In the news
Britannica and Wikipedia like "apples and chairs"; should anyone who's anyone get an article?; and why fighting and barriers to editing may be useful after all
Wall Street Journal on the ramifications of editor decline
In a column for the Wall Street Journal, "numbers guy" Carl Bialik examined the issue of the slowing growth in the number of Wikipedia contributors in recent quarters. Analysing activity levels for June, Bialik found that fewer than 36,000 registered editors had contributed during the month, a decline of more than a third from the peak of March 2007. Perhaps forebodingly, this peak came only a month after the essay Wikipedia is failing caused consternation within the community (see previous Signpost coverage). Bialik chose however to highlight a more narrow metric as cause for concern: the health of the core community. Approximately 3% of editors account for 85% of contributions to the project, according to the statistician, and participation among this group has declined "even more sharply" than the active registered userbase in toto. Bialik focused not on the trend of decline but the intuition of a "magic number" of contributors at which community health and thus encyclopaedic quality would flourish, echoing the sentiments of Wikimedia Foundation officials in saying that "it isn't clear how many more editors are needed to sustain the critical mass" of the project.
Elaborating on the subjects examined in the column for the online edition of the newspaper, Bialik delved further into the issue of the encyclopaedia's flagging participation rates. Bialik commented on the Article Feedback Tool, noting that Wikipedia readers seemed to be more critical than many users of sites with rating features (granting an average rating of 3.7 compared to 4.17 on websites in the Power Reviews network). The tool was initiated by the Wikimedia Foundation in part as an exercise in encouraging a greater conversion rate of readers to editors and the foundation's spokesman Jay Walsh was quoted enthusiastically on this point: "[d]uring the feedback tool trial phase over 90% of the raters had never edited before". Bialik also sought to compare Wikipedia's 3.7 million articles and almost 40,000 editors (June 2011) with the comparable figures for arch-rival Encyclopaedia Britannica; officials for that project disclosed their article count at 140,000 (with more than 75 million words), but not before taking issue with the notion that it was competing with Wikipedia for market share. In a departure in tone from notorious comments from the company comparing Wikipedia to a public restroom, spokeswoman Orly Telisman was keen to amicably distance the two encyclopaedias:
||Comparing the Encyclopaedia Britannica to Wikipedia is not comparing apples to apples — it’s more like comparing apples to chairs... We’re just different. Both companies come from very different beginnings, our products and values are different — we are editorially based, they are open-sourced (again, nothing wrong with either execution, but it seems difficult to me to make a one-on-one comparison).
The sum of all human knowledge?
Forbes contributor Brandon Mendelson, in an unyielding critique entitled "Wikipedia sucks (but not for the reasons anyone ever talks about)", took aim at the encyclopaedia from an angle unusual in the press, arguing that Wikipedia does not deserve its high visitor levels because it lacks comprehensiveness (thus contrasting the typical critique that Wikipedia includes a vast quantity of irrelevant, often inaccurate "trivia" as covered, for example, in The Times). Whilst previous commentators have nonetheless suggested that perfectly useful articles should not be ruthlessly discarded (as in the case of the German Wikipedia controversy of 2009 and last year's deletion of the article on "naturoids"), few have openly taken a stance similar to that suggested by Mendelson: namely, that any person who "[has] an impact on other people's lives" should be entitled to an entry, reducing the barrier for inclusion to zero in practical terms.
In doing so, Mendelson takes his side in a long standing debate among Wikipedia contributors about which topics deserve standalone articles (the so-called "deletionist-inclusionist divide"). Where inclusionists see a value in every article, deletionists tend to stress the importance of a minimum quality standard for articles, a stance which is only possible if the inflow of articles is limited. Despite an observable balance, it should be noted that the stance which the English Wikipedia takes, although more inclusionist than that of the German Wikipedia, is still fundamentally incompatible with that outlined by Mendelson (his examples of articles Wikipedia should have may yet be created, however). Nonetheless, a number of more inclusionist wikis do exist, although they are not WMF-supported.
- Shirky: "structured fighting" and some barriers to newcomers are necessary: ReadWriteWeb reported about a talk by US writer (and WMF advisory board member) Clay Shirky at last month's LinuxCon North America, about online collaboration in projects such as Wikipedia. Drawing on topics from his 2010 book Cognitive Surplus (Signpost review), but also introducing new examples, Shirky presented "a contrarian look at collaboration", for example rejecting the idea that fruitful collaboration always has to be peaceful: "'When you vastly increase people's ability to communicate with one another [this] means more fighting.' The question, says Shirky, is how to structure that fighting to lead to productive results. We're not good at subjecting our own beliefs to scrutiny, says Shirky, but we're very good at scrutinizing others' beliefs and work." Another commonly held view that Shirky took issue with was the characterization of Wikipedia and Linux as "large collaborative projects" – rather, as summarized in the article, "they're small collaborative projects with tight groups, that integrate very large amounts of small participatory effort.... it's a small core of contributors who do the bulk of the work and integrate the work from others who only contribute a small amount." According to ReadWriteWeb, Shirky added that it is important "that people cannot join [an online collaboration] project too easily. Even given the presumption that all the participants have goodwill towards the project, he says that it shouldn't be too easy to change every aspect of a project. Some parts of the system should be easy to change, some parts should be hard."
- "Left-wing bias" thesis extended: In the second of a series of articles purporting to reveal the systematic left-wing bias of Wikipedia, David Swindle of FrontPageMag, a conservative website based in California, examines the biographies of progressivist activists (see also last week's "In the news").
- Wikipedia's exemplary efficiency: The Moscow Times reported on a critical analysis of Russian state spending on websites by the Izvestia newspaper. The paper questioned why the cost of upgrading Zakupki.gov.ru, the website for state tenders, was set at 778 million rubles ($26 million), "almost four times more than annual budget for Wikipedia", a content-rich online site of global stature. The Wikimedia Foundation has projected that its spending in 2010–11 more than doubled that of the previous year, up to $18.5 million.
- Critical analysis of oral citations project: India's Economic Times covered the Wikimedia Foundation's oral citations project (see previous Signpost coverage), which aims to expand the scope of verifiable information in languages with limited printed resources. The paper noted that reception of the project within the Wikimedia community has been far from uniform, including the local communities within which the project is being trialled: mailing list threads have included "scathing criticism, supporting arguments and balanced suggestions", and tension surrounding issues of authority and tolerance of original thought. Achal Prabhala, the Wikimedia fellow leading the project, maintained that "the sum of human knowledge is far greater than the sum of printed knowledge", and stressed the experimental, exploratory nature of the project.
- Lolita under the microscope: The Awl ran a forensic examination of the history of the controversial article on Vladimir Nabokov's celebrated novel Lolita. The "case study" included an analysis of the growth and development of the article, its peak viewing figures, a controversy over alleged plagiarism, and conflicts over whether or not to label the protagonist as a "pedophile". The author concluded by invoking the neutrality principle as an unachievable ideal: "Entries such as the one on Lolita demonstrate why perfection on Wikipedia remains an 'unattainable' goal—when the topic is contentious, perfection will always butt heads against 'is completely neutral and unbiased'."
- Doctor Who sidekick's death by Wikipedia?: In yet another instance of celebrities declared dead by mischievous vandals, The Daily Mail revealed the shock of actress Jean Marsh at her reported untimely demise. In an unusual twist, The Signpost was unable to locate the offending edits in either the history of the biographical article or the associated logs, suggesting laxity on the part of the publication or an inventive public-relations operative.
- "Wikipedia Art" to return in hotel room form? The Vancouver Courier reports that the city's 11th annual New Forms Festival taking place from September 9 to 11 is to feature an exhibit in a room of the Waldorf Hotel focusing on one of the stranger noteworthy pranks perpetrated in Wikipedia's mainspace; the Wikipedia Art fiasco (see previous Signpost coverage).
Cricketer and former captain of Pakistan Shahid Afridi
, who was lampooned as puffing up his Wikipedia biography by ESPNcricinfo
- Notables profiled and parodied: ESPNcricinfo featured a parody of prominent cricketer Shahid Afridi vaingloriously editing the Wikipedia article on himself. In related news, the Wikipedia Files project, run by Chicago public radio station WBEZ, continued its exposure of Wikipedia biographies of living people with an episode in which stand-up comedian Marc Maron fact-checked the entry on himself.
- Taught by Wikipedia: US National Public Radio interviewed 22-year-old college graduate Meredith Perry, an entrepreneurial inventor of "a transmitter that can recharge wireless devices using ultrasonic waves" called UBeam; Perry has no background in electrical engineering and learned all she knows on the topic from online research, primarily reading Wikipedia.
- Articles as stimulus in word association study: ZME Science reported the work of researchers at Princeton University who used condensed versions of 3,500 Wikipedia articles to study the neurochemical imprint of word association. By monitoring neural activity while test subjects were exposed to specific terms from the articles, the researchers were able to map brain patterns, thus allowing them to tell in advance what the participants would think about when exposed to certain stimuli.