[p2p-research] the wikipedia decline

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Wed Nov 25 16:30:20 CET 2009

Some comments an the article on Wikipedia's "decline".

Eight years ago, there were fewer easy ways for people to post their own 
content. Now, with facebook, blogs, personal wikis, twitter, more mailing 
lists, and so on, Wikipedia faces a lot more competition for authors. There 
may be much more total authoring across the web, but it may be going 
elsewhere. So, the peer produced content idea is working even better than 
ever, even if Wikipedia may no longer be getting an ever increasing share. 
The article said Wikipedia has grown by 20% in the last year, but that is 
way down from previous exponential growth. With essentially a static viewer 
base, in the context of more alternatives and a mature Wikipedia that has 
covered the basics, it make sense Wikipedia would lose authors. Also, I can 
wonder if the exponential growth of people coming onto the internet has 
stopped (given that something like half the global population now has 
internet access)? So, that may be a factor as well, even though the amount 
of time people devote to the internet as opposed to other things may still 
be increasing somewhat. Anyway, I just want to underscore that even if 
Wikipedia is doing worse, that does not mean the web is doing worse, since 
Wikipedia may be suffering precisely because there are so many other successes.

Wikipedia tries to solve many problems with creating social rules about how 
to have discussions and how to format entries. They probably are, for the 
most part, excellent rules. But, they increase the cognitive burden of 
contributing to Wikipedia. In an age of computer technology, one might think 
those rules could somehow (as Clay Shirky talks about) be embedded more into 
the system itself, but wikis are too free-form for that. The controversies 
they mention which the social rules are meant to deal with, like reversion 
wars, could be dealt with in other ways, like structured arguments, or 
multiple points of view being supported, or maybe a social semantic desktop.

Also, to concede something to Google Knol (which I have been loathe to do, 
because I want to support Wikipedia as a non-profit vs. a big corporation 
selling advertising), the idea of a single article with a single neutral 
point of view is a bottleneck for stigmergic collaboration and development. 
Contrast the difficulty of making one coherent article with the ease of 
making multiple articles on a topic from different coherent points of views 
where the reader and author can choose between them with a list at the top 
of "perspectives" (perhaps helped with a search engine). Within a framework 
like that, somehow the community could also rates the quality of 
perspectives, or creates filters you can choose from, or so on. Some of this 
has been discussed on Wikipedia, but it goes against the original conception 
as an authoritative reference source. So, some of these difficulties with 
arguments call into question whether the idea of an "Encyclopedia", written 
from a single authoritative point of view, is the best way for people to 
organize information on the internet. As a user, I might prefer to see two 
articles written from different points of views than the award single 
"neutral" article that makes it hard to follow a series of connected 
statements. Ideally, one might even have tools that let you look at multiple 
articles from different perspectives at once, and see lines between related 
points or differing assumptions. I'd love to help write that kind of software.

Wikipedia also implicitly supports the status quo with some of its policies, 
even as it claims to be neutral, and even as the general notion of putting 
information in the hands of people is radically subversive in a democratic 
way. So, Wikipedia is conflicted on that core issue in some sense. As 
pointed out in the book Disciplined Minds, all professional work (especially 
academic work) is inherently political, for many reasons, but even if for 
only that it is about a choice of where resources go in society (what areas 
to study and improve, and what ones to ignore). Wikipedia has a policy that 
articles should reflect published information by authorities in proportion 
to amount of information out there by authorities.
So, minority viewpoints should be mentioned, but only in relative proportion 
to the majority, which often means not much at all. For example, in a 
mythical wikipedia of the 1970s, in an article on, say, "oil markets", Amory 
Lovin's accurate analysis and predictions about the oil market would have 
gotten one sentence, whereas all the people who were wrong would have gotten 
the rest of the page. This indirectly is empowering the status quo view of 
the world. How are authorities (including their publications) created, 
except via a formal indoctrination and filtering process, like Noam Chomsky 
talks about in "What Makes the Mainstream Media Mainstream"?  Also, as 
Howard Zinn says, "You can't be neutral on a moving train." A neutral point 
of view can be an endorsement of the direction things are heading in that 

So, there is an inherent conservative bias in Wikipedia by its appeals to 
authority, which can be weighed against other features of what Wikipedia 
itself that are explicitly democratic (the global spread of knowledge that 
is stigmergically created). This core contradiction may be at the heart of 
some of these issues. This is not to be unsympathetic to the policy of 
citing authority or trying to be "neutral" -- just to point out a major 
issue with it, and some articles, especially on controversial topics or in 
areas of emerging knowledge, will have more problems in this area than others.

In general, the media effects society by what issues it chooses to focus 
people's attention on and to what degree of emphasis (like, endless stories 
about how wonderful some expensive expensive medical advances, and then one 
article with a little footnote somewhere about, say, how sunlight and 
vitamin D3 helps keep people healthy. :-) So, by what Wikipedia chooses to 
emphasize, and what examples it uses, it becomes a political vehicle for 
those already in power, even when it is trying to be "neutral".

But, clearly, our society does need people to try to make sense of things by 
wading into the muck of opposing views built on different assumptions and 
different values using different tools. To an extent, the Wikipedia 
discussion page alongside each article serves some of this 
neutrality-arbitrating function to hash out how to weigh different 
viewpoints and opinions and connect together different arguments. One way to 
upgrade Wikipedia might be to make at least the discussion page itself into 
some sort of "structured argumentation system", perhaps with easy links from 
the article or each specific change into the discussion related to it. That 
might be a first step towards resolving some of these issues while making 
Wikipedia work better as it is. This change might be resisted as it would 
break the model that everything is done with Wiki markup, because the 
discussion pages would then be done in some other way (perhaps based on 
ideas like SRI's SEAS or ANGLER projects or other similar things).


   "Structured Evidential Argumentation System"
"SEAS is a software tool developed for intelligence analysts that records 
analytic reasoning and methods that supports collaborative analysis across 
contemporary and historical situations and analysts and has broad 
applicability beyond intelligence analysis"

   "What is Angler"
"Angler is a tool that helps intelligence/policy professionals explore, 
understand, and overcome cognitive biases, and collaboratively expand their 
joint cognitive vision through use of divergent & convergent thinking 
techniques (such as brainstorming and clustering). "

In general, I've wanted to adapt those ideas to talking about simulation 
models, but they could be used to talk about how to change wiki pages as well.

Maybe the deepest problem here is that Wikipedia claims to support "no 
original research",
but what is the emerging synthesis of an article in a controversial area 
but, in some sense, collaboratively produced "original research" by a group 
of peers? :-)

Could Wikipedia move to another model, where perhaps there is still a 
"neutral point of view" article that is argued about in a structured way 
(including whether to delete the article from a primary index somehow), 
alongside articles written from specific coherent points of view which can 
be source material for the main article or structured arguments about it? 
And would that be better? I don't know for sure. But, it could be an area of 
experimentation to at least be tried with the forks of Wikipedia. It 
certainly would be fun to try it.

Just for a personal example, yesterday, out of nostalgia in the context of 
the current student occupations of buildings, I went to look up an old 
science fiction society at Princeton University that now seems not to be 
around anymore. Google showed me there was a Wikipedia page on it, I went 
there, because I've been wondering what happened to the group who brought 
James P. Hogan to campus where I met him, and imagine my disappointment to 
see the page had been deleted:
This page has been deleted. The deletion and move log for the page are 
provided below for reference.
     * 08:34, 15 January 2009 Redvers (talk | contribs) deleted "Infinity, 
Ltd" ‎ (A7: No indication that the article may meet guidelines for inclusion)


The science fiction society I belonged to at SUNY Stony Brook is still going 
strong though, with lots of content on the web, and even a Wikipedia article 
on it:

Just pointing out an inconsistency. I hope this does not get the other 
article deleted too. :-(

Anyway, what does it mean that an article is "authoritative"? What does it 
mean for a citation to be from an "expert"? What does in mean for an article 
to be of "general interest"? What does it even mean for an article to be 
"accurate"? What does it mean for an article to be "neutral" on a moving 
train? In the end, these questions may show the limits of the "Encyclopedia" 
idea in the context of a vibrant internet of peers and professional amateurs 
representing many different viewpoints and many different approaches to the 
"truth" more than they say anything about the limits of specific articles. 
It's a big challenge to think about how to deal with that all.

Also, and even worse, many times writing the "truth" may create problems 
(and in that sense, Wikipedia is probably a positive force sometimes). See 
the book "Have Fun at Work" for many examples where inside a bureaucracy 
management has no interest in the "truth" about some project. Or, just look 
at the Dilbert comic strip.

Related comments on truth:

One from there:
Gloria Steinem: "The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off."

Well, that explains a lot of Wikipedia revision wars. :-)

And contrast with:
Hannah Arendt: "Truthfulness has never been counted among the political 
virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in 
political dealings."

That explains some of Wikipedia's vandalism, as well as some of the problems 
citing experts.

And as regards Wikidpedia deletionism;
Henri Frederic Amiel: "Truth is not only violated by falsehood; it may be 
equally outraged by silence."

And many more quotes. Maybe each could be applied to Wikipedia issues somehow?

So, "truth" is a slippery topic, especially in the context of public media.

By the way, by leaving out a reference to Ward Cunningham who came up with 
the Wiki idea, that original article makes it seem, by omission, like people 
at Wikipedia invented the idea, as an example of the preceding point on 
truth and presentation. Contrast with:
"Cunningham: My first trip to Hawaii was actually my honeymoon. I stepped 
off the airplane and I was told to go take the Wiki Wiki bus to Terminal C, 
and I said 'What?' I just couldn't understand what the guy was saying and he 
finally realized that I was expecting a Hawaiian term and 'wiki wiki' is a 
Hawaiian term for 'very quickly.'"

Also, that linked gcn article above raises the argument against my proposal 
for structured arguments: :-)
Wiki allows people to fundamentally change the way they collaborate. Not 
that Wiki actually assumes much at all about how people work, but all the 
software that we've written before, we've made assumptions about how people 
work that have actually inhibited the really creative work. ... A forum, 
email list or a newsgroup always assumes that if I'm going to contribute to 
the discussion that my contribution goes at the end. And that makes all the 
conversation chronological. Why would we assume that chronological is the 
right way to talk about some complicated concept? What that does is make 
everything difficult to read. What I did with Wiki is not assume that. You 
can [write something] right where it needs to be read. Of course when I do 
that, I have to let go of my train of thought if I'm going to allow you to 
modify it. There is a certain trust there, so I'm sure this is what 
prevented people from doing that years ago. Because if I can trust you 
enough to modify my thoughts'that you do it in the collective best 
interes'then when everybody reads that work, they read a simpler document. 
... The thing is the more we try to codify the way we work into computer 
programs, the more likely we are to close off the discovery of the way we 
truly need to work going forward.

However, I'm more in the Manuel de Landa camp again here about having both 
meshworks (chaos) and hierarchy (order). So, the discussion page might be 
the place for structured hierarchical and chronological communications, 
while the article page (or multiple perspective pages :-) could then be what 
emerges from that in whatever form is best for communicating information 
about a topic.

But ultimately, I see Wikipedia as a step along the path to a semantic web 
and a semantic desktop.

And, an even deeper issues, regardless of technology, was put succinctly in 
the original article:
For the July event, Mr. Schulenburg got about 100 scientists and NIH
staffers to spend the day listening to arguments about why they should
bother contributing to Wikipedia, despite the fact that it doesn't pay,
won't help them get a grant or even win them applause from their peers.
His audience was skeptical about the lack of credentials among Wikipedia
editors. "One of my concerns is not knowing who the editor is," said Lakshmi
Grama, a communications official from the National Cancer Institute.

As long as we have a society mainly built around those ideas (a lack of a 
voluntary spirit and a focus on credentialism), we may be in for a lot 
deeper trouble than Wikipedia having some issues of various sorts. If we can 
fix those other societal issues, maybe Wikipedia can fix itself?

Still, as Doug Engelbart would say, the bigger issue is probably a 
"co-evolution" of a community and the tools it uses. And maybe that is where 
Wikipedia is falling down? But, the article suggests new tools are on the 
way. But, it says nothing about structured arguments and so on -- just 
making editing easier. We'll see.

--Paul Fernhout

Michel Bauwens wrote:
> Despite the dismissal by paul hartzog of my interpretation, the fall of
> wikipedia pretty much started with the victory of the exclusionists ... this
> is pretty much confirmed by the article,
> with the revolt of the german wikipedia hackers, we now have a realistic
> chance to regain a inclusionist Wikipedia with a real democratic peer
> governance,
> Michel
> Wikipedia.org is the fifth-most-popular Web site in the world, with roughly
> 325 million monthly visitors. But unprecedented numbers of the millions of
> online volunteers who write, edit and police it are quitting.
> That could have significant implications for the brand of democratization
> that Wikipedia helped to unleash over the Internet -- the empowerment of the
> amateur.
> News Hub: Wikipedia Volunteers Quit
> 1:44
> Wikipedia is extremely popular with the public, but not so much with the
> volunteers who run the site. They're quitting, raising questions about the
> future of Wikipedia, says WSJ.com Senior Technology Editor Julia Angwin.
> Volunteers have been departing the project that bills itself as "the free
> encyclopedia that anyone can edit" faster than new ones have been joining,
> and the net losses have accelerated over the past year. In the first three
> months of 2009, the English-language Wikipedia suffered a net loss of more
> than 49,000 editors, compared to a net loss of 4,900 during the same period
> a year earlier, according to Spanish researcher Felipe Ortega, who analyzed
> Wikipedia's data on the editing histories of its more than three million
> active contributors in 10 languages.
> Eight years after Wikipedia began with a goal to provide everyone in the
> world free access to "the sum of all human knowledge," the declines in
> participation have raised questions about the encyclopedia's ability to
> continue expanding its breadth and improving its accuracy. Errors and
> deliberate insertions of false information by vandals have undermined its
> reliability.
> Executives at the Wikimedia Foundation, which finances and oversees the
> nonprofit venture, acknowledge the declines, but believe they can continue
> to build a useful encyclopedia with a smaller pool of contributors. "We need
> sufficient people to do the work that needs to be done," says Sue Gardner,
> executive director of the foundation. "But the purpose of the project is not
> participation."
> Digits
> Is Wikipedia Too Unfriendly to Newbies?
> How to Make $55,000 by Giving Away Your Work
> Indeed, Wikipedia remains enormously popular among users, with the number of
> Web visitors growing 20% in the 12 months ending in September, according to
> comScore Media Metrix.
> Wikipedia contributors have been debating widely what is behind the declines
> in volunteers. One factor is that many topics already have been written
> about. Another is the plethora of rules Wikipedia has adopted to bring order
> to its unruly universe -- particularly to reduce infighting among
> contributors about write-ups of controversial subjects and polarizing
> figures.
> "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."
> Wikipedia's struggles raise questions about the evolution of
> "crowdsourcing," one of the Internet era's most cherished principles.
> Crowdsourcing posits that there is wisdom in aggregating independent
> contributions from multitudes of Web users. It has been promoted as a new
> and better way for large numbers of individuals to collaborate on tasks,
> without the rules and hierarchies of traditional organizations.
> But 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.
> Journal Community
> discuss
> “ I have an entry on Wiki on some stuff that happened to occur in the 1500s.
> Some of the commentary/corrections that were done were most helpful in
> filling out the article, but the amount of stuff that one had to go through
> hardly justifies the effort when it is volunteer time that I am contributing
> out of my life. ”
> — William Ledsham
> "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."
> Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who is chairman emeritus of the foundation,
> acknowledges participation has been declining. But he says it still isn't
> clear to him what the "right" number of volunteer "Wikipedians" should be.
> "If people think Wikipedia is done," he says, meaning that with three
> million articles it is hard to find new things to write about, "that's
> substantial. But if the community has become more hostile to newbies, that's
> a correctable problem."
> Mr. Wales says his top priority is to improve the accuracy of Wikipedia's
> articles. He's pushing a new feature that would require top editors to
> approve all edits before they are displayed on the site. The idea is to
> prevent the kind of vandalism that in January declared Sen. Edward Kennedy's
> death months before his actual passing.
> View Full Image
> Nicolas Goldberg for The Wall Street Journal
> Jimmy Wales, founder of the online encyclopedia, which is written and edited
> by volunteers.
> Mr. Wales, a onetime options trader in Chicago, founded Wikipedia in 2001
> amid frustration that his effort to create an online encyclopedia was
> hampered by the slow pace of copy-editing and getting feedback from experts.
> He saw Wikipedia as a side project -- a radical experiment with software
> that allows multiple people to edit the same Web page. The term "wiki" comes
> from the Hawaiian word for fast.
> The collaborative software fostered a unique form of online governance. One
> of Wikipedia's principles is that decisions should be made by
> consensus-building. One of the few unbreakable rules is that articles must
> be written from a neutral point of view. Another is that anyone should be
> able to edit most articles. One policy serves as a coda: "Ignore all rules."
> The Wikimedia Foundation employs a staff of 34, mostly in San Francisco, to
> run the site's computers, guide its planning and serve as its public face.
> In its fiscal year ended in June, it reported expenses of $5.6 million. It
> funds its operations mostly through donations. Earlier this month, it
> launched a campaign to raise $7.5 million from users.
> Wikipedia's popularity has strained its consensus-building culture to the
> breaking point. Wikipedia is now a constant target for vandals who spray
> virtual graffiti throughout the site -- everything from political views
> presented as facts to jokes about their friends -- and spammers who try to
> insert marketing messages into articles.
> In 2005, journalist John Seigenthaler Sr. wrote about his own Wikipedia
> write-up, which unjustly accused him of murder. The resulting bad press was
> a wake-up call. Wikipedians began getting more aggressive about patrolling
> for vandals and blocking suspicious edits, according to Andrew Lih, a
> professor at the University of Southern California and a regular Wikipedia
> contributor.
> That helped transform the site into a more hierarchical society where
> volunteers had to negotiate a thicket of new rules. Wikipedia rolled out new
> antivandalism features, including "semiprotection," which prevents newcomers
> from editing certain controversial articles.
> "It was easier when I joined in 2004," says Kat Walsh, a longtime
> contributor who serves on Wikimedia's board of trustees. "Everything was a
> little less complicated.... It's harder and harder for new people to
> adjust."
> In 2008, Wikipedia's editors deleted one in four contributions from
> infrequent contributors, up sharply from one in 10 in 2005, according to
> data compiled by social-computing researcher Ed Chi of Xerox's Palo Alto
> Research Center.
> Nina Paley, a New York cartoonist who calls herself an "information
> radical," had no luck when she tried to post her syndicated comic strips
> from the '90s. She does not copyright their artwork but instead makes money
> on ancillary products and services, making her perfect for Wikipedia's
> free-content culture.
> It took her a few days to decipher Wikipedia's software."I figured out how
> to do it with this really weird, ugly code," she says. "I went to bed
> feeling so proud of myself, and I woke up and found it had been deleted
> because it was 'out of scope.'"
> A Wikipedia editor had decided that Ms. Paley's comics didn't meet the
> criteria for educational art. Another editor weighed in with questions about
> whether she had copyright permission for the photo of herself that she
> uploaded. She did.
> Ultimately, it was decided that Ms. Paley's comics were suitable for the
> site. Samuel Klein, a veteran Wikipedian who serves on the board of
> trustees, intervened and restored her contributions. Mr. Klein says
> experiences like Ms. Paley's happen too often. Mr. Klein says that the
> Wikipedia community needs to rein in so-called deletionists -- editors who
> shoot first and ask questions later.
> View Full Image
> Nicolas Goldberg for The Wall Street Journal
> "Wikipedians" from around the world gathered in August at the annual
> Wikimania conference in Buenos Aires
> The Wikimedia Foundation says it is seeking to increase participation, but
> that growing the overall number of participants isn't its main focus.
> "The early days were a gold rush," says Ms. Gardner, the foundation's
> executive director. "They attracted lots and lots of people, because a new
> person could write about anything." The encyclopedia isn't finished, she
> says, but the "easy work" of contributing is done.
> To attract new recruits to help with the remaining work, Ms. Gardner has
> hired an outreach team, held seminars to train editors in overlooked
> categories, and launched task forces to seek ways to increase participation
> in markets such as India. The foundation also invested $890,000 in a new
> design for the site, slated to go live in the next few months, that aims to
> make editing easier for contributors who aren't computer-savvy.
> Wikipedia on the Decline
> 3:53
> WSJ's Julia Angwin interviews Andrew Lih, author of Wikipedia Revolution,
> about why volunteers are increasingly quitting Wikipedia.
> She says increasing contributor diversity is her top goal. 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.
> Much of the task of making Wikipedia more welcoming to newcomers falls to
> Frank Schulenburg, the foundation's head of public outreach. An academic, he
> began contributing to articles about French philosophers on the German
> Wikipedia in 2005.
> "The community has created its own language, and that is certainly a barrier
> to new participants," he says.
> One of Mr. Schulenburg's first projects, called the "bookshelf," is an
> effort to gather the basic rules for contributing to Wikipedia in one place
> for newcomers. He hopes the new multimedia bookshelf will be the Wikipedia
> community's equivalent of a high-school civics textbook.
> In Germany, to recruit more academics, Mr. Schulenburg had devised an
> educational program called Wikipedia Academy. In July, he conducted the
> first such program in the U.S., for scientists and administrators at the
> National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. His goal was to entice the
> scientists to contribute.
> Wikipedia already attracts lots of academics, but science isn't its
> strength. By its own internal grading standards, the article on Louis
> Pasteur, one of the founders of microbiology, for example, is lower in
> quality than its article on James T. Kirk, the fictional "Star Trek"
> captain.
> For the July event, Mr. Schulenburg got about 100 scientists and NIH
> staffers to spend the day listening to arguments about why they should
> bother contributing to Wikipedia, despite the fact that it doesn't pay,
> won't help them get a grant or even win them applause from their peers.
> His audience was skeptical about the lack of credentials among Wikipedia
> editors. "One of my concerns is not knowing who the editor is," said Lakshmi
> Grama, a communications official from the National Cancer Institute.
> Journal Community
> Vote: How would you grade the quality of the content on Wikipedia?
> Several participants started contributing to Wikipedia right after the
> event. The NIH says it is considering whether to adopt formal policies to
> encourage its staff to contribute while at work.
> Each year, Wikipedians from around the world gather at a conference they
> call Wikimania. At this year's meeting in Buenos Aires in August,
> participants at one session debated the implications of the demographic
> shifts.
> "The number one headline I have been seeing for five years is that Wikipedia
> is dying," said Mathias Schindler, a board member of Wikimedia Germany. He
> argued that Wikipedia needed to focus less on the total number of articles
> and more on "smarter metrics" such as article quality.
> He said he disagreed with dire views about the project's future. "I don't
> expect to see Wikipedia follow the rule of any curve or any projection."
> Write to Julia Angwin at julia.angwin at wsj.com and Geoffrey A. Fowler at
> geoffrey.fowler at wsj.com
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