October 2007

I think this recent clash between Wikipedia editors and webcomic creators is just the tip of the iceberg – we're going to see more frequent and intense clashes in the near future. Read the short article linked above to get the gist, but basically: a few Wikipedia users (one in particular) went around deleting many pages related to webcomics, saying they did not meet Wikipedia's notability guidelines. The webcomics community is angry, refusing to help with Wikipedia's fundraising efforts, trying to raise the profile of the issue.

As an observer, I love that this battle is happening. On the one hand we have editors who feel that it's their duty to police the boundaries of Wikipedia, and delete content they feel does not meet the notability guideline. On the other we have a community of content producers who, irrespective of any other measure of notability or popularity, perceive the intentional deletion of articles about their webcomics as a slight.

And rightly so. It is a slight. Someone with more power than most – in this case the user Dragonfiend – has applied an arbitrary interpretation of the notability guideline. Editors do this all the time, right? Well, it wouldn't be so problematic in this case except for two factors – and these are two fascinating factors that I think will continue to haunt and define Wikipedia in the years to come.

First, Wikipedia is wrestling with its openness as it grows. It wants to be democratic – indeed it has built its brand upon it. It's "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit". (Actually, right now that slogan strikes me as a little duplicitous. *Almost* anyone can edit, and someone may end up denying your edits in the end.) And yet the challenges of immense popularity have made people like Dragonfiend necessary. As the size of the encyclopedia increases, the problems of order and coordination also increasing. In Wikipedia's case this seems to have required increased activity by self-appointed editors who wield the power of interpreting Wikipedia's policies as they see fit. Check out, for example, this recent paper that documents the increasing use of Wikipedia's Talk pages to handle emerging problems of coordination. The arbitrariness of these interpretations, as well as the mere existence of people who, like judges and editors, can single-handedly influence the system, is clashing with Wikipedia's democratic, open, community-based ideals.

None of this would be as big a problem as it has been, however, if it weren't for the second factor I want to mention. This debate is a lens that magnifies the social and cultural position of prestige and authority that Wikipedia has come to occupy among certain stakeholders. The webcomics community, for example, probably wouldn't be so upset if their articles were not included in the latest edition of Britannica. That encyclopedia just has a different position as a sociocultural icon. Similarly, many (but not all) chemists, philosophers, and literature critics (and the like) might not be as upset if they were left out of Wikipedia (and indeed they are under-represented there), but would be aghast at being left out of Britannica.

To generalize (in a slightly unfair way): In 2007 the web is a platform for community to coalesce around their hobbies and interests, to push across geographic boundaries and form dense networks of content creation and sharing. For these sorts of web-enabled, tech-savvy folks, Wikipedia was supposed to be a safe haven where they could participate and be included on the same footing as everyone else. After all, these were the exact people who embraced the new model that Wikipedia represented when it was just taking off. And now that they're being pushed to the fringes as Wikipedia is forced (or chooses) to take on the character of a traditional edited publication, they're pissed. Who can blame them?

Via TechCrunch, I read about a fascinating piece of work by Robert Rohde that seems to suggest that Wikipedia's astonishing rate of growth over the last few years is slowing down a bit. Check out this page, complete with interesting info. graphics like the one below.

Wikipedia Edits

Reading through the comments about this both on the Wikipedia talk pages and WikiEN-l archive is pretty revealing. Many people are extremely passionate about Wikipedia and unwilling to accept the validity of any argument that is seen to besmirch its good name. That leads to a lot of silly counter-arguments based on rhetoric and ideology rather than data.

The interesting thing is that I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that the slowdown, if it really does exist, is actually a bad thing for Wikipedia. It's very hard to interpret statistical analyses of logfiles. For instance, Rohde's analysis seems to show that overall edits are down slightly, and that a higher percentage of edits are reverts of earlier versions. Without knowing something more about the qualitative nature of these edits, it's hard to assume this is some kind of 'Mid-Life Crisis' slowdown as TechCrunch suggests. This could be a sign of maturity – more well-reasoned edits overall, perhaps. Or it could be a sign of change in the nature of contributions (and contributors). Wikipedia may be attracting a large proportion of users who make fewer, more substantive edits rather than many tiny corrections. We just don't know.

Fantastic food for thought, though.