, must be considered suspect, if done by a minor, an artist or any individual that does not have any expertise on the subject. -CGC
  • The real bad blunders are almost always corrected within hours (if the article is of no great interest) or minutes (if it is). So why bother? The true capital of Wikipedia is ALL of its contributors – and not just the “trustworthy” elite. Such measures will discourage new, fresh, motivated contributors, and in the long run dry out the project. -Oystein
  • It’s a standard fascist procedure to declare an outrage and then restrict freedoms under the guise of making things better for all. I’m not saying that’s what Wales is doing. Just saying that it sounds like a jack-booted tactic. -Kacoo
  • Is it possible that [the anons who ‘killed’ Kennedy and Byrd] weren’t vandals at all, but just people trying to be “that guy” who made the change to such an important entry. Who knows? -Light of Silver

Will the Stanton usability grant stop Wikipedia community atrophy?

The recent Stanton Foundation grant to improve MediaWiki’s usability hopefully will lower the barrier for computer novices to get started on Wikipedia editing. This comes at an opportune time: we recently learned that the size of the Wikipedia community has not only stopped growing exponentially, it actually has been gradually shrinking since early 2007. The most likely causes of the decline include:

  • lack of “low-hanging fruit”
  • lack of new potential editors who are just discovering Wikipedia
  • Wikipedia’s scope gradually narrowing to mirror that of traditional encyclopedias (a.k.a., deletionism run amok)
  • Wikipedia’s occasionally expert-unfriendly culture that turns off those with the most to contribute
  • a Wikipedia culture that gives little priority (or even respect) to activities focused on the community itself rather than the encyclopedia
  • the natural decline in participation of early community members; according to Meatball Wiki, users of any online community generally say GoodBye after between 6 months and 3 years unless that community is connected to their offline lives

Usability improvements, it is hoped, will open editing opportunities to people who are scared off by the intimidating and sometimes overwhelming markup that appears when one clicks “edit”.

Whether or not this will halt or reverse the decline in editing activity on English Wikipedia is tied up with several conflicting currents of thought in the community. As Liam Wyatt and Andrew Lih have been pointing out in recent Wikipedia Weekly podcasts (66 and 68 are both very astute discussions), the standards for what is and is not valuable content have been shifting consistently towards the convential encyclopedia definition of valid topics. Quirky lists, small organizations that don’t meet the ever-harsher notability standards, obscure books and concepts, anything ScienceApologist finds to be an illegitimate invocation of scientific authority, anything deemed too ‘mere news’, and, increasingly, simply anything that wouldn’t be found in tradional encyclopedias–these are candidates for deletion.

The implications of deletion trends for community health are not entirely straightforward. Overzealous deletion leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many editors who have spent a lot of time adding the kinds of content that now gets deleted regularly. Some leave because of it, or lose their enthusiasm. On the other hand, a lot of what gets deleted is simply weak, unsourced content; removing it the article pool means that new editors will not base their own contributions on such bad examples. Deleting content on the borderline of notability, or better yet, downright notable and significant topics, also replenishes the supply of low-hanging fruit. If someone thought a topic deserved an article, someone in the future may think the same thing and recreate it in better form. Citizendium recognized the advantage of redlinks early on, and decided to start from scratch rather than from a Wikipedia dump.

And while about two-thirds of those polled want to see Flagged Revisions implemented, the other third think it would be too much of a dilution of the “anyone can edit” ethos. Although I’m in favor of Flagged Revisions, it’s not clear to me whether it would improve or worsen the problem of commnity atrophy. It’s a question of balance: some people are drawn in by ‘instant edit gratification’, while others are turned off by the perceived free-for-all nature of Wikipedia and assume their contributions would simply be swept away in the chaos. So the lure of stability might or might not outweigh the immediate thrill of seeing one’s edits go live. (I suspect the waiting, and the tacit acknowledgement of good work when someone approves a newbie’s edit, would do more to draw in new users to the community than the instant, impersonal status quo.)

So how would improved usability shake things up? On the one hand, it might spark a wave of naive article creation followed immediately by a wave of deletion of new content produced by newbies with no grasp of the community’s standards. If someone can’t figure or won’t figure out how to use basic wiki markup (says the cynic), how can we expect them to use proper sourcing and adhere to Wikpedia’s core policies of NPOV and Verifiability? Lowering the barriers to entry might just exacerbate the us-versus-them mentality of deletionism. On the other hand, maybe a host of new users would integrate well with the community and restore some of its past vitality while pulling the philosophical center back a bit from the deletionist brink. (Of course, it’s an open question how much usability improvements could actually affect the influx of new users; the difference might be rather small, if lack of tech savvy is highly correlated with other factors that make people unlikely to edit.)

As Erik Zachte has pointed out (in the earlier version of this post), many Wikipedias are still growing; English Wikipedia is not the be-all, end-all. It is not clear whether each language will follow a similar pattern in the rise and peak of community (accounting for number of speakers, connectivity, and economic issues) or whether different languages can develop sufficiently different Wikipedia cultures to avoid the failings of English Wikipedia (or perhaps generate unique problems of their own).

The Future of Wikipedia (my take), part 2

In my last post, I proposed some major changes to Wikipedia, such as liberalized inclusion standards, increased emphasis on news and the incorporation of social networking and casual discussion features. The aim of these ideas is to broaden the editor base to keep the unreachable goal of “the sum of all human knowledge” in sight.

In the long run, I think Wikinews has as much, if not more, of an important role to play in Wikimedia information ecosystem… especially with the shrinking ranks of professional journalists that will only shrink more as print newspapers circle the drain.

The centerpiece of my ideas for getting Wikinews Original Reporting to critical mass is to hire a professional newsroom manager to point Wikimedians in the right direction. Aside from the fact that Wikinews is a different site, with different policies and a different vibe, the main thing that stops more Wikipedians from doing Original Reporting is that they don’t know what to report on. Professional journalists are given specific assignments; newsrooms have robust systems for identifying potentially newsworthy events and dispatching local reporters ahead of time.

Wikinews could take advantage of Wikipedia’s location-based sitenotice (which lets logged-in users know about Wikipedia events such as meetups in their area) to inform potential reporters of upcoming viable reporting topics nearby. The newsroom manager would use the same kinds of information systems as traditional newsrooms to pinpoint news in progress or likely upcoming news events, and create a constant stream of local notices to attract reporters from the among the editing community.

The main problem, which many Wikipedians are familiar with, is that volunteer resources are not easily transferred. One of the perennial arguments that comes up when well-intentioned editors try to crack down on “cruft” and seemingly trivial Wikipedia content is that all that time editors spend writing about local bands and arcane fiction plot details could be better spent working on articles that matter. Editors who have been around longer just smile; it doesn’t work that way. For the most part, people only contribute in areas they are interested in. However, local news is one area that has a natural interest community… and one that is easy to single out, based on IP location.

Of course, the biggest potential strength of Wikinews (and the strongest area of original coverage now, aside from interviews) is not location-limited: internet news. Coverage of Scientology and Project Chanology is a case in point. Many Wikimedians are actually more competent than professional journalists to understand and investigate online happenings and stories related to internet culture. This is an area of coverage that I think will expand naturally once Wikinews reaches critical mass (the point where large numbers of users visit Wikinews regularly just to see what is there, because, like with the main newspapers or the professional blogs, they can always count on new and interesting content, much of which isn’t found elsewhere). There is enormous scope for tech and digital entertainment news, investigative journalism and human-interest news based on online communities, and this kind of content could take off once Wikinews reaches a certain level of confidence as not just a project that reports the news, but a project that makes the news in the same way traditional media does.


My suggestion in the last post of increasing news coverage on Wikipedia, and eliminating all but Original Reporting from Wikinews, drew some fire from Jason Safoutin (DragonFire1024): “Wikipedia is NOT news and the quicker they realize that the better.” Part of my response is that Wikipedia can be whatever the community and the Foundation want it to be. But I should clarify; what I propose would more along the lines of a merger of the non-original reporting of Wikinews with Wikipedia. It would still be acceptable (as it is now on Wikinews) to cover local news events of primarily local interest, and ways of sorting and organizing news coverage could be implemented. The main difference would be that news coverage on Wikipedia never reaches a certified (and protected) final published form.

Another Wikinewsie, Steven Fruitsmaak, noted that “community reporting is not something that sets Wikinews apart: look at Indymedia, OhMyNews, NowPublic, … Wikinews can bring NPOV and collaborative editing to grassroots journalism.” This is an important point. Right now, there several other citizens journalism sites; citizen journalism sets Wikinews apart from mainstream media, while the Neutral Point of View policy sets Wikinews apart from other community reporting websites and the increasingly sophisticated amateur and professional blogosphere. Nevertheless, I think the market is still wide open for a citizen journalism project that has both the independence and interactivity of new media and something approaching the breadth, volume and neutrality of traditional media (i.e., something like a thriving Wikinews).


In my next post, I discuss some possible ways to attract more subject-matter experts (e.g., academics), who so far have been reticent contribute.

The Future of Wikipedia (my take), part 1

The future of Wikipedia is a perennial topic of discussion among Wikipedians and Wikipedia critics. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while (see my prognostications from early 2007). I apologize in advance for a long post.

It seems like Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation are finally turning the corner in several long-anticipated respects. The two long-heralded software projects, Unified Login and Stable Versions, are functional and moving toward implementation. The professionalization of the Foundation is starting to pay dividends: in the last few days, Executive Director Sue Gardner announced a $3 million, 3-year grant from the Sloan Foundation, followed a few days later by a $500,000 grant from philanthropists Vinod and Neeru Khosla.

Financial stability, and even financial flexibility, may be on the horizon, and the harshest critiques that could potentially derail the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia (in particular, those of Larry Sanger and the recent, ongoing accusations by Danny Wool and Kelly Martin) seem to have spent most of their energy without much effect. That’s not to say that these critiques are entirely unfounded, but it’s becoming clear that the worst of them are either in the past or not of project-killing significance. So it’s a good time to reassess the big issues that will shape the project’s future.

The title and main topic of the newest Wikipedia Weekly podcast is The Future of Wikipedia. The discussion (the “feeback” and “Wii moment” sections, from 21:47 to about 52:52) is primarily about the future growth of Wikipedia; Andrew Lih and Liam Wyatt disagreed in the last podcast about how big we can expect Wikipedia to be in the years to come.

Andrew forcefully states an idea that parallels my own thoughts on Wikipedia’s future: to come anywhere close to “the sum of all human knowledge”, the project needs a “Wii moment”, a reformulation of what it means to contribute to Wikipedia (along the lines of what the Wii did for gaming) that opens things up to huge numbers of people who never would have participated so before. The podcast discusses some of the basic things that will make editing more accessible: what-you-see-is-what-you-get editing, and a gentler culture that is more appealing to people with little patience for revert wars and wikilawyering.

I have a more expansive vision of what Wikipedia and its sister projects ought to become. In this and some follow-up posts, I’ll lay out some of my ideas for major changes.

One of the most promising avenues for expanding the scope of the Wiki(p/m)edia community is news. Right now, Wikipedia has a troubled relationship to the news. One recent example: Obama’s race speech, “A More Perfect Union“, was undergoing a deletion discussion from the evening of March 18 (the day the speech was made and the article was written) until yesterday. In the meantime, the article got 4000 hits the first day, and after the initial news burst has been holding steady around 1000 hits per day. For news topics, people want the kind of synthetic, continually updated neutral view that Wikipedia (at its best) provides. But neither mainstream media nor the new media of partisan blogs and social news sites provide this, Wikipedia avoids this except for “notable” stories, and Wikinews operates no differently from traditional news, calling a story “done” once it’s published.

In my view, most of Wikinews ought to be merged with Wikipedia, leaving only Original Reporting for Wikinews. For big topics that have both ongoing news and a long, broad history, Wikipedia ought to have separate subpages for more detailed explanation of specific news events (a la Wikinews articles, but continually open to update). This will encourage the participation of the thousands of news junkies who, at present, are not particularly welcome on Wikipedia (and don’t want to waste their time writing Wikinews articles no one will read, if they even know about Wikinews).

Wikimedia could do even more with news. News is the subject of continual, massive interest, and the there is a large–and mostly unmet–demand for internet discussion of news. Most internet news sources do not have even rudimentary forums for discussion, and even for the ones that do, much more discussion happens offsite than on. For example, the top link on social news site reddit right now is this article on Time‘s politics blog, which does not allow comments. The reddit discussion is 140 comments long and counting. Even traditional news sites that do allow comments rarely have anywhere near that level of participation, even for articles that are heavily discussed at Digg, Reddit, slashdot, and the blogosphere.

The top social news sites are only modestly popular, and there is still plenty of room for new players. If Wikimedia started a social news site, and melded it on to Wikipedia along with other features that give users more of an outlet for interaction that is not centered on article improvement, Wikipedia could probably go from the #9 site on the internet (down from #8 last year) to the #1 site. That’s not an end it itself, but it would have a huge impact on content in terms of turning readers into discussants, and discussants into contributors. Every article and news story would have a sleek discussion thread (maybe dynamic ones based on users’ Wikimedia social networks, or imported social network data from Facebook, MySpace, and the others).

I realize that bits and pieces of this are being done elsewhere (including Wikia, e.g., with their politics site), but Wikipedia has the userbase and reputation to actually make it work.

Along with social networking and free discussion, article policies would have to be liberalized; at the very least, the notability concept should be retired, although a more integrated system of sorting articles based on the level of reliable sourcing could be put in place instead, so that readers always have a clear idea of whether they are reading a biography of a significant figure based on the work of professional historians, or the biography of somebody’s grandfather pieced together from newspaper clippings and family records.

In my next post, I’ll discuss my ideas about Original Reporting for Wikinews; although my above proposals would gut the current core of Wikinews, I envision a future for Wikinews even brighter than Wikipedia’s, based primarily on citizen journalism.