Stop dissing Wikipedia

Graph from Matthijs den Besten‘s talk “Wikipedia: the organizational capabilities of a peer production effort”

Yesterday a digital media pundit told me that in a few years time “all the articles on Wikipedia will be locked down”. I was bemused, especially since I was using Wikipedia as an example of what can be achieved by mass consensus, in contrast to authoritative or editorial voices. I seem to be encountering more and more Wikipedia naysayers. I can understand why this might come from people invested in older styles of knowledge gleaning, but why would media pundits think this? It might just be iconoclastic tendencies, or a desire to stand out by criticising something we all love.

Personally I haven’t made many edits to Wikipedia. I have made some, from correcting grammar on the Eminem page through to adding a mnemonic to the page on the OSI seven layer network model, but even fewer have survived. In any case I use Wikipedia daily and love it. I’m not saying Wikipedia is perfect. There are articles where including all sides of a debate feels odd. For example, I gave a talk about social computing at an IWF board meeting in May 2005 where I compared the entries about pedophilia in Encarta  (which may require a subscription) and Wikipedia. The Wikipedia article included a list of organisations advocating pedophilia, the Encarta article did not. But even that criticism is lessened if one reads the current version of the Wikipedia article, where references to pedophilia advocates have been moved to a separate article.

The graph at the head of this post is the other Wikipedia analysis that bothered me, though it is clearly not as crass as the “all the articles on Wikipedia will be locked down” quote. In his talk titled “‘Wikipedia: the organizational capabilities of a peer production effort” at the recent OxIS / Ofcom Social Networking Conference Matthijs den Besten used that graph to show how Wikipedia is getting more bureaucratic, more businesslike. But does it show that? It certainly seems to; but let’s factor the the size of Wikipedia into den Besten’s graph. We know the numbers of administrators over time and the number of articles over time so we can look at the number of administrators per article. This seems to go from 0.000526 (i.e. 40/76,000) at the end of the third quarter of 2002, down to 0.000191 (i.e. 1013/5,300,000) at the end of the third quarter 2006. So the out-of-control increase in the number of administrators presented by den Besten is in fact a decrease of over 50% in the number of administrators per article.

I guess the strapline for this post is ‘don’t believe the naysayers’.


2 Responses to “Stop dissing Wikipedia”

  1. mldb Says:

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for this. You are absolutely right that my graph does not prove that Wikipedia is getting more bureaucratic. But your ratios do not disprove it either.

    First of all, absolute size matters. Provided we can equate administrators with managers, keeping all these manager types more or less on the same page can be done informally for a dozen people but needs guidelines, procedures and what have you once you’re dealing with several hundreds. The deletionist zealotry of some administrators or the incident in which a complete town in the US was blocked from editing Wikipedia might be an indicator that the managers are currently not adequately managed.

    Further, it would seem likely that many of the articles in the long tail of the encyclopedia are dormant. That is, they have reached a satisfactory quality, are read relatively infrequently and are hardly changed at all. Sure, those articles won’t require much bureaucratic interventions. However, what matters more in perceptions of bureaucracy is the likelihood that someone who edits a page is rebuffed by someone else (e.g. ratio edits/reverts) or the likelihood that people encounter papes that are restricted (e.g. percentage of top 100 articles in terms of page views that are locked). A recent paper (“talk before you type” by Viegas et al) shows that the ratio of non-article pages relative to article pages is rising; this may not be in indicator that people talk before they type as the authors suggest but does indicate that Wikipedia is drifting from the core business of writing articles.


  2. How bureaucratic is Wikipedia and is it getting worse? « Tim’s Zen Blog of Sparseness Says:

    […] I posted an entry bemoaning the recent ‘criticisms’ I’d heard of Wikipedia, and in particular […]

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