Technology Review on Wikipedia’s decline

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wikipedia decline

The number of active editors is plotted over time for the English Language Wikipedia


Tom Simonite at Technology Review just published a great piece covering “The Decline of Wikipedia” where they cite my my work (published in American Behavioral Scientist, see also the free preprint) with GeigerMorgan and Riedl exploring potential reasons for Wikipedia’s declining pool of editors (see figure above).  In that work, we manually categorized newcomers to Wikipedia by the quality of their edits and built a set of models to predict which high quality newcomers would continue editing and which ones would leave the project.  We showed that the reason for the decline is not due to the the quality of newcomers but rather the reception they receive; newcomers whose work is immediately rejected and who are sent warning messages about their behavior don’t come back.  It looks like the dramatic change in 2007 corresponds to the introduction of counter-vandalism robots and automated tools in Wikipedia that were used to reject newcomers’ edits.


Kids these days: the quality of new Wikipedia editors over time

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I just posted an entry in Wikimedia’s blog explaining part of a study I’m working on with some Wikimedians (Wikipedians working at the Wikimedia Foundation). In response to speculation that the English Wikipedia’s editor decline could be the result of a general decrease in the quality of newcomers to the site, we performed a hand-coded evaluation of the first few edits performed by editors over time.

Overall, we found that the quality of newcomers has not substantially decreased since 2006. While the rate at which these good newcomers have their contributions reverted or deleted has been rising over time, the survival rate of good new editors has been falling. This supports our working hypothesis that the increased rate of rejection for new editors is causally related to the decline in the survival of new editors.

See the full report here:

This analysis is part of a larger contribution in submission to a special issue of American Behavioral Scientist on Wikis. Stay tuned.

Bone growth as a metaphor for Wiki-work

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In the human body, there are two groups of cells that manage the production and refinement of bone. Osteablasts create new bone while osteaclasts break bone down. These cells are constantly working in parallel to manage our bone structure and repair damages. When a fracture takes place, osteoblasts come in to calcify the tissue surrounding the break. They aren’t very picky about what or where they calcify so you’ll end up with a large mound of bone where the break was. Over time the osteoclasts will trim and refine this bone down until the bone reacquires its original shape.

I feel that this is an excellent metaphor for how work is done in Wikipedia. There is a very large group of editors who do not make many edits on an individual basis, but they contribute the vast majority of content that makes it into the encyclopedia. They behave like osteoblasts in that they contribute large amounts of material but they don’t have the experience to know what sort of content is encyclopedic. A smaller group of more active members of the encyclopedia (Wikipedians) perform the role of osteoclasts by trimming unencyclopedic content and refining what is left over into coherent articles.

In order for a human to have a healthy skeletal structure, a balance between bone formation and bone trimming has to be maintained. In the same way, the balance between content contributors and content refiners in Wikipedia must be maintained.

Monitoring Wikipedia Conflict

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We’ve been exploring the effects of conflict among the editors of Wikipedia pages. As part of that research, I’ve been looking for Wikipedia talk page activity surrounding conflict events. I find the discussion between editors and their motives (expressed or apparent) gives insight into how conflict events grow and affect the participants.

A rather interesting example that I followed for the last couple of days is a conflict over the inclusion of content in the article about COMET, a web architecture paradigm. This particular conflict can be characterized as “inclusionists vs. deletionists“. One side wants all possible information to be available; the other side wants all content that doesn’t fit the strictest standards to be removed. The two opposing views are characterized by their preferred versions of the article (inclusionistdeletionist).

One especially interesting characteristic of this particular conflict is the way that the request for comment was handled. A link to the diff between the inclusionist and deletionist versions of the page was submitted to (a news aggregation site) where the link was promoted quickly to the front page. Whereas it is much more common to simply ask other Wikipedia members to get involved in the discussion, this approach brings in a wider audience and shows them the side of Wikipedia that, usually, only dedicated editors care to see.

If you have the energy, I recommend looking through the request for comment section of the talk page. This discussion is a fascinating example of how editors from around the world, that work for free, can hold a reasonable discussion about what does and does not belong in an encyclopedia.