wikipedia academy talk

I’m giving a talk at the Wikipedia Academy in Bergen Oct 14-15, and since it’s the Wikipedia, I thought it would be better form to plot the talk out in a blog post rather than making a shiny Powerpoint. Here’s the abstract, titled “Has Wikipedia grown up?”

[Update Jan 4, 2010: the video of the talk is now up]

Historically, social media sites don’t last for long. The Wikipedia has lasted far longer than most of its peers, but will it last forever?

Life cycle of a social networking site

The Wikipedia seems to have avoided the last phase – spam and monetization. Or at least, spam is largely kept at bay. Unfortunately, I think the greatest threat to the Wikipedia is its community.

I’m one of those occasional contributors who sometimes adds content about topics I’m an expert on. I find the nitty gritty editing and the debates between deletionists and inclusionists rather dull. In fact, until I started gathering links for this talk, I hadn’t logged in to my account in a few months, and was surprised to find on my talk page that one of the articles I contributed had been nominated for deletion. Fortunately nobody except the nominator wanted it deleted (one person even posted a great link to a statement by Jimmy Wales about how we should relax and accomodate someone who adds a good article about a possibly trivial thing. But really: what a wonderful confirmation of the recent articles arguing that the Wikipedia is scaring away the experts… I add information about something I’m knowledgeable about and it’s nominated for deletion by someone who calls a major research centre a “club/organization”? In both the articles I started that have been nominated for deletion, the nominator clearly knows nothing about the topic whatsoever.

My unhappy reunion with the Wikipedia easily connects to recent reports that the number of contributors to the Wikipedia is stagnating. Perhaps because there already are articles on most obvious encyclopedia topics. Or perhaps because of the Wikipedians, that tight community of copy-editors. Sue Gardner of the Wikimedia Foundation argues that the natural resource of the Wikipedia is emotion, “the rush of joy that you get the first time you make an edit to Wikipedia, and you realize that 330 million people are seeing it live”. Today most often that edit will be deleted.

And who deletes it?

Chart showing demographics of wikipedia contributors - self-reported

The thing that surprised me the most in Jimmy Wales’ presentation on Wednesday was the extremely skewed demographics of Wikipedia contributors – 85% male, 65% or so single, almost all childless, and heavily weighted towards the under-thirties. I actually hadn’t realised how out of place I am as a contributor, old, married mother that I am. Given that the contributors are so young, male, childless and single, the idea that the Wikipedia has “grown up” seems rather out of place.

Mind you, as far as I can tell, these demographics are self-reported by heavy Wikipedia contributors, so quite likely not very representative. This preliminary survey analysis seems to be the source. Here (as a PDF) are the slides Wales spoke from, pretty much.

And the readers are a different kettle of fish. In Norway, at least, the Wikipedia is mainstream. When I tweeted about the demographics Wales presented, Petter Bae BrandtzÊg, a PhD fellow at SINTEF, sent me some more info and gave me a link to slides for a talk he gave in Trondheim today with lots of statistics on Norwegian usage of social media. Slide 14 shows how huge the Wikipedia is and how fast it’s still growing. Over 2/3 of online Norwegian read it at least once a month. But slide 15 shows that daily or weekly reading is skewed by gender – 35% of men and only 21% women read the Wikipedia that often. However, Pew Internet found a far more even gender balance: in 2007, 39% of US men online read the Wikipedia, as did 34% of US women online. The differences make you wonder about the surveys’ methodologies.

[An aside: Men “define the net” BrandtzÊg writes. I think that is to leave out vast portions of the net – google anything to do with children, pregnancy, home, work-life balance, crafts or fashion and you’ll find women discussing it extensively. These things are a major part of the net, though perhaps invisible to those who don’t participate in these discussions. Also, a presentation from Pew Internet given just last week gives stats showing that there are more women than men using social networking sites (see slide 8) – this is another major part of “the net” that’s left out of BrantzÊg’s assertion. Regardless: I’m rather saddened that the gender differences are so traditional.]

Anyway, let’s get back to the Wikipedia. I think the question of demographics is huge. And yes, I definitely think it can scare people away. Look at any nomination for deletion, say this current nomination that the article on WoWWiki be deleted, for instance, and the bickering and aggression is really very off-putting. Someone wants it deleted because WoW is stupid. Great. Someone else thinks that numerous academic articles citing WoWWiki doesn’t show its notability because academic articles are “primary sources” and Wikipedia doesn’t allow original research in articles. Talk about misunderstanding. This discussion certainly sounds as though its being conducted by those sad 18 year old boys who can’t find girlfriends.

boyd’s law: “Adding more users to a social network [site] increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.” With the Wikipedia, the problem is that it’s too good. There are so many articles out there that most of the activity is nit-picking.

Clearly we need copy-editors, which to a large extent is what “wikipedians” are. Without them, most articles would probably look like an “incoherent hodge-podge of dubious factoids (..) that adds up to something far less than the sum of its parts”, as Nicholas Carr accused the articles on George Bush and Jane Fonda of being in 2006.

But there’s a rather dangerous balance between the copy-editors and the content-contributors. Certainly the copy-editors – the “Wikipedians” – do most of the editing. According to Aaron Swartz in his interesting article “Who Writes Wikpedia“, Jimmy Wales has said that:

it turns out over 50% of all the edits are done by just .7% of the users Ö 524 people. Ö And in fact the most active 2%, which is 1400 people, have done 73.4% of all the edits.î The remaining 25% of edits, he said, were from ìpeople who [are] contributing Ö a minor change of a fact or a minor spelling fix Ö or something like that.î

However, when Aaron Schwartz looked at several individual articles, analysing instead who had contributed the most content (i.e. words) rather than simply moved things around or formatted things, the proportions were almost reversed. Most of the content is contributed by people who have made less than 50 edits to the Wikipedia in total.

That might turn the demographics around significantly, too. Maybe 85% of the copy-editors and formatters are young, childless, single men, but occasional contributors – the people who actually write the Wikipedia – are more representative of the general population?

I love the Wikipedia, and I hate the Wikipedia. Most of what I hate about it is the bickering, the ignorance and the hidden agendas camouflaged by acronyms and templates and bragging about superior knowledge of the rules of Wikipedia. What I love about it is the content, the articles, and the freedom. I want to be able to read an article about anything I’m curious about. I’m thrilled to finally have access to a copy of something very close to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Despite the work of dedicated field researchers such as Ford Prefect, much of the contributions to the Guide are made on a strictly ad-hoc basis. With the permanent staff more likely to be on a lunch break than working, “most of the actual work got done by any passing stranger who happened to wander into the empty offices of an afternoon and saw something worth doing.”[7] This has led to the Guide being patchy in its coverage, cobbled together (Its entry on “The Universe” was copied from the back of a packet of breakfast cereal)[8] and often riddled with errors.

I want the Wikipedia to still be around in ten, fifteen, twenty years time.

14. October 2009 by Jill
Categories: Networked Politics, social media | 18 comments

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