Wikipedia is in decline: in terms of numbers of volunteers joining, of contributors leaving the project, and regarding maintenance of the quality of its articles and working against topical bias. Yet, students, journalists, Siri, Google and many more people rely on the online encyclopedia to look up quick information; women and men use Wikipedia in equal numbers. In turn those contributing are still overwhelmingly men, with 87 to 90 percent, mostly white, and located in the Northern/Western parts of the world.
Tom Simonite recently summarized the troubles Wikipedia is still facing in the MIT Technology Review: “Among the significant problems that aren’t getting resolved is the site’s skewed coverage: its entries on Pokemon and female porn stars are comprehensive, but its pages on female novelists or places in sub-Saharan Africa are sketchy.”
This ties back to the volunteers that make up Wikipedia and how they work, or not, with one another. I had the chance to listen to an illuminating case study by Heather Ford from the Oxford Internet Institute past week at IR14, the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR). She traced how one man and avid Wikipedian slowly turned into a “problematic” contributor as the labyrinth of bureaucratic rules and automated actions build into Wikipedia clashed with his own understanding and ultimately banned him.
Since 2007, Simonite writes, drawing on a study by Aaron Halfaker, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Wikipedia has been in decline and should update its motto from “The free encyclopedia anyone can edit” to ““The encyclopedia that anyone who understands the norms, socializes him or herself, dodges the impersonal wall of semi-automated rejection and still wants to voluntarily contribute his or her time and energy can edit.”
While changing the existing culture and habits of veteran Wikipedians might be harder and take more time, the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, has introduced technological support to attract and retain newbies.
Simonite describes a “Thank” button, in place since May, for acknowledging good contributions — and the first time a one-push button within Wikipedia gives positive rather than negative feedback.
Another tool to make first edits easier is the Visual Editor, implemented in July. It lets contributors see how text will appear before publishing while hiding the clunkier wiki-specific html which can be tricky to get used to even for those familiar with regular html. While the Visual Editor still appears to have software flaws, as Simonite writes, it was also rejected by long-standing Wikipedians as “patronizing.” The result: Wikimedia hides the Visual Editor as an opt-in version, leaving the old 2001 wikitext version as the default for potential newbies to deal with despite its reported problems.
Without an influx of new editors, the old Wikipedia community, as Simonite reports, feels overworked in trying to maintain the encyclopedia. Its quality is suffering and topical skews aren’t getting evened out without diversifying its pool of editors. Yet, as he paraphrases Sue Gardner, outgoing Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, “Wikipedia is one of the Web’s few public parks that won’t disappear.”
But the “parks” features to play with may remain on the current flawed level unless other players are more welcome and better able to join.
Our Wikid GRRLS project contributes to making sure that girls know about the opportunity to work with wikis to voice their knowledge, to give them the self-confidence that they can collaborate with each other and others, and to understand that they are actually desperately needed to build and maintain what might be the last encyclopedia online, as Wikipedia remains without competition thus far.