December 24th, 2014
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: email@example.com
The basic cause of the decline is the English Wikipedia’s increasingly narrow attitude as to what are acceptable topics and to what depth those topics can be explored, combined with a narrowed attitude as to what are acceptable sources, where academic & media coverage trumps any consideration of other factors.
I started as an anon, making occasional small edits after I learned of WP from Slashdot in 2004. I happened to be a contributor to Everything2 at the time, and when one of my more encyclopedic articles was rejected, I decided it might as well go on Wikipedia, so I registered an account in 2005 and slowly got more serious about editing as I became more comfortable with WP and excited about its potential. Before I wound down my editing activity, dismayed by the cultural changes, I had done scores of articles & scores of thousands of edits. And old Wikipedia was exciting.
You can see this stark difference between old Wikipedia and modern Wikipedia: in the early days you could have things like articles on each chapter of Atlas Shrugged or each Pokemon. Even if you personally did not like Objectivism or Pokemon, you knew that you could go into just as much detail about the topics you liked best – Wikipedia was not paper! We talked idealistically about how Wikipedia could become an encyclopedia of specialist encyclopedias, the superset of encyclopedias. “would you expect to see a Bulbasaur article in a Pokemon encyclopedia? yes? then let’s have a Bulbasaur article”. The potential was that Wikipedia would be basically the summary of the Internet and books/media. Instead of punching in a keyword to a search engine and getting 100 pages dealing with tiny fragments of the topic (in however much detail), you would get a coherent overview summarizing everything worth knowing about the topic, for almost all topics.
But now Wikipedia’s narrowing focus means, only some of what is worth knowing, about some topics. Respectable topics. Mainstream topics. Unimpeachably Encyclopedic topics.
These days, that ideal is completely gone. If you try to write niche articles on certain topics, people will tell you to save it for Wikia. I am not excited or interested in such a parochial project which excludes so many of my interests, which does not want me to go into great depth about even the interests it deems meritorious – and a great many other people are not excited either, especially as they begin to realize that even if you navigate the culture correctly and get your material into Wikipedia, there is far from any guarantee that your contributions will be respected, not deleted, and improved. For the amateurs and also experts who wrote wikipedia, why would they want to contribute to some place that doesn’t want them?
…What sort of editor, with a universe of fascinating topics to write upon, would choose to spend most of his time on the policy namespace? What sort of editor would choose to stop writing articles?38 Administrators with minimal experience in creating content – and much experience in destroying it and rewriting the rules to permit the destruction of even more. Is this not almost the opposite of what one wants? And imagine how the authors must feel! An article is not a trivial undertaking; sometime sit down, select a random subject, and try to write a well-organized, fluent, comprehensive, and accurate encyclopedia article on it. It’s not as easy as it looks, and it’s even harder to write a well-referenced and correctly formatted one. To have an article deleted is bad enough; I can’t imagine any neophyte editors wanting to have anything to do with Wikipedia if an article of theirs got railroaded through AfD. It is easier to destroy than to create, and destruction is infectious. (In the study [Thurner et al 2012](http://arxiv.org/abs/1107.0392 ” Emergence of good conduct, scaling and Zipf laws in human behavioral sequences in an online world“) of 3.3 years of the online SF game Pardus, players were found to ‘pay it forward’ when the subject of negative actions; the community was only saved from an epidemic of attacks by the high mortality & quitting rate of negative editors – I mean, negative players39.)
…The problem with devoting this much effort to Wikipedia is not that your time is wasted. If you get this far, you’ve absorbed enough that you know how to make edits that will last and how to defend your material, and this guy in particular is making edits in areas particularly academic and safe from deletionists; and your articles will receives hundreds or thousands of visits a month (see stats.grok.se – I was a little shocked at how many page hits my articles collectively represent a month).
The problem is that the benefits are going entirely to your readers. It’s a case-study in positive externalities. Unlike FLOSS or other forms of creation which build a portfolio, you don’t even get intangibles like reputation – to the extent any reader thinks about it, they’ll just mentally thank the Wikipedia collective. When you make 10,000 edits to your personal wiki, you will probably have written some pretty decent stuff, you will have established a personal brand, etc. Maybe it’ll turn out great, maybe it’ll turn out to be worth nothing. But when you make 10,000 edits to Wikipedia, you are guaranteed to get nothing.
No doubt one can point to the occasional Wikipedia editor who has benefited with a book contract or a job or something. But what about all the other editors in Wikipedia:List of Wikipedians by number of edits?
To again turn to myself; when I was pouring much of my free energy and research interest into improving Wikipedia, I got nothing back except satisfaction and being able to point people at better articles during discussions. I began writing things that didn’t fit on Wikipedia and got a personal website because I didn’t want to use some flaky free service, and the world didn’t end. I now have an actual reputation among some people; on occasion, people even email me with job offers to write things, having learned of me from my website. I owe my current (very modest) living to my writings being clearly mine, and not “random stuff on Wikipedia”. I’m not saying any of this is very impressive, but I am saying that these are all benefits I would not have received had I continued my editing on Wikipedia. Now I occasionally add external links, and I try to defend articles I previously wrote. Once in a blue moon I post some highly technical or factual material I believe will be safe against even hardcore deletionists. But my glory days are long over. The game is no longer worth the candle.
Wikipedia is wonderful, but it’s sad to see people sacrificing so much of themselves for it.