Saving Wikipedia (1): TIME for the fairy


The golden days of Wikipedia, the days of unlimited growth, are over. Yes, we are still getting new articles. But this is basically because we have a couple of open areas like plane crashes, new wars, new movies, new celebrities that generate this growth for us. Our “revert rate” is staggering – the rate of edits we have to undo in order to protect Wikipedia. Our community is growing, but we are actually losing long-term editors at a frightening rate. The number of heavy users is stagnating.

Wikipedia is losing authors - source:
Wikipedia is losing authors – source:

The loss of long-term users is the real problem. Long-term users tend to have long “watchlists”, lists of articles they monitor and protect. New Wikipedians might start as wonderful authors but it takes years until they begin to protect wider areas of Wikipedia. They do not tend to stay for these years any longer and we are actually witnessing an erosion in growing unmonitored areas.

What exactly did we expect? Exponential growth forever on a site with a subject matter – encyclopedic articles – that should not really be the object of unlimited growth?

Things are more serious. Much of our encyclopedic core is still as bad as it was back in 2003. Articles like the German “Russian Literature” do not grow beyond compilations of anachronistic eclectic trivialities if they have failed to take the quality jump back in 2005. It seems we can no longer get the authors such articles would require. (It will be material for another posting why it might actually be not that clever to write such articles). Articles that made the quality jump in 2005 and 2006 are in a better situation. They fulfill their purpose and can be updated every now an then with fresh secondary resources. It is not that clear how we would actually improve such an article. The ‘round’ article is usually calling for a complete replacement. You do not improve it by adding what you feel you miss. The uncontrolled encyclopedic swelling turns the round article into a heap of garbage. Collective writing has turned out to be far more difficult than we expected.

We should perhaps concede that most of our propaganda on this topic has been flawed. We are not the medium of collective authorship. We have fields in which we see that it is possible: biographies or collections of information such as the article on the recent plane crash. People can enrich such a sites with all incoming information. The additions do not call for a more complex structure. Complex articles are rarely written by the collective. They require a structured view and experience; they call for an author who can anticipate criticism of his or her approach.

Time then to save Wikipedia? The recent TIME article gave Lila Tretikov all the support she was apparently demanding. My Wikipedia friends posted the link read with statements of personal exhaustion. Yes, this seems to be the Foundation’s view…

The intro gave the summary:


Wikipedia has indeed become the most important resource of publicly available knowledge. This web’s gem is – first field of problems – threatened by sinister external powers: The NSA, Vladimir Putin, the governments of Iran and China are attacking both, the web and Wikipedia, the medium of free information. The foundation has – second field of problems – to solve our special demographic problem: The Wikipedia community is aging. It is 90% male, white, nerd, and fascinated by antiquated technologies. The foundation, the ruling body of Wikipedia, will have to take tough steps: A new visual editor has been on the agenda for years – the third field of problems – but it met with the resistance of the increasingly conservative community:

A neophyte editor who hits “edit” on an article will be presented with text that looks more like code than prose. If she still manages to make her edit, she then faces the high likelihood that her change will be reverted back by a cadre of veteran editors policing for so-called “vandalism” but also for edits that don’t align with the community’s extensive set of norms.

How can we expect to grow if we do not have a software which women or people from African countries would like to use? And how will we get more articles if we do not get the authors that will write them – authors we have failed to reach in the past:

Lack of resources is not Wikipedia’s only challenge. It also struggles from demographics that undermine its central mission. The makeup of its editing community is largely white and male. Women comprise an estimated 10% of editors. That has led to critical gaps in coverage about topics ranging from women’s health to the history of Botswana (compared to, say, the history of Montana). Meanwhile, the total number of people regularly making edits has shrunk: active English-language editors have fallen by 35% since 2007, though the figure ticked up slightly last year. Tretikov says the growing numbers of Internet users around the world will provide new editors to help fill subject gaps. But if that doesn’t happen, one of the Web’s greatest institutions could start to crumble.

The lack of resources is, so we learn, a massive problem. Tretikov has the ridiculous budged of $59 million at her fingertips. She is paying 250 employees who have to supervise the work of 85,000 volunteers:

Tretikov heads a non-profit with a relatively meager annual budget of $59 million that comes almost entirely from donations. A team of about 215 full-time employees headquartered in San Francisco oversees the work of roughly 85,000 active volunteer editors who seem to have divergent views about almost everything, from proper punctuation to the role that the Foundation should play in the operation of the site. “I do not envy Lila Tretikov’s position,” says William Beutler, a Wikipedia editor since 2006 and author of The Wikipedian, a blog that reports on the goings-on of the website and its army of editors.

My fellow Wikipedians were baffled. The Foundation does not “oversee” the community. Wikis are self-controlled entities. Tretikov needed this particular premise to legitimize her call for tough decisions. The Foundation can only do its work if the community obeys. Should the resistance continue she will ask individual communities to leave – so Tretikov and a famous Blogger:

“It’s not realistic to have everybody always in the boat with you,” Tretikov says. Beutler puts the issue less diplomatically: “The Wikipedia community is full of old timers who are used to getting their way and don’t like things changing, and I think it’s important that the community always be forced to rethink, is Wikipedia everything that it can be right now?”
Tretikov says she is committed to trying to get it there. “Wikipedia was revolutionary because it just changed how an Encyclopedia is created and shared,” she says. “It was fantastic and we’ve done an incredible job. But for the next roughly half of the population, the story is going to be very different.”

I keep wondering what this is all about.

A strange mixture of real and imaginary threats
The headquarters of Putin's alternative Wikipedia from
The headquarters of Putin’s alternative Wikipedia

Putin, the NSA, Iran and China are essentially imaginary threats. Putin has his wonderful troll factories, and his employees have indeed proven that they can create an atmosphere of looming conspiracy – on forums, on Facebook community pages, in the opinion sections of Russian and Western “mainstream media” – this sensation that our mainstream media do no longer show us what our populations are actually questioning. But a Putin encyclopedia? Putin would need the entire Russian Academy of the Sciences to create a Wikipedia with interesting content to sell. They would fail with a lot of noise.

Our shrinking community remains a real problem, and this is to some extent the result of a design flaw. Wikipedians do almost inevitably run into a life-cycle in which they cannot stay authors for long. They begin editing articles, they fall into an addiction as soon as they realize that other Wikipedians are actually interested in their work on Wikipedia. It is this the moment, when their watchlists begin to grow – and suddenly they metamorphose from creative authors to participants of endless internal debates. The final stage of frustration will come with their first encounters with Wikimedia politics. It is this the moment when the journey between Scylla and Charybdis begins, the journey between the two communities that want to act in the true interest of Wikipedia. Our newbies are no longer likely to enter this particular life-cycle. They tend to become stillborn passengers after their first edits. Should we provide Mentors to lead them through the first years on Wikipedia? The funny thing is that all this Mentoring has a tendency to be counter productive. You do not become a Wikipedian under the hands of a friendly long-term Wikipedian. You are strangled in this strange new world.

Recruiting the better community – a history of wonderful blunders

The Wikimedia Foundation has financed numerous attempts to solve the problem of the shrinking core-community. We need, of course, more women on Wikipedia. I still remember the Gdansk Wikimania in the hot summer of 2010. Sue Gardiner was rocking the community in the spotlight of the dark arena – she: high heeled, vibrant, energetic, ready to play the role of the sexy icon this community wanted to see. She looked back on our years of growth and promised more growth: Women on Wikipedia. What a cool promise.

Nothing happened but that was not the end, it was rather the justification of ever-new attempts to change Wikipedia. A censorship debate ran through Wikipedia on the particular note of Wikipedia’s blatant sexism that needed to be wiped out before we could become more attractive to all those new user groups.

We sent Wikipedians into the classrooms of German Gymnasiums where they could meet our dearest customers (and our most embittered enemies): all those pupils who exploit Wikipedia as their ideal copy-and-paste resource in their homework (and their teachers (who know Wikipedia since that is the site they use to prepare their classes)). The pupils were puzzled to meet people who would rather write an article than exploit such work. Why the hell would they volunteer to write stuff others will need for their copy-and-paste-homework?

Silver surfers tended to be flattered by the programs we directed at them, before they realized that Wikipedia was made by wisenheimers and fault-finders. They had thought that they could play this role on Wikipedia and now they were treated like school boys by a community of organised faultfinders.

The biggest project aimed at Indian university students. As we know, they can write English, have computer skills, plus: they exist in millions. “Campus Ambassadors” were sent to three universities in Pune. They persuaded the local professors who in turn persuaded their students write Wikipedia articles rather than conventional course work. 1,014 students opened their accounts on Wikipedia and started to do what they had been doing with their professor before:

Heading into September [2011], an increasing amount of problematic new material began to appear on English Wikipedia. Problems included copyvios, plagiarized passages, content mistakes and English language errors. In addition, many of the contributions were on topics in the areas of computer science and engineering, which were already well covered by Wikipedia’s native editing community.

India has copyright and plagiarism laws on the books, but they aren’t generally enforced, and many professors accept copy-pasted and plagiarized content from students. “Piracy is rampant here,” said one professor. “Students copy directly from books and get away with it.”
“Before the Wikipedia assignment, copy-pasting from the Internet was standard practice for all of us,” said one student.

Regarding plagiarism, one student said, “We routinely take other people’s work and pass it on as our own. This idea of illegality was alien.” /

Wikipedia – this should be said to avoid the notion that we had been expecting personal and original brilliance – Wikipedia is copy and paste information at its core. We delete all original research and we demand 100% information from external sources, yet from sources that have to be mentioned and that need to be presented, and this is where these students failed.

(I confess I invited my own students to write Wikipedia articles – and was shocked by the results. Students do not write their seminar papers for the public. They know only one reader of interest, me, their professor – the reader whose credit points they want to get and a reader who should know everything far better, so the paradox of all student work. I received bad work, work not worthy of Wikipedia.

Rubbing salt into the wound: Wikimedia the uncanny savior

Wikipedia, the encyclopedia, needs the Wikimedia Foundation – not as an editorial board. Wikipedians do almost everything from writing the articles to organizing a complex quality management. All internal conflicts are usually solved within the community and so are most of the external conflicts – conflicts with people, for instance, who feel unfairly treated by Wikipedia. How do Wikipedia projects manage this self-organisation? Wikis are fully transparent. Whatever you do on a Wiki, it is public. Whatever conflict you generate on Wikipedia, it will find an internal community that will publicly deal with it (the main reason why most Wikipedians prefer to remain under carefully protected pseudonyms).

Wikipedia needs the Wikimedia Foundation for all those things Wikipedians cannot do. They cannot accept money. Who would control them? Who can control people who prefer to act under pseudonyms? They can – secondly – not run the technical infrastructure. The can – thirdly – not claim to represent Wikipedia, whether in interviews with journalists, in negotiations with politicians, or in legal conflicts. Wikimedia needed an independent organization to step in and Wikimedia is that organization.

Things get messy wherever the Foundation begins to make far more money than it needs for these primary purposes. Should it pump 50 of the $50 million annual revenue back into he pockets of the 85,000 volunteers? That would be $588.23 on my account. Cool for a moment, but bad next year, when I will have to share the next rate with millions of Chinese and Indians who have suddenly opened their accounts on Wikipedia. Wikipedia will not become the first democratic lottery.

We could focus on our poorest authors – and become a medium of paid slave work.

We could fund all those Wikipedians who are committed to expensive research – and I think we have actually funded people who advertised their personal hobbies as community work.

Wherever we start pumping money into the work of Wikipedia authors (and Wikipedia photographers), we are compromising our own agenda: We want to become the collective source of knowledge and information, a source to be generated by all of us in a world in which the free sharing of information will be normal.

It would be far more clever to spend the surplus on good causes from emergency relief to the acquisition of stretches of the Brazilian rain-forests. That would be the bold statement that Wikipedia authors are actually volunteers.

We can spend the surplus on projects that will strengthen our communities. The annual international Wikimania gatherings are a cool thing, since this is where Wikipedia is as far away from Facebook or Twitter as can be. We are a community and we have a collective work to offer. We are creating something for the wider public. We should know each other for that purpose and we should see ourselves as a global community.

It is particularly good to spend Wikipedia generated money on projects that bring free knowledge into developing countries – though we should not harbor any illusions about our central product in this respect. Wikipedia is a wonderful reflex of Western education even where we are selling knowledge about Greenland’s Inuits or African Pygmy tribes. The knowledge Wikipedians tend to celebrate, Encyclopedic knowledge, is largely superfluous. We need it in the Western educational systems which we have been globalizing in order to measure people but we have no idea why anyone should know anything about Julius Caesar in the world of real problems. You do not repair a village pump with such knowledge. (Our article on water pumps is, unlike the Caesar article, short – an article no pupil has ever needed and no Wikipedian has seriously considered to provide.

Things are getting messy wherever our enormous financial surplus – the $50 of the $59 million – ends up in a production of self-proclaimed Wikipedia representatives. The annual fundraisers call for support of the different language Wikipedias. People spend some $10 or $50 to help all those who have been writing all these wonderful articles in their language. Fact is, the donations go straight into the pockets of the US-Foundation, which is now asked to give at least some of this money back to those who allegedly made it: to the national Wikimedia chapters who claim to represent the national communities of Wikipedians behind our individual projects.

Tretikov has found the right answer in the debate between her Wikimedia headquarter and the Berlin based German Wikimedia headquarter: What does this German headquarter claim? That it is representing Germany’s Wikipedians? Is that so? No. Germany’s Wikimedia functionaries have not been elected by the German Wikipedia community. She, Tretikov, has not been elected by a community but she has already taken the next step: She will not pretend to speak for any self-proclaimed Wikipedia community. A community of 90% males, of white nerds, a dying community – cannot claim to represent those who actually rely on Wikipedia, the global population. She is about to speak for all those who are not on Wikipedia, and they are the silent majority.

That being said…

I remain unimpressed. Firstly because I know that not even the visual editor will bring a significant change. We are speaking here of problem that have come to stay, of structural problems anyone can use since they are going to stay stable (unless we change our fundamental rules).

We should, however, discuss why we (if I may speak here as a Wikipedian since 2004) are this particular community and why want to produce this particular sort of knowledge.

Lila Tretikov may not want to represent those who created Wikipedia. Fair enough. But that will not give her the power to speak for the global community of internet users. And what do we know about these internet users? I guess they do all love Wikipedia, whether male or female, Christian or Jew. They seem to love our site, a site that has been produced by this particular community of male western nerds (give me a follow-up posting on why we have this community on Wikipedia). And can she speak for all those new users she wants to bring into Wikipedia? They are an imaginary army (though we might be dreaming of such an army).

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