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Change over time

November 25, 2009 1 comment

The internet is in a tizzy about a recent study coming out saying that the number of people editing (i.e. presumably improving) Wikipedia is declining.

The explanations seem to break down in to two categories. The first is that work is being completed. Most of the general interest articles are “complete” and any further work requires input from a (relative to the overall editor base) small group of people with domain-specific knowledge. There’s not much more to say about a relatively static concept like snow angels, but there’s a lot more to know and a lot more being discovered every day about, say, exoplanets.

The second is that Wikipedia’s social structure itself is driving them away. It’s no secret that Wikipedia has a core group of editors that act like a sort of Illuminati, power-mongering, ruling council, with fierce infighting among factions. This makes becoming a serious contributor difficult as you will eventually run in to one of these chaps and not enjoy the experience. Particularly villainized here are the “deletionists” who tend to delete things that aren’t explicitly “encyclopedic”.

Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. When you define “encyclopedic” as being everything in the encyclopedia, then nothing will ever be added, because it isn’t “encyclopedic” (yet).

But deletionism must stem from one of two ideas. The first is that having too many articles on dubiously worthwhile topics will make Wikipedia huge and bloated. Given that Wikipedia maintains version control on every page, it already contains petabytes of utterly useless data. For example, here’s the version of the Bacon Sandwich article that was current in March 2007. Wikipedia already stores vast amounts of useless data, so that even if archiving tons of esoteric facts was problematic, deletionism isn’t the cure.

The other idea behind deletionism is that putting irrelevant articles on Wikipedia will somehow make it harder to get useful information from the site. I’m sure the analogy used would be something like, “Imagine a real encyclopedia that included every article you can imagine! It would be 12 feet tall or a thousand volumes. It would be impossible to use!”

But, of course, this misses the fundamental change in models between books and the internet. People get to an article one of two ways: by searching for it (like typing “The Alamo” in to Google) or by following a link to it (like the hyperlink from “Baseball” to “Softball”). So how does having a three-line Wikipedia page about some esoteric Swedish rock-pop-funk band from 1983 included in Wikipedia (to the chagrin of the deletionists) interfere with that? It doesn’t.

As we know, the internet fundamentally requires a model where you accede that there is too much information for humans to keep track of and just assume that efficient searching will allow you to turn up what you want. Ironically, these die-hard deletionist Wikipedians, who spend hours on the web, miss that point.

No, deleting articles that you deem “unencyclopedic” seems pretty obviously to just be another form of internet bullying.

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