Wikipedia's growing pains
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Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about how Wikipedia is losing editors faster than it's recruiting them. There are a variety of proposed reasons for this exodus. Some are content-driven, such as many essential entries having already been written, thus requiring fewer contributors than when the site was founded. But many reasons are bureaucratic:
"Wikipedia is becoming a more hostile environment," contends Mr. Ortega, a project manager at Libresoft, a research group at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid. "Many people are getting burnt out when they have to debate about the contents of certain articles again and again."
Mr. Ortega is not alone in identifying the trials and tribulations inherent in Wikipedia's open source nature. Digital historian Jason Scott (based in nearby Waltham, Mass.) has often criticized Wikipedia not for the accuracy of its final product, but for the system by which that product is developed:
This is what I mean; you have a brick house that, from a distance, looks decently enough like a house that people say "see, community building works". But what isn't obvious on the surface is how many times those bricks have been pulled apart, reassembled, replaced, shifted, modified, and otherwise fiddled with for no good reason other than battling an endless army of righteous untrained bricklayers who decided to put a window there… no, there… wait, no window at all. If you declare the final brick house a "victory" while ignoring the astounding toll of human labor required to get it so, then you are not understanding why I consider Wikipedia a failure.
Scott's essay was posted in May 2005; now, in light of the Wall Street Journal's report, it seems as much diagnostic as prognostic. Wikipedia is consulted by professionals, academics, and the curious worldwide, but the value derived by its visitors may not justify the overwhelming energy and exhaustion that powers its content's formative stages.
The issue calls into question the value of crowdsourcing, which is intended to take advantage of the diversity, expertise, and sheer quantity of the masses. But to tame that plurality, Wikipedia has devised standards that could be contributing to the problem, says the WSJ:
… 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.
Take a look at the Wikipedia editors' manual and you'll see the problem: twenty-one grueling chapters from which to learn about the database's style, format, and purpose. Such rules are typical of a professional publication whose staff have been trained and compensated for learning and applying such guidelines, but there is little incentive for a drive-by contributor to dedicate herself to memorizing the manual. Perhaps those organizations that Wikipedia set out to replace existed for a reason — one that, in the move from print media to digital, we've forgotten, leading to mass layoffs of copyeditors and other quality control staff. Wikipedia's current straits may signal a return to those more expensive but more authoritative sources.
Despite these issues, Wikipedia is still seen by many as a definitive reference, with a 20% growth in site traffic in the last twelve months. Wikipedia's founders feel they can continue to grow its content with a smaller core of contributors, and they are also rolling out a redesigned interface that they theorize will be more welcoming to newcomers.
Of course, none of these problems or solutions address the observation some have made that Wikipedia is a valuable source for nothing that matters. As the WSJ reports, "By [Wikipedia's] own internal grading standards, the article on Louis Pasteur, one of the founders of microbiology … is lower in quality than its article on James T. Kirk, the fictional Star Trek captain."