[p2p-research] the wikipedia decline

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Fri Nov 27 01:09:50 CET 2009

Michel Bauwens wrote:
> Hi Paul,
> the issues of spam and libel etc.. are real, but have no bearing on
> inclusionism/deletionism, since they can happen on both notable and
> so-called non-notable articles; in fact, since the latter are from
> passionate subcultures, they have most chance of being corrected ...
> either we go back to pre-publication censorship or verification, or we
> accept the open model, knowing that the latter is a process of
> post-publication verification ..
> again, the only result of deletionism and creating the selection hierarchy,
> has been to destroy the passionate engagement of volunteers, as has now been
> amply demonstrated, and was widely expected by people such as myself ...

Maybe I'm not explaining this well.

Let me try again with more rambles on this. :-) I'm not saying I'm right on 
this; I'm just trying to advance a plausible argument for deletionism and 
notability for Wikipedia, even as I agree 100% it seems out of hand if it is 
driving people away. And personally, I wish that page on the Infinity, Ltd 
sci-fi society had not been deleted.

I'm suggesting that the more pages Wikipedia has, the more likely someone 
can place information that creates legal liability for Wikipedia. With many, 
many mostly trivial pages, no one may notice something is seriously wrong 
with one of them until someone is directly and seriously offended, and can 
then say that information has been up for a year, and then sue or attack 
Wikipedia somehow over it. This is a legal issue, and maybe, ultimately, the 
remedy for it should be legal and not technical or community process?

Consider, for example, just to show I'm not making this up completely out of 
"Italian Prosecutors Seek Prison Sentences For Google Execs"
""Milan prosecutors have sought prison sentences ranging from six months to 
one year for four Google executives accused of violating Italy's privacy 
laws over the posting of a video showing the bullying of a handicapped 
teenage boy. The prosecutor's request was backed up by a request by lawyers 
representing the Milan city council for €300,000 (US$452,000) in moral and 
material damages. The case concerns the posting on Google Video of a 
three-minute mobile-phone video showing a handicapped boy being tormented by 
his classmates in a Turin school.""

More on that:
"mikesd81 writes to tell us that four Google employees may be facing charges 
of defamation and failure to control personal data simply because they 
didn't remove a video of a boy with Down's Syndrome being harassed and 
eventually hit over the head with a box of tissue, from Google Video. The 
video was posted in September of 2006 and was removed by Google within a day 
of receiving the initial complaints, but apparently that isn't fast enough."

A focus on articles being "notable" and "verifiable" is one defense for 
Wikipedia staff perhaps -- that they are trying to avoid such problems, and 
so if there is a problem, it is not due to ill will or lack of trying, but 
just the nature of running a big useful site.

Also, beyond setting up a legal defense, sure, notable articles can get 
spammed or vandalized, but they will be fixed fairly quickly. Others 
probably won't. So, the risk vs. reward is different for articles with 
different interest levels. Every page that is created poses a new risk for 
Wikipedia; the risks worth taking are the pages that have the most value to 
the community.

The "notable" articles, probably really meaning popular articles or 
culturally iconic articles maybe, will get a lot of people viewing them, and 
problems will be quickly found and corrected. Less popular pages probably 
create just as much legal liability per incident, but are less likely to be 
fixed quickly (so, maybe more likely to generate legal action? weighed 
against them being less likely to be viewed, except maybe by someone using a 
search engine specifically looking for trouble somehow), and those less 
notable pages are also somehow worth less to the community. So, the risk is 
less worth taking for less notable pages.

One might draw some kind of curve of risk vs. reward for pages of different 
interest levels.

Let me give a hypothetical example (making up some numbers).

Wikipedia has about three million articles in English.

I'm guessing (is there some analysis somewhere?), following the usual an 
exponential distribution with a "long tail" that articles fall into some 
categories of more "notable" to less "notable":
1% of articles are really important to a lot of people.
10% of articles are fairly important to quite a few people..
30% of articles are interesting to some people.
50% of articles are interesting to a very few people.
9% of articles are of no interest except to people who made them and maybe 
their friends.

Those are just guesses (anyone here know?), and they assume deletionism has 
been going strong for a while, and they may even be skewed toward too much 
interest. Maybe 50% of articles are of little interest -- I don't know for 
sure. But I can guess at least 10% of articles are probably fairly 
interesting, so probably at most 90% of articles are probably not that 

But what if Wikipedia grew 1000X to be three billion articles, purely by 
people adding random "non-notable" things, and 99.9% of articles were of no 
interest to anyone but the people who made them and a few friends? I just 
looked at one new article today from the new articles page and it was a 
woman's name and a few silly things about her (maybe not even derogatory, 
just silly) and was marked already for speedy deletion. In general, without 
a lot of policing, people might even just start using Wikipedia as -- 
shudders -- a wiki! :-) So, people across the globe might just start using 
it like a public chalk board.

If only, say, 0.01% (so, one hundredth of one percent) of the Wikipedia 
content was of interest to at least a very few people, there would be no way 
for the community to police what was going on, assuming the community was 
not suddenly very much larger. But the Wikipedia community seems to have 
stopped growing a lot, either because of the deletionism or, more likely, 
that there are a lot of other alternatives for attention on the internet and 
all the easy notable articles are there and the exponential growth of people 
coming onto the web is ending.

So, by letting there be billions of pages that were not "notable", there 
would be no way to have any hope of ensuring content was not a liability 
until the legal notices came in. And then that would take a lot of time to 

Of course, one can still argue about where the cut-off on "notability" 
should be. And that is probably pretty subjective. It might make more sense 
to look, after a year, at articles that have few page views and delete 
those. Or, maybe, have a way people can click to say they thought the 
article was important to mod it up if few people viewed it, or something 
like that (assuming that would work).

Now, if you look at the web, probably 99.9% of the content is of no interest 
except to people who make it and their friends. That still may mean tens of 
millions of interesting pages for everyone, because the web is now so large 
(billions and billion of pages -- Google says they now see a trillion unique 
So, if Wikipedia goes that way, it basically becomes the web somehow. And 
maybe that's a good idea, but it's just not what the creators and the people 
who joined them have in mind.

Now, maybe those people are just misguided in some way. Maybe it would be 
best to just have a public wiki space with a search engine and a moderation 
system? Maybe the idea of an encyclopedia is obsolete?

Or, maybe there should be some way for Wikipedia to support multiple groups 
working towards their own encyclopedias by their own guidelines? So, there 
could be one wiki group with very aggressive deletion policies, but there 
might be another group with lax ones or none at all, and there might be 
other groups that tried to connect knowledge from various perspectives 
somehow. I don't know if that would work out. It's just a thought.

One idea I developed for the Pointrel system in some versions was that you 
could layer archives of triples on top of each other to create synthesized 
composite views. So, people might have a common core and then layer 
different data on top of it.

The deep issue is, giving wikis can hold anything, what is the "value added" 
that the Wikipedia community is offering over, say, the original wiki?

Consider what is said there:
Wiki Is Not Wikipedia
As this wiki matures a curious pattern emerges.
In the olden days, people learned to Wiki here, then migrated out to other 
These days, WikiPuppys who grew up with WikiPedia come here. Sometimes, they 
start applying its norms to our edits.
Folks, these are the norms for this wiki:
     * unattributed viewpoints
     * original research
     * fussing, noise, fun, actual and inactual advances
     * thread mode, jokes, and transclusions
     * content shamelessly ripped off from other forums, possibly without 
     * signed works by WikiAuthors
     * unsigned works by actual authors
Nothing here needs to be chronically cleansed of any potential for dissent!

So, what is Wikipedia? A tool? And information source? A community? A set of 
rules or principles? A license? An index into "notable" content? A set of 
servers that can get hit hard and keep running? All of those things? None of 
them if it just an idea of an "online encyclopedia"?

Before we can talk about how Wikipedia can be better, we need to say what it 
is, or what it is trying to be?

How is Wikipedia different than Ward's Wiki? And why? And what does that 
mean now and in the future?

Maybe a big issue is just "identity"? Or "mission"?

But in this big complex and changing world, "identity" itself can be a 
slippery subject. Maybe the real issue is not, has Wikipedia lost editors, 
but, has Wikipedia lost its identity somehow?

--Paul Fernhout

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