Fri 4 Dec 2009
The Wall Street Journal recently made news by publishing some results by Spanish researcher Felipe Ortega. Ortega crunches some numbers and finds a decline in the number of Wikipedia editors. The folks at Wikimedia decided to hit back (subtly) a few days later, basically arguing that Ortega is counting the wrong thing.
One of the issues the WSJ piece brings up is the question of whether the decline is the result of a lack of new material. In other words, some people argue that, with over 3 million articles in the English Wikipedia alone, it's hard to find new stuff to write about. Is this the case?
Guardian columnist Mark Graham thinks not. In a recent column, Wikipedia's Known Unknowns, he takes a look at geographical distribution of Wikipedia articles that have geotags:
Graham sees this as evidence that there's plenty left to write about. But I think he's missed the point. It's true, Wikipedia has not yet covered the entire domain of human knowledge. There are many places on the globe that aren't well documented yet. But that's exactly the point. The people who live in those places aren't well represented on Wikipedia (yet). And the people in heavy Wikipedia-using countries don't often go to those places.
Graham's map essentially shows that this is, in fact, a big challenge for Wikipedia. With 3 million articles, Wikipedia has largely covered the easy stuff. General knowledge and popular culture are comparatively well represented, and so is geographical knowledge in the parts of the world where Wikipedia is very popular. So the barrier is now much higher for someone who comes to Wikipedia looking for something to write about. Increasingly, that person needs to have some kind of relatively specialized knowledge, to have been somewhere relatively unique, and then has to feel able and willing to share that knowledge. Well, that's a high barrier to entry for a lot of casual users, and I think it's at least a part of the reason why Wikipedia's editor numbers have plateaued.
So, actually, the question isn't whether Wikipedia is running out of new material. It's not. The question is: who knows (and will write about) the material that isn't on Wikipedia yet?