Think of wiki, and most people automatically add -pedia. The popular understanding of Wikipedia is of this somewhat controversial source of information that is both deep and unreliable, where a few people do the work and everyone else benefits. Of interest recently is how age and acceptance is changing both the perception and activity around Wikipedia.
A trailer for a documentary on Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is having a mid-life crisis of sorts. Robert Rohde reported that much of the constructive activity—article edits, new accounts and uploads—are in decline, as are some of the signs of controversy, such as blocks, protection and deletion. The most notable increase is in edits to revert to a previous state, a sign of spam or inanity.
There are two ways to interpret this, of course. Either Wikipedia is actually in decline, or that this is a natural stage of community evolution. I believe it is the latter.
First, there are several new tools that effectively re-paint Wikipedia in new norms. WikiScanner got a lot of press this summer by using IP lookups to take the anonymity out of some key edits, but that isn’t the only new Wikipedia tool for new discovery. WikiRage is a new website that keeps track of the top 100 article edits in a given period of time. This can show what stories are getting the most attention. Further, it is coded to identify articles with a history of vandalism, those under dispute, and current viewership. The wiki dashboard is PARC project to improve the attribution of an article by visually showing the editing activity detail of its authors.
The arrival of these tools onto the scene changes what people can know about the Wikipedia site, improving the accountability and making more transparent the meta context behind each article. When the environment changes, so do the agents as they adapt to their surroundings. The WP stats decline could be due to a combination of factors, ranging from new roles to the elimination of masking behaviors. I’m anxious for Rohde or someone else to do a follow-up in six months.
Second, there is evidence that the traditional roles are evolving. Anonymity began as an inherent right, and moved toward symbolizing deception and bad intent. According to a recent Dartmouth study, however, anonymous users contribute as Good Samaritans. Again, this may be a sign that people are adapting to the current environment, or it could be that the pool of anonymous users has been pruned of its worst element.
Evolution also implies death, at some point. Wikipedia has some competition. It is nothing new to have someone upload some files, write some community rules, and claim to be better. Sustainability is the big concern, but it is a knife that cuts both ways. The Wikipedia community is divided into two primary groups: editors and consumers. The former is loyal but very diverse. It is common to suffer from burnout or move on to other projects. If one of those projects is something like Citizendium, the content may start to materialize. The latter group is going to Wikipedia now because (a) they have heard of it, and (b) it comes up highly placed in Google searches. As search paths change, so too could startup encyclopedias find some traction and Eric Goldman’s prediction of failure by 2010 will come true.Tags: Citizendium, evolution, Robert Rohde, transparency, Wiki Dashboard, Wikipedia, WikiRage, WikiScanner