"Wikipedia is strangling itself"
October 24, 2013 8:08 AM   Subscribe

 
"The foundation’s campaign will bring the first major changes in years to a site that is a time capsule from the Web’s earlier, clunkier days, far removed from the easy-to-use social and commercial sites that dominate today."

Arg, no. Wikipedia is massively easier to use than 90% of the sites I encounter daily. Please don't mess with one of the parts of the web that works spectacularly well.
posted by escabeche at 8:17 AM on October 24, 2013 [48 favorites]


There are already comments on the article pages. I died a little when I saw that.

I can't argue that the site has a crushing layer of bureaucracy separating a well-meaning newbie from meaningful contribution, though. Gotta try something.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:19 AM on October 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


"The number of active editors on the English-language Wikipedia peaked in 2007 at more than 51,000 and has been declining ever since as the supply of new ones got choked off. This past summer only 31,000 people could be considered active editors."

Is this a problem? In 2007, there were lots of topics that tons of people (OK, tons of US people with good Internet access and free time) knew a lot about, and which still had scanty converage on Wikipedia. I think that's just kind of not true anymore. Maybe 31,000 active editors -- combined, of course, with the massive long tail of people like me who change something on Wikipedia maybe once a year -- is enough to keep up. Maybe this is the steady state. Not everything has to grow exponentially in order to survive.
posted by escabeche at 8:21 AM on October 24, 2013 [47 favorites]


It might be declining in terms of numbers of editors, but I think the quality is far higher than in the past. These days I'm surprised to come across any vandalism, or any dubious claims without a [dubious - discuss] or [citation needed]. So the bureaucracy seems to have certain upsides too, while having the unfortunate effect of discouraging new and more diverse participants.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:22 AM on October 24, 2013 [7 favorites]


Although a barrier to entry is probably a good thing, I would never say that Wikipedia is easier to use than 90% of the sites that I encounter.

Take adding photos to articles for example. There is a museum I like in Japan. The Wikipedia page had a pretty terrible photo of an interesting outdoor display. I had taken a better photo, so I tried to upload it.

Even though I was logged in, I think I had to upload my photo to Wikimedia Commons, and I had to create a Wikimedia Commons account first. After that I was able to insert the photo into the entry.

The dumb thing was that I could not use the same photo in the Japanese-language entry of the article. I had to re-upload to the Japanese Wikimedia Commons site (after creating a new user id, etc).

It's not that I don't understand why this is so, but from my point of view I would never say using Wikipedia is "easy."

Even Wiki markup is going to be a barrier to entry for most people.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:27 AM on October 24, 2013 [10 favorites]


The fallout from the whole Chelsea Manning thing is pretty awful.

Well, unless you're a proper Wikipedian, in which case it's pretty great because lots of bureaucracy was generated and those that cast scorn on bureaucracy in favour of getting things done or doing the right thing were properly punished.

Hardcore Wikipedia editors and admins are the fucking worst.
posted by Artw at 8:29 AM on October 24, 2013 [16 favorites]


Maybe 31,000 active editors -- combined, of course, with the massive long tail of people like me who change something on Wikipedia maybe once a year -- is enough to keep up. Maybe this is the steady state. Not everything has to grow exponentially in order to survive.

I think it's possible wiki has a steady-state, but for now it still seems to be growing, and if the no of editors is in decline I feel like that will only lead to burnout. Plus the lack of diversity I think is a real problem in as much as you're getting stuff like more and better articles on the Pokemon ecosystem than the entirety of sub-Saharen Africa.
posted by Diablevert at 8:33 AM on October 24, 2013


Love reading Wikipedia, hate contributing. Two years ago I steeled my nerves and wrote a well-cited, properly formatted article about a notable, non-controversial subject. There was so much absurd back-and-forth with a slew of nitpicking editors during the review process that eventually I just gave up. A few weeks later I saw someone else's article on the topic was published, and of lower quality than the one I'd created. Ha.

I think there's a bit of a hairy arm phenonemon that goes on with the zealous Wiki editors -- they feel they're not doing their job if they don't find something to critique.
posted by BurntHombre at 8:36 AM on October 24, 2013 [11 favorites]


Interesting. Wales' previous project nupedia solicited expert articles only. The following is a complete list of its articles one year after its startup:

Case-Based Reasoning
Pylos
Procopius of Caesarea
Vergil
The SNOBOL 4 Programming Language
Herodotus of Halicarnassus
Charles S. Peirce
Classical Era (music)
atonality
Irish traditional music
the Donegal fiddle tradition
Hydatius

Only Borges would group these items together.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:45 AM on October 24, 2013 [17 favorites]


Sorry (not) to disabuse you all but the quality of the information on wikipedia is pants. Earlier this week they promoted to Good Article status a geology article which amongst other nonsense implied that granite could be formed by a lava flow. Also in this weeks news is an appraisal of the maths article on polynomials (it got F-).
http://wikipediocracy.com/2013/10/20/elementary-mathematics-on-wikipedia-2/

Subject experts were driven off the site in 2008/9 and the articles are now written using the "Cut-up technique" (irony of link noted).

Mostly they have all the right words but they're not necessarily arranged on the page in the right order.
posted by lilburne at 8:48 AM on October 24, 2013 [12 favorites]


One of the surest signs that the Internet is basically failing: there is only ONE Wikipedia. A lot of other Web Monopolies that absolutely should NOT exist if "open source"and "open access" are to be meaningful, but this is the most obvious.
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:50 AM on October 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


MIT's Technology Review Charts the decline of Wikipedia.

Yeah, but what do they know? Wikipedia says MIT is a clown college.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:50 AM on October 24, 2013 [13 favorites]


This Tech Review article is great and worth a full careful read. The linked Aaron Halfaker study has some good data and graphs, too. Wikipedia is an essential, excellent resource for human knowledge. It's too important to let wither away. (Related: if you ever travel take a copy of Wiki Offline with you on your phone. 4G of English download later and have instant access to articles about wherever you are. So great.)

I particularly appreciated the discussion of the drama surrounding the visual editor. Wikipedia insiders actually succeeded in suppressing an easy to use editing tool for dubious reasons. OpenStreetMap went through a similar cultural question this year with the excellent new iD web based editor. But where Wikipedia rejected an easy-to-use editor, OSM embraced it, and it's been a huge success. (The difference? The iD editors were smart about getting buy-in, and also I think the nature of map data makes casual contributions more appreciated than Wikipedia articles.)
posted by Nelson at 8:52 AM on October 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


On a recent airline flight I kept myself amused by pressing the RANDOM button on my wikireader. Unlike the phone, the batteries last over 100 hours and if you open it to tap the serial port you can program it in Forth.

I guess this article means I don't need to worry about updating the image on its uSD card too soon?
posted by localroger at 8:57 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


One of the surest signs that the Internet is basically failing: there is only ONE Wikipedia. A lot of other Web Monopolies that absolutely should NOT exist if "open source"and "open access" are to be meaningful, but this is the most obvious.

Not true. There's Conservapedia, Uncyclopedia, Metapedia, Encyclopedia Dramatica, Scholarpedia...

Granted, they all suck and are far from objective, but that's not the idea. The reason for the centralization of this knowledge effort is also the primary purpose of the Wikimedia Foundation: The crowdsourcing of knowledge in a manner that makes it universal and as close to objective is theoretically possible.

If you have dozens of Wikipedias, then the content of all will suffer, and you can see this if you visit those other sites I mentioned (which, aside from Scholarpedia, I would not recommend).
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 9:06 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Even Wiki markup is going to be a barrier to entry for most people.

This is a great point, KokoRyu -- I was thinking of ease of use from the viewpoint of the reader, not the contributor; the linked article may also have had the contributor in mind, in which case, I agree, modding a Wikipedia article is somewhat harder than (e.g.) updating my WordPress blog or tweeting.

Sorry (not) to disabuse you all but the quality of the information on wikipedia is pants.

My view on this is no doubt colored by my subject area, but wikipedia has created a resource of mathematical exposition like nothing else that's ever existed. I have a Ph.D. in math and a case full of math books and nonetheless I look something up on Wikipedia once or twice a day. If it is pants, it is, like, fine wool Italian pants, at the very least.
posted by escabeche at 9:07 AM on October 24, 2013 [37 favorites]


Plus the lack of diversity I think is a real problem in as much as you're getting stuff like more and better articles on the Pokemon ecosystem than the entirety of sub-Saharen Africa.

I think part of the problem is that there just aren't as many English-speaking potential article writers for sub-Saharan Africa as there are for Pokemon, and conversely there is less of an audience for reading those articles. MetaFilter is a much more diverse than Wikipedia is in terms of demographics, but it's not as if posts about Africa outnumber posts about video games here.

I think being a Wikipedia editor is enough of a pain that it mostly only appeals to a particular sort of person and that's the main reason for the lack of diversity. And I'm not sure that there's much Wikipedia can do to make being an editor appeal to more people. Like the article said they tried a WYSIWYG editor to help people avoid having to use their markup, but they designed it for theoretical people who might contribute to Wikipedia if they had such a feature rather than for the existing editors who actually had to use it. The core reasons why someone wouldn't want to be an editor on Wikipedia today, which is baby-sitting a huge number of articles that are already written, are mostly inherent of the task itself and not easily fixed by adding features.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:07 AM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've pretty much bailed on stackoverflow for the same reason. I tried to ask a question and an editor forced me through about 8 revisions and then decided that asking about how best to setup a portable re-creatable development environment using tools like VMs and Vagrant was too chatty.

Gatekeepers always got to be gatekeeping.
posted by srboisvert at 9:10 AM on October 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


All libraries are, eventually, burned.
posted by aramaic at 9:10 AM on October 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


All libraries are, eventually, burned.

In the Delmore Schwartz sense?
posted by clockzero at 9:15 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's an interesting challenge to adjust the culture of a website with relatively subtle interface changes. I hope they do manage to get it to open up again, wikipedia is such a fantastic thing.

I like the idea of positive feedback for edits. I wonder if a "flag" sort of button like people are more used to would be worthwhile, which would just bring a problem to an existing editor's attention. Then if they fix it up, you get a "Thanks!" message or email with a little box showing you the markup they changed. It's a much lower barrier to useful contribution, and seeing a few similar fixes with the encouragement to try it yourself next time might make the markup less daunting. ("Make an account now to bank these Contributor Points!")
posted by lucidium at 9:26 AM on October 24, 2013


I've pretty much bailed on stackoverflow for the same reason. I tried to ask a question and an editor forced me through about 8 revisions and then decided that asking about how best to setup a portable re-creatable development environment using tools like VMs and Vagrant was too chatty.

I think the problem with Stack Overflow is how so many questions are asked by people with no clue what they're doing, so in order to address this issue the site is moderated so that only incredibly specific questions that include tons of code are allowed through. And nearly all of the responses are sharpshooting details in the question to prove that the premise of the question is wrong instead of answering the actual question.

The result is that the information in each post is almost completely worthless to everyone but the one person who asked the question.

I think this is an example of you can moderate the usefulness completely out of a site even if you have noble intentions.
posted by zixyer at 9:27 AM on October 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


@oneswellfoop totally. One wikipedia with one article per topic is an anachronism.

Ward Cunningham is on the case.
posted by ethansr at 9:38 AM on October 24, 2013


I'm one of those former editors who gave up and ran away. I still love Wikipedia, though, and use it daily.

What drove me away was a combination of crazy people, stupid people, and terrible, terrible writing.

Crazy people: I have had long arguments with people who refuse to accept that the 1974 reorganization of county administration in England has any force in law, and insist on using, for instance, pre-1974 postal designations that simply do not exist anymore. I've had a long, long argument with a lunatic who insisted not only that the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin was so-called because "Gay" means homosexual, but that this ridiculous "fact" was somehow of importance in an article about "Red Hair". This person had polluted dozens of other articles with similar idiocies -- he renamed the article about "The Deschutes River" in Oregon to "The Chutes River" because "Des" means "the". I mean, come the fuck ON. It should be easy to permanently zap these idiots, but it is not.

Stupid people: the opera-singer pages were constantly being destroyed by nitwit fans of various pop stars who wanted to endlessly argue about whether their favorites were technically "sopranos" etc. or not, and compiling endless lists of pop stars in those articles, as if "soprano" is a valuable way to think about Katy Perry or Christina Aguilera.

Terrible writing: I still believe in Wikipedia, but its primary value is in the sources. Any article is only as good as its sources, and when I go to an article now I look straight for them and ignore most of the content. As a way to view information about movies, for instance, I find it much easier to use than IMDB -- but no amount of love nor money could get me to read the impossibly bad plot summaries that go on for hundreds of unparagraphed lines.

Similarly, if I want to know what Miles Davis record came out right before "Sketches of Spain", I'll look at Wikipedia -- but I'll double-check the fact, because Wikipedia has no conception of discographical or bibliographical standards, and frequently lists records as being released in the year they were recorded. Other specialist sources like discogs are taking over -- but Wikipedia is still a good place to get directed quickly to related information, like other records by Lee Morgan's drummer on this record, or other trumpeters on Blue Note, or what have you.

Trying to read a medical article on Wikipedia is a joke, as you have seemingly every medical student in the world eagerly typing in the entire contents of their textbooks. This leads to extremely technical articles that have no relevance for ordinary users who just want to know what shingles is or whatever. The long details of chemical reactions and so forth have no place in a general encyclopedia.

And that's the problem: lots of editors, but almost no GOOD editors, people who are not mentally ill, not thick as two planks, able to write readable English sentences, not afflicted with kook agendas, aware of current trends in research and able to translate that awareness into readable articles.

Good footnotes, though.
posted by Fnarf at 9:40 AM on October 24, 2013 [37 favorites]


What seems to work best for imparting knowledge on the web is a site where someone writes up a little blurb about a subject they have some knowledge about complete with linking articles and so forth. Then the interwebs get to comment on that topic, some folks themselves being subject matter experts with unique insights, others are internet trolls, some ardently defend of arguments hastily pieced together from wikipedia pages and google searches, others furiously pound-out axe-grinding screeds vaguely related to the subject matter, and still others "contribute" in jokes, bad puns, and terrible attempts at humor.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:44 AM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


its primary value is in the sources.

Yeah, that's a really important point. And doubly impressive if you remember the Long Long Ago before articles were expected to have sources. The whole "citation needed" culture seems obnoxious sometimes, but having sourced statements makes Wikipedia way more useful.
posted by Nelson at 9:44 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


"This is the 10th edit you've made to the 'Pokemon Porn' page. In order to contribute further information on 'Pokemon Porn' we ask that you contribute either:
A) at least one approved edit to one of the following ten low-rated wikipedia articles: 'Jane Austen', 'sub-Saharan Africa', etc...(refresh list)
or
B) contribute at least 4 lines of new information or one photo to one of the following ten articles designated as a 'stub': 'white-lined sphinx', 'Pamela Zoline', etc...(refresh list)"

There, FTFY
posted by sexyrobot at 9:44 AM on October 24, 2013 [8 favorites]


I left before there were footnotes; it sucked not to have them, and to have everything unsourced, but when they started using them they deleted a lot of pretty good stuff that had been written by knowledgeable people in the early days. You could make a pretty interesting site by recovering older versions of articles that were more informative than the current versions.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:47 AM on October 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think part of the problem is that there just aren't as many English-speaking potential article writers for sub-Saharan Africa as there are for Pokemon, and conversely there is less of an audience for reading those articles. MetaFilter is a much more diverse than Wikipedia is in terms of demographics, but it's not as if posts about Africa outnumber posts about video games here.

Well, I think that sort of goes to the point of an encyclopaedia: shouldn't it's coverage be driven by what's important for people to know, and not just what people feel like writing about? This is a website specifically designed for chit-chat; the criteria for a good submission is basically "the readership thinks it's nifty". The level of interest/noteriety is certainly part of the criteria for what makes it into an encyclopaedia, but I can't help but feel like covering important stuff the average person doesn't know much about is a factor, too...it seems like as the site matures that looking out for those kinds of lacunae ought to be an important part of what the editorship's role...

I think being a Wikipedia editor is enough of a pain that it mostly only appeals to a particular sort of person and that's the main reason for the lack of diversity. And I'm not sure that there's much Wikipedia can do to make being an editor appeal to more people.

Don't you sort of answer your own question? Like, if it was less painful, more/different people might want to do it?

Like the article said they tried a WYSIWYG editor to help people avoid having to use their markup, but they designed it for theoretical people who might contribute to Wikipedia if they had such a feature rather than for the existing editors who actually had to use it.

I see where annoying your existing base is a problem. But if that's the concern, why wasn't making the mark up text an opt-in for existing users the solution? They'd still get to use the tool they were comfortable with. Instead they coalesced around making the WYSIWYG editor opt in --- so that the default presented to a newbie is the mark up text. It seems obvious that they wanted ability to use the mark up text to be a kind of threshold barrier to help keep out the riff raff. It's a tool to enforce in group norms.
posted by Diablevert at 9:49 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


For about two and a half years I was a pretty active and actually began to drift off not long after the peak in 2007. By that time, I had discovered that the best and most enjoyable way to work on Wikipedia was to find a topic that did not have an article and create it. The majority of the time it can be done smoothly and without any one contesting the editing of X sentence or the framing of Y subject. Maybe later someone comes along, but it's a way to be an editor and to get a lot out of it. The second best is to find a topic that's just a stub and flesh it out with the same general results.

I also agree with the consideration that at its peak, there was still a number of topics that had no articles. Due to working as a Capitol Guide, I had a wealth of knowledge at hand concerning the US Capitol and ended up creating or expanding a number of articles related to the Capitol (and teary eyed, I see some of my poor photographs still remain!). The opportunity to establish new articles was a definite drug of use.

Every year it's the same analysis, though, the bureaucracy, the bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy, and that's the plain gist of it. The problem is that most new users are very likely to land on articles that are well established, have several hovering editors (clicking on Watch List every fifteen minutes), and then make rookie mistakes. The result is generally either just immediate reversal of the new edits or immediate reversal and condemnation.

Even for someone like myself, someone with a reasonable amount of experience and even interactions with the bureaucratic systems, they are a complete and total pain in the neck. While I drifted away generally due to having my attention drawn elsewhere, the latent hostility and self righteousness in the behavior of other editors, along with variable cliques didn't help keep me in town.
posted by Atreides at 9:50 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Making cites easier to add is one of the few areas where improved UI might help them, since everything in Wikipedia revolves around cites now, to the point where there should be a pop-up which appears telling you "the paragraph you have added dies not appear to contain a cute and most likely will be deleted, are you sure you don't want to add one?" if you try just adding plain text.

Bolds, italics, headings etc... on the other hand anyone could pick up.
posted by Artw at 9:52 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


As examples of "other Wikipedias", there's also Citizendium, created by Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, and Sourcewatch, which is actually pretty good.
posted by Jacob Knitig at 9:55 AM on October 24, 2013


Wikipedia, who needs it - everything I need to know about how to live an enriched, meaningful and wonderful life comes from Metatalk anyway.
posted by Annika Cicada at 9:58 AM on October 24, 2013


I only edited one entry and that was to add that Sinfest started at UCLA.

I usually start researching something of interest with Wikipedia, but it was always just a starting point. The references were useful and the text provide leads to better searches for source material. In that way, I find it a useful encyclopedia that has improved with time.

I have no idea where it'll go from here, particularly as technologies improve to the point where whatever evolves from Siri/GoogleNow/Satori/Cortana starts answering your questions like the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer in The Diamond Age (and yes, I just linked to Wikipedia for the reference - we ain't there yet).
posted by linux at 10:07 AM on October 24, 2013


I am a lifetime writer and editor for radio, television, and print. I have many years of teaching and mentoring university students for writing skills. A decade or so ago, I thought about contributing some specialized knowledge and editing to Wikipedia. I quickly surmised that there was a large bureaucratic/political/argumentative group of "manager" types behind the org, so I left soon after creating an account.

Wikipedia is a great source for general knowledge and catch up on many subjects. It is certainly not comprehensive on everything...but it IS the modern day equivalent of the encyclopedia that was in almost every home (well, there was a money barrier to entry in those days...encyclopedias were massively expensive!).

So props are due Wikipedia: there is no monetary paywall of some sort that bars lower socio-economic folks from entry.

I still reference it often. E.g., I just looked up the Patagonia region of Argentina because a relative is going there. It provided a great base of knowledge for me. But it's just that: a base and a start. I'm not really concerned about who edited/contributed to it, reliability of sources, and any bureaucratic movements behind the article. I gleaned the general information and moved on to other sources and specifics once I had that general knowledge.

It was the same in academics...and even a "rule" in many universities: "You need five citations in your paper and you may not use an encyclopedia." The basis there is to encourage students to (learn how to, and) research for a paper or study.

An encyclopedia is a general source of information; start there, and if you need more, move to other sources.
posted by CrowGoat at 10:09 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think it's a fascinating thing to watch a bureaucracy that vast and convoluted spring up out of nothingness, and an equally fascinating project to look for ways to combat policy creep and bureaucracy growth. I'm FB friends with a guy who works for the Wikimedia Foundation so I've seen a few of their discussions about this, but I'm not sure how many of what I see as the needed changes to Wikipedia are things the Foundation can actually do.

But if you were to give me absolute control over Wikipedia, both policies and interface, basically make me Wikipedia Dictator (I think this needs to be termed "Wiktator") for a day, the changes I'd make:

-Notability requirements: gone, crushed, buried, annihilated, never to return. This is a holdover bit of snobbery which is mainly justified by wanting Wikipedia to attain the lofty heights of a "real" encyclopedia like the Encyclopedia Britannica, which totally fails to recognize that A.) notability requirements in "real" encyclopedias only exist due to the physical limitations which Wikipedia does not suffer from and B.) in any meaningful sense, Wikipedia has long since surpassed any "real" encyclopedia in existence anyways.

Going to Wikipedia and trying to make an article about [favorite pet subject] and getting the article deleted because it doesn't pass some established editor's nebulous criteria for notability is probably the biggest, most common newbie-unfriendly experience in Wikipedia. The ludicrously inconsistent application of the rule (see Pokemon ecology) just makes it seem even more unfair, as does the appeal process which basically just seems to boil down to a popular vote of users on whether or not an article is notable "enough".

Wikipedia's not limited by physical size. Hard drive space is cheap, new users are precious. New notability rule: if something is notable enough that someone actually wants to make a page about it on Wikipedia, it's notable enough to be on Wikipedia.

If I could pinpoint one thing which I think is holding back Wikipedia more than anything else I'd say it's their Notability Requirements and all the attendant attitudes.

-This article has been worked on by [#] editors: I'd make this a big number up in the top corner of the page somewhere. It would only count people that substantially contributed content to the page, not folks who made minor grammatical edits or reversions. I can figure out for myself that a page written almost entirely by 1 person is more likely to be unreliable and/or biased than a page that dozens of people have worked on; what's a lot harder to do on Wikipedia is to actually come up with that number.

-Re-Aim the Established Editors: Established editors tend to focus their attention on newbies. Example: a newbie writes or edits an article; an established editor who knows all the Wikipedia guidelines helpfully (or not-so-helpfully) pops by to tell the newbie everything they're doing wrong and how to do it correctly. Even if it's well-intended and kindly delivered (it's often not!), this kind of education is much more hostile to the recipient than letting them learn by osmosis and seeing examples. "Lurking" is the time-honored and overwhelmingly common way of learning website norms for a reason. The editors, rather than going after the newbies, can just make whatever improvements to the article themselves, and if they're not familiar enough to actually improve the article they're more likely than the newbie is to know another established editor that will know something about the subject. In short, established editors focus less on educating newbies and more on improving articles and letting newbies lurk. (Note: "improving" in this discussion does not mean deleting or removing content unless it's unambiguously incorrect or vandalism, see Notability requirements.)

-Newbie quests: Wikipedia, as they say, has lots of gaps. Now, a sensibly-run Wikipedia would recognize that pretty much any article that has any kind of sources and doesn't just say DICKSDICKSDICKSDICKS is going to be better than no article, so in those gap areas the threshold for improving an article should* be much lower than it is in established articles. (*but in practice, the existing notability requirements mean this is not always true, either) Then it's just a matter of guiding newbies towards areas where they are more likely to "succeed", i.e., figuring out what kinds of stuff they know something about that Wikipedia doesn't already have tons of info about. Ways to do this vary, but you could set up an optional poll - maybe combined with the process of setting up some sort of Facebook-ish "account profile" where you lay out your interests and hobbies and places you've lived (the NSA thanks you!) and Wikipedia suggests some areas where you might be able to make some valuable contributions. Admittedly it might be tough on the egos of nerdy white dudes (like me!) who get the "sorry, everything you know anything about is already covered in vast excruciating detail" quiz result but I bet they'll survive.

-Also, since I'd be Wiktator I'd probably just permaban a bunch of the shittiest, most obnoxious, pedantic and hidebound editors I could find. And possibly have them drawn and quartered as an example for the rest.
posted by mstokes650 at 10:12 AM on October 24, 2013 [16 favorites]


My experiences of Wikipedia have been positive, on the whole. Interesting that someone else has had good experiences by creating articles from scratch or from a stub; that's been most of my active Wiki work, and it's actually very satisfying to see a decent-enough but necessarily short entry on something that you've contributed being fleshed out by others,

I disagree about the value of the medical entries. I've asked various doctors about the advisability of using Wikipedia for research into this or that condition, and almost all of them were positive about it - "it's reviewed fairly rigorously", one said. The normal Wiki caveats apply: use it for a jumping-off point or as an overview, but as such it's valuable.

As for the imbalance and the bureaucracy, the vandalism and the idiots: Wikipedia's a lot like London. It has these things and it's pleasing to fantasise about life there without them, but really - how would you do that without killing the damn place stone dead?
posted by Devonian at 10:19 AM on October 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


Another semi-lapsed editor here; I started contributing around 2004, with the peak being in the period between moving to the UK and getting a job, when I was sitting in a sharehouse with a broadband connection and depleting savings. I recall that I contributed a lot of articles about Melbourne indie bands and Australian underground culture; then my contributions tapered off. Some years later, the deletionists won the Wikipedia wars and a significant chunk of my contributions were deemed non-notable and expunged.
posted by acb at 10:26 AM on October 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


I am in love with the concept of Wikimedia Commons as a resource for copyright-free images for use in artwork; in practice, it is a little hit or miss.

I am saddened by how difficult it is to add photos as per KokuRyu, and by how many users and occasional editors of Wikipedia don't even realize they can donate their images as well as text content. The search feature in Wikimedia Commons is also really clunky; typing in "cricket" will get you sports photos, typing in the full scientific name of one type of cricket may or may not get you a photo or two, typing in the family name will get you a wide array of images.

Most of my art students have switched to Flickr Commons, which is much, much easier to use and search but has a dearth of contemporary color photos.
posted by vegartanipla at 10:27 AM on October 24, 2013


Sorry (not) to disabuse you all but the quality of the information on wikipedia is pants.

The quality of an article is seemingly inverse-related to its popularity. So an article on tetanus toxin (or the tetanus toxoid, or the tetanus strains) is going to be more accurate and less full of fluff than say, an article on a famous diner.

The science majors at my small college were told that wiki was trash about 5 years ago and high schools forbid its use prior to that.

Now, I can grab the information on a reaction that I need without having to sift through a wall of textbooks to have at it. Hopefully, schools change course, when wiki is used for suitably obscure things of course.
posted by Slackermagee at 10:28 AM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Urban Dictionary is Wikipedia's sweaty armpit.

That's all I came in here to say.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:49 AM on October 24, 2013


Wikipedia suffers from a culture driven by aggression. It doesn't seek aggression, but the community that has developed over the years privileges users who are willing to fight, loudly and long, for their preferred content, policies, etc. Not necessarily in the sense of user rights, but in the sense of users getting their way. This preference for aggression is often mistaken for a preference for male users, but I am of the opinion that Wikipedia suffers less from a gender gap than from an asshole gap, and that the asshole gap just happens to align better with cultural expectations of men than of women.

This means that those who can't/won't fight - or who don't realize they need to - find themselves trampled far more often than is healthy. This manifests in everything from changing an article ("You added a fact without a citation! I'm reverting you!", where the "Wikipedian way" would be to come back with proof of your fact and re-do the edit, but the more "normal" reaction is "huh, I guess they don't want my contribution, ok") to content discussions ("Skeletons totally fought in World War II!" "Uh, no they didn't..." "Yes they did and oh by the way I know where you work because I sussed out your IP, maybe I should call your boss and tell him how wrong you are?" "You know what, this isn't important enough for me to get harassed in real life over") to policy and software discussions ("The visual editor could be a really good tool for new users, and -" "You didn't clear that with us. Go away." "Well but I intended it to -" "No. We don't like it. And we didn't sign off on it."). Yes, those are all slight exaggerations, but not as much as you might like to think.

Being an active Wikipedian is long periods of boredom punctuated by alternate periods of frothing aggression and, if you stick around long enough or get involved enough in discussions, threats to your real-life safety or livelihood.
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 10:51 AM on October 24, 2013 [9 favorites]


New notability rule: if something is notable enough that someone actually wants to make a page about it on Wikipedia, it's notable enough to be on Wikipedia.

I think the problem with that is that unless you are okay with no quality control over obscure articles, it's going to be a problem to set the minimum notability level at zero. For example, under your rules someone could make an article about their ex-spouse that lists a bunch of personal but publicly available information about them. Or just in general, if everyone could make a Wikipedia page about themselves then a ton of people would, and editors would have to police the edits to those pages.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:52 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


I used to hate the Notability requirement, but now I think it's kind of just a restatement of No Original Research.

A page meets No Original Research if and only if it has cites for its claims. A page with adequate cites meets Notability, because all of those sources have written about it.
posted by Jpfed at 10:56 AM on October 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


The quality of an article is seemingly inverse-related to its popularity.

I'd also suggest that, on average, the popularity is correlated to the asshattery among editors. I've actually had some positive experiences working collaboratively with other editors on small, esoteric articles. On the other hand, I just don't get popular articles (e.g. Barack Obama or New York City). You've got to deal with all the BS in force, along with the churn of article content. On those articles, many hours of good work are destined to be gone in weeks or months as the article is reworked and edited. In a way, they are two entirely different Wikipedia experiences.
posted by crapmatic at 10:58 AM on October 24, 2013


Oh, God. Barack Obama. I can't imagine a subject I would enjoy looking up on Wikipedia, or digging into the History and Talk on, less. If it was up to me, the article would say "President of the United States" and stop there -- though even that would be the subject of endless acrimonious debate. Go somewhere else for that kind of info. Like a book or something.
posted by Fnarf at 11:04 AM on October 24, 2013


The fallout from the whole Chelsea Manning thing is pretty awful.

I'm sad that several editors that were fighting transphobia were banned from editing transgender topics, but let's step back for a moment. The Bradley Manning page was moved/renamed to Chelsea Manning on October 1 based on the merits of the arguments. I, as an outsider, who doesn't really care about the internal debates, see that as a win. All the trolls complaining about Chelsea not being her legal name (and all the other various nonsense) were shut down.
posted by Rhomboid at 11:18 AM on October 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


@escabeche

You aren't reading the maths articles, you are skipping though them for the bits you already know you want. Try reading them as someone who is attempting to learn some mathematical subject. In such cases the articles are unintelligible, and as such are useless. The articles are primarily being written and maintained by undergrads who are showing off.

The articles should be written for the middle to high schooler. Not for the specialist mathematician who has access to other resources. What has been done is to effectively made a resource useless to most people. Its quite shameful in fact.
posted by lilburne at 11:19 AM on October 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm surprised no one's mentioned Wikia and other similar projects. With a specialized Wiki for every popular media franchise out there -- Wookiepedia, Memory Alpha, Halopedia, Lostpedia, Minecraft Wiki, even MeFi Wiki -- there's a huge distributed pressure release valve for all the pent-up demand for hyper-detailed articles on arcane universes that don't really belong in a general-purpose resource.

Also, I've found that TVTropes is a marvelous resource -- not just for identifying and reading about tropes over MANY, MANY HOURS, but for getting a fun, concise, user-friendly introduction to even the most obscure TV, movies, and games. Wikipedia's great for technical background, but TVTropes cuts right to the chase telling you what something is about, what the tone is, its consensus place in pop culture, and other subjective but useful information like that. And not just for media stuff -- its finest buried treasure is a UsefulNotes category giving the same treatment to biographies, sports, sciences, national profiles. It's like a budding Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy versus Wikipedia's staid Encyclopedia Galactica.
posted by Rhaomi at 11:23 AM on October 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


Regarding the terrible writing on film pages Fnarf mentioned, I actually remember a fair number of film and literature pages that used to include actual criticism (discussion of symbolism, writing background, influences, etc.) enjoyable to read, which all got deleted sometime around 2005?ish in favor of the now standard inane, overly literal plot summary format, in which every "objective" event of a story is just kind of listed without much thought given to significance. It was really a waste of potential.
posted by byanyothername at 11:28 AM on October 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


Try reading them as someone who is attempting to learn some mathematical subject.

Try reading the dictionary if you want to learn English. It doesn't work. Which is fine, because that's not what a reference book is for.

The articles should be written for the middle to high schooler.

The article on Verdier duality should not be written for the middle to high schooler. It should be a place for me and people like me to look stuff up. The article on the quadratic formula should be written at a much more elementary level, and it is.

Not for the specialist mathematician who has access to other resources.

Speaking as a specialist mathematician, there has never before been a resource like Wikipedia, and I'm glad there is one now.
posted by escabeche at 11:28 AM on October 24, 2013 [12 favorites]


tl;dr: There's a Wiki for that
posted by Rhaomi at 11:29 AM on October 24, 2013


There is a huge amount of astro turfing. PR firms, corporations, professionals, etc.. who edit Wikipedia as their CV and marketing platform. They are not isolated cases, one recent case found a sock puppet with over 300 accounts and over 10,000 articles, all of them paid PR. The rules may seem tough, but these people are very, very difficult to deal with, and very persistent. Relax the rules (notability, coi, etc) and Wikipedia quickly succumbs to a wasteland of spam. The good Wikipedia editors who volunteer their time are woefully outgunned and overworked.

I suppose this thread is succor to anyone who feels they were wronged on Wikipedia, which is sort of like feeling wronged in traffic, cut off by some idiot while driving - have some patience and get a tough skin because the world isn't always fair and you just deal with it and move on because the rewards are ultimately worth it. The reward is your work and ideas are viewed by thousands of people - Wikipedia is an influence machine. Nobody promised that working collaboratively with strangers is going to be an easy experience where you always get your way. But you do learn a lot about working with people, including difficult people, like the idiot who stops at traffic circles and doesn't merge in with the flow.
posted by stbalbach at 11:36 AM on October 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


The English language Wikipedia's culture is bad enough, but even worse is the Dutch language one, ruled over by a clutch of vinegar pissers from Holland, with no clue about the importance of Belgian subjects, but still an itchy trigger finger.

These are also people who write science fiction as sciencefiction because that's technically correct in Dutch, never mind that nobody else has ever written it like this.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:38 AM on October 24, 2013


If Wikipedia (or anyone else) wanted to make a film reference site useful, they would skip almost all of the commentary and other text (unless the film is historically significant for some reason), and just include a still from the film of every character, with the name of the character and the name of the actor. What I want is a sort of reverse directory of actors, by their faces. How many times have you said to yourself, "that's that guy, that's whatsisname, the guy who played the motorcycle mechanic in that movie with the kids taking their musical recording to the studio, what's his name, dammit? Now I can't even remember the name of that movie."

Well, I have.
posted by Fnarf at 11:40 AM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


What drove me away was a combination of crazy people, stupid people, and terrible, terrible writing.

This. I used to love spending time burying myself in "improving" articles or creating obscrure new articles on Wikipedia. But anybody in their right mind who tries to make a serious contribution to Wikipedia eventually hits this brick wall of crazy plus stupidity plus awfulness. There is an inherent tension that has been present all along, but became especially marked when Wikipedia grew to a certain size and prominence -- Wikipedia says that it is not a bureaucracy, but it clearly is; and it says that its purpose is "to build an encyclopedia, not to test the limits of anarchism," but at the same time one of its "five pillars" is "ignore all rules"* (but, but! at the same time! -- don't try to "get around WP:CONSENSUS").

There are countervailing notions and pressures that are baked into Wikipedia's essence that are virtually impossible to resolve. (This isn't to say that I don't still visit Wikipedia every day; in fact I still visit it multiple times a day.)

* "Ignore all rules" was originally phrased as "If rules make you nervous and depressed, and not desirous of participating in the Wiki, then ignore them and go about your business."
posted by blucevalo at 11:43 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Openstreetmap is almost completely devoid of rules lawyering. If someone fucks something up, someone else just fixes it, no big drama. About the only things that will raise significant ire in that community are obvious vandalism and unilateral imports, and that second one has only developed in the last few months. Oh, if you ask, they will go on and on and on about tagging, but now that that one Wikipedian of the bunch has been banned from the mailing lists, it's not so bad because it's not a combative environment.

It really is amazing how it was just that one person fomenting all the grar, though. There are/were plenty of others who would participate once it got going, but removing that one individual stopped all that dead in its tracks.

If Wikipedia decides that it is good for Wikipedia to not allow editors to be flaming assholes to each other and enforces that norm by eliminating the few who reliably turn every discussion over policy into something more akin to a bunch of caged monkeys flinging poo than an actual productive discussion, it will become a much friendlier place to be an editor. The chance of that happening is about zero, of course, because at least half of the existing editors don't see a problem (cf. the new edit box, which at all times could be disabled, AIUI) and the Wikimedia Foundation refuses to exercise any control even when it is desperately needed.
posted by wierdo at 11:48 AM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


I suppose this thread is succor to anyone who feels they were wronged on Wikipedia[...] Nobody promised that working collaboratively with strangers is going to be an easy experience where you always get your way.

In a sense, yes, I guess, sort of. Can't argue with the fact that I (and obviously many of us) have some steam to blow off. But in another sense I think a lot of people here are discussing something that they respect and value, and you seem to be assuming from that discussion that they don't respect or value it. It's possible to actively participate in writing or using Wikipedia while saying "Wow, this aspect of it sucks" or "I wish I were a wiktator so I could change that other thing."

So I would say that it's inaccurate, at least from my point of view as someone who still actively edits, for you to characterize people's views in this discussion as necessarily expecting to always get one's own way or to not have to collaborate. Wikipedia is a great resource and a really fascinating innovation both technologically and sociologically. But that doesn't mean it doesn't suck in some ways, or that those ways don't involve aspects of both policy and people.
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 11:50 AM on October 24, 2013


MartinWisse: "These are also people who write science fiction as sciencefiction because that's technically correct in Dutch, never mind that nobody else has ever written it like this."

Well, Hugo Gernsback called it "scientifiction." Which is pretty close.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:05 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Openstreetmap is almost completely devoid of rules lawyering

I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that Openstreetmap is also almost completely devoid of people who insist that any street made after 1974 is invalid and should be removed, here, I've already removed them for you, look! I'm also guessing that there aren't a lot of people insisting that people drive on the right in Country X is because of The Gheys and this should be reversed, because it makes me uncomfortable, and the map should also be changed to reflect this change even though it hasn't happened yet. I'm guessing you don't have a large number of editors going around and changing the names of all the streets to the names of their favorite bands.

Mapping seems pretty uncontroversial. Surprisingly little on Wikipedia turns out to be.

Another example highlighting the problem of Original Research: I know the person who released the first record by [Famous Band Name]. The leader of [Famous Band Name] is kind of a loon, and in an interview once stated the wrong year of this release. The person who ran the label and put out the record knows the correct year, and has paperwork to prove it -- but can't edit the article because she has no reliable source other than herself -- Original Research, oh no -- whereas the wrong info has this printed interview as a citation, and the editor in charge of the article (self-appointed) is kind of a dick about it. This person I know could, I suppose, give an interview herself somewhere and try to get it into print, and then cite that, but instead what she has done is say "fuck this shit, I'm outta here".

Another kook who kept changing the name of the artist who created a well-known work of art to that of his father, insisting that it was really his work, got so far under my skin that I actually went out and purchased an obscure and expensive art book on the subject, just so I could look up the citation he gave and prove him indisputably wrong. So I can understand why editors are dicks sometimes.
posted by Fnarf at 12:06 PM on October 24, 2013


No one should be allowed to complain about Wikipedia's "no original research" rule without proposing an alternative that is not, "Duh! Common sense! This person obviously knows what she is talking about!"
posted by straight at 12:11 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


For instance, Fnarf, how is a Wikipedia editor supposed to know that the person who claims to have released that record by Famous Band Name is who she says she is and knows what she's talking about and is indeed right about that particular fact where the published interview is wrong?
posted by straight at 12:14 PM on October 24, 2013


Well, for starters, she scanned original documents and emailed them to the guy, but that's Original Research.
posted by Fnarf at 12:17 PM on October 24, 2013


On a related note, while participating in Wikipedia is way more trouble than it's worth, the various Administrators' Noticeboard pages are frequently hysterical.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:18 PM on October 24, 2013


...how is a Wikipedia editor supposed to know that the person who claims to have released that record by Famous Band Name is who she says she is...

Perhaps this is where some band of archivists could step up and arrange for documents to be published to some set of physical libraries?
posted by sammyo at 12:33 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wikipedia has the potential to eat its hosts. It sources its data from other authoritative websites, and then it becomes the authority itself, which kills the authority of those other sites over time because Google returns Wikipedia as the top result (or in some cases, several of the top results) for searches. It rarely references offline sources, which means that it is only aggregating information already online.

As the owner of a site that strives to be authoritative, that is very frustrating. My site is outranked by Wikipedia on Google for topics where all the Wikipedia information came from my site. Sometimes Wikipedia is plain wrong, but that doesn't stop an endless calvacade of yahoos telling me that since it's on Wikipedia, it *must* be true.

It is even more frustrating when Wikipedia takes an image file from my site, then Google returns that image on its own site when someone is searching for it. Google then doesn't return my site - the origin of the image - because it thinks that I took the image from Wikipedia.

Since it is a collective, there's not much you can easily do about this.

Wikipedia is like the Mall that killed the Downtown.
posted by RalphSlate at 12:36 PM on October 24, 2013 [8 favorites]


Perhaps this is where some band of archivists could step up and arrange for documents to be published to some set of physical libraries?

Yeah, what could possibly go wrong there?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:45 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


This article needs attention from an expert in Ancient Egypt or Philosophy/Ancient.

So we don't really know if the Library of Alexandria was destroyed or not, right?
posted by KokuRyu at 1:03 PM on October 24, 2013


Yeah, what could possibly go wrong there?

Actually, this entire Wikipedia article is a microcosm of the promise of Wikipedia, and all that is wrong with Wikipedia.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:04 PM on October 24, 2013


It is even more frustrating when Wikipedia takes an image file from my site, then Google returns that image on its own site when someone is searching for it. Google then doesn't return my site - the origin of the image - because it thinks that I took the image from Wikipedia.

I've seen images from a site I run uploaded to Wikipedia, but I reasoned its own use as being in the public domain. Is the photo from your site in the public domain? If not, you can always challenge its use, particularly stabbing away the Fair Use exemption. Surprisingly, there's a host of editors/admins who live by the will to remove all images deemed not properly sourced from Wikipedia. I had a photograph that showed the front and back of a Iwo Jima flag raiser's grave knocked out because there was concern that the bronze frieze on the back of it, which portrayed the memorial (or photo?) was not in the public domain. Yes, a photograph of a gravestone in Arlington National Cemetery of a headstone produced by the United States government, was deleted under this concern. So, yah, find the right folks and sic' 'em on the offending image if it's not public domain.

You can also find a neutral party to see if they're willing to footnote the material that's from your website in the wiki article. If it's genuinely sourced from you, then it shouldn't be a problem.
posted by Atreides at 1:50 PM on October 24, 2013


Mapping seems pretty uncontroversial.

Well yes and no. Maps are hugely controversial; national boundaries, neighborhood names, whether a particular path allows bicycles on it or is pedestrians only. And then digital maps have extra controversies over the way you label things, and the details of how you describe geometry. Just today I was reading about the right way to attach a street number to a building, there's several options and no consensus (except in Denmark where the Danish government has opinions.) And no one knows how to properly encode a single building with multiple addresses. So yeah, maps can be controversial.

But OSM seems largely free of controversy. I think there are lots of reasons for that, but my #1 theory is that it's because so much of the data is imported from other sources so there's not as much need for individual opinion and expertise. Also I suspect there are just far, far fewer editors and they tend to be geographically separated. (There's data to that question that could be analyzed.) Also until the easy-to-use iD editor launched the tools for editing the map were very fiddly so there was a much higher barrier to entry. It'll be interesting to see in a few months whether iD influences the type of contributions being made.

I still think it's absolutely outrageous that the Wikipedia insiders managed to suppress the Visual Editor. Wikimedia markup is terribly obtuse and confusing and inconsistent, triply so when it comes to adding citations and references. Deliberately sabotaging a tool that makes it easier for casual users to make useful edits seems to stand against everything Wikipedia claims to be for. I get that there's a problem with bad edits, but a technical barrier to editing like the markup filters for exactly the wrong kind of people.

Is Visual Editor as dead as the article makes it sound like? I thought it was gone from the site, but I did finally find it buried in my preferences page. With dire warnings about it being "beta". Is there still a plan to make it a primary feature that is enabled for all users?
posted by Nelson at 2:54 PM on October 24, 2013


Once the new Visual Editor is functioning well, I hope markup will become notably easier.

As always, there are MILLIONS of existing pages that are non-controversial and which will benefit greatly from added details and citations. The farther away they are from today's fashions, trends, celebs and received wisdom the better. Those pages are hungry for company and will grant you satisfaction for your efforts.
posted by Twang at 3:00 PM on October 24, 2013


There is a huge amount of astro turfing. PR firms, corporations, professionals, etc.. who edit Wikipedia as their CV and marketing platform. They are not isolated cases, one recent case found a sock puppet with over 300 accounts and over 10,000 articles, all of them paid PR.

arstechnica: 250 accounts deleted for paid promotions.

(109 comment thread from 3 days ago on hacker news)
posted by bukvich at 3:06 PM on October 24, 2013


> I'm guessing that Openstreetmap is also almost completely devoid of people who insist that any street made after 1974 is invalid

No, you get people insisting in putting in things that aren't there any more, like disused railway lines as active railways, former boundaries of amalgamated municipalities, and so forth. But the big drama of the OSM license change is behind us, and some people are in search of drama over iD because they think that JOSM should be the only editor. Mercifully, OSM is still a do-ocracy, and it's easy to revert changes that don't match ground truth.
posted by scruss at 3:11 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fnarf: Wikipedia has no conception of discographical or bibliographical standards, and frequently lists records as being released in the year they were recorded.

In my long experience compiling music information, finding reliable dates for many recordings (recording, release, chart #'s, etc.) can be extremely difficult before 15-20 years ago. Years, yes; months maybe; dates almost never. By 'difficult' I mean: can take hours to find.

Please illuminate us all on your conception of discographical standards by listing several public, unimpeachable sources on recording dates. Back to the late 40s would be adequate. Seriously, and a WP article on the topic would be a very welcome addition. Please drop me a mail so I don't miss this.
posted by Twang at 3:22 PM on October 24, 2013


Every now and then I remember it is free and I think ...hell, that's good value for no money.
posted by elpapacito at 3:31 PM on October 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well, for starters, she scanned original documents and emailed them to the guy

And you trust Wikipedia editors to be able to decide whether those documents are genuine?
posted by straight at 4:10 PM on October 24, 2013


No, you get people insisting in putting in things that aren't there any more, like disused railway lines as active railways, former boundaries of amalgamated municipalities, and so forth.

Does OpenStreetMap have no provision for defunct historical boundaries? I can imagine sound use cases for this (the path of the Berlin Wall being an obvious one).
posted by acb at 4:27 PM on October 24, 2013


unimpeachable sources

Brian Rust (in any halfway decent reference library) or Tom Lord, either one will do. Is 1896 far enough back for you?

For blues and gospel, Dixon and Godrich are the accepted standard. Cary Ginell has produced a number of unimpeachable books on country, western swing, and hillbilly records. Many individual artists in every genre have received more specialized treatment -- I have an incredibly detailed discography of every recording Louis Armstrong ever made, and another that details every recording Gary Usher, the surf music pioneer, ever played or worked on.

But I wasn't asking for precise dates, I was asking for just a quick glance at the year of release. This is not, or should not be, obscure information. Example: Lee Morgan's album "Standards" was released in 1998, although it was recorded in 1967. It even says so on the LP's Wikipedia page; but the main Lee Morgan page and his discography page say "1967", which isn't really true -- a recording is not a disc.

For chart numbers, there have been dozens of Billboard books in the US, and Guinness in the UK, over the years. All of the Billboard charts are available online. Before the Billboard charts began, the provenance of this information is shaky, as record sales weren't tallied -- only sheet music sales. But Joel Whitburn's "Pop Memories 1890-1954" covers this ground as well as is possible.

Brian Rust has a Wikipedia page, so there's no need to wait for an email from me. Not sure where your snark is coming from.
posted by Fnarf at 4:30 PM on October 24, 2013


And you trust Wikipedia editors to be able to decide whether those documents are genuine?

Is anything really real, man? Like, really really real?

If you are suspicious that someone is going to gin up a forged receipt from United Record Pressing in Nashville just to fake a date in Wikipedia...I dunno what to say to you. How do you know that magazine interview is genuine? Have you seen that issue of Rolling Stone with your own eyes? How do you know the forger didn't fake the copy you saw too? What if the ENTIRE INTERNET is a fake, running in the other room, just to fool you?
posted by Fnarf at 4:34 PM on October 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


Does OpenStreetMap have no provision for defunct historical boundaries?

Not really, not to my knowledge. There are some people interested in using the OSM approach for historical mapping though, see this OSM wiki page for instance. Still, some historical data leaks in. For instance there's an former railway in San Francisco that stubbornly persists in the OSM. Seeing it in a map is a sure giveaway the mapmaker is an OSM n00b, and every time I have to special case railway=historic in my code I swear a little. One interesting thing about OSM is much like Wikipedia, the data schema is quite freeform.

(I realize this OSM discussion is all a bit of a derail, sorry. Maybe we're due for an OSM post on MeFi.)
posted by Nelson at 4:43 PM on October 24, 2013


Speaking of snark, my response to you, straight, was too sharp above and I apologize for my tone. My point stands, though -- a business document should be plenty of confirmation for a minor factual point. And my broader point is that the way the guy attacked her drove her away from Wikipedia forever.
posted by Fnarf at 5:06 PM on October 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


the community that has developed over the years privileges users who are willing to fight, loudly and long, for their preferred content, policies, etc. Not necessarily in the sense of user rights, but in the sense of users getting their way.

Exactly. The TR article is good enough as far as it goes, but what really still needs to be studied and written about is the sociology of Wikipedia as a community of users (or I suppose as a set of interlocking communities in the different language Wikipedias). The encyclopedia and the Byzantine world of the policies aren't it; the active tendencies, ways of thinking, and culture of the site are a matter of a community of people and the behaviors they encourage or discourage. Fixing the way the site culture works isn't a matter primarily of either technology or policy, so much as user behavior and its cultural norms.

I suppose this thread is succor to anyone who feels they were wronged on Wikipedia, which is sort of like feeling wronged in traffic, cut off by some idiot while driving - have some patience and get a tough skin because the world isn't always fair and you just deal with it and move on because the rewards are ultimately worth it.

This seems pretty off-base to me, and also doesn't really account for the Halfaker study's interesting finding that well-intentioned first-time contributors just haven't been sticking around as much in the recent years of the project. The frustration of "feeling wronged" on Wikipedia for good-faith users who've left isn't usually just about personal pique; it seems more often, to me, about disillusionment. It's a big come-down from the way that the site and its community describe themselves, and sell themselves, as a public good that runs on voluntary public-spirited contribution, to the regular editing experience. Finding that there's actually a cavalcade of petty, endlessly involved, literally interminable bureaucratic bickering behind the curtain, and that the site will often enough just discard even the best-intentioned and best-written contributions unless you're willing to fight hard for them rather than just writing them, is a pretty understandable disappointment.

The reward is your work and ideas are viewed by thousands of people - Wikipedia is an influence machine.

Years ago when I was still an involved and invested Wikipedian I would've thought this attitude could be taken as a violation, in spirit at least, of WP:OWN. Isn't the really utopian idea that you don't own your contributions, that no one even cares that much who originally wrote which particular words as long as the articles improve — that it's a purely collaborative effort and each contribution is judged on its quality rather than its author? Granted that the project seems to drift further and further from this ethos as the years go by, but the idea that the ego reward of "influence" is the point of contributing, rather than just the public good of the encyclopedia getting better, seems a little sad to me.
posted by RogerB at 6:13 PM on October 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


That's OK, Fnarf. I was too busy being to pithy to make my point clearly.

The reason Wikipedia doesn't (and probably shouldn't) accept primary sources is that then the editors have to make a judgement call. In your specific example, it sounds like that would be a fairly easy and obvious call to make, but in a whole lot of cases it would not be obvious and then you have the nightmare of editors trying to figure out which primary sources are legitimate and which aren't.

With secondary sources it's just a yes or a no. The source exists or it doesn't. The responsibility for fact checking lies with whoever published the source, and the responsibility lies with the reader to decide whether the sources are trustworthy.
posted by straight at 10:02 PM on October 24, 2013


It doesn't seek aggression, but the community that has developed over the years privileges users who are willing to fight, loudly and long, for their preferred content, policies, etc.

That's an interesting point, but I'm not sure the problem is limited to aggression. I think that Wikipedia is Metafilter for some people in that it's where they go when they're not doing anything else in particular; some of those people are crazy, and their continued visits are enough to push their crazy into the site. The really unfortunate thing about this is that it's not always obvious. cue my one Wikipedia story...

I once was confused when I found the article for one-way mirrors was called "Two-way mirror" on Wikipedia. I checked the talk page to see if this surprised anyone and found a discussion about the terms; what I didn't realize until the end of the three-year thread was that there was just one guy - a super-active wiki user with talk pages longer than novels - arguing that "two-way" was correct and "one-way" was simply wrong.

I proposed a move, and within ten minutes the guy showed up to oppose it, even though he hadn't commented on the page in over a year. Eventually, after offering up some numeric (if not particularly convincing) evidence a passing mod put the move through, but it was a weird look into what goes on in Wiki-land.
posted by 23 at 12:30 AM on October 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've been thinking for a while about what's wrong the wikipedia's math pages, which are brilliant at explaining basically every math concept and field in existence -- if you already have a math phd. They're completely useless if you're a layman with an interest in math.

Just one example, but there are thousands of pages like this:

In mathematics, a symplectic manifold is a smooth manifold, M, equipped with a closed nondegenerate differential 2-form, ω, called the symplectic form. The study of symplectic manifolds is called symplectic geometry or symplectic topology. Symplectic manifolds arise naturally in abstract formulations of classical mechanics and analytical mechanics as the cotangent bundles of manifolds, e.g., in the Hamiltonian formulation of classical mechanics, which provides one of the major motivations for the field: The set of all possible configurations of a system is modelled as a manifold, and this manifold's cotangent bundle describes the phase space of the system.

Alrighty, then.

The real problem isn't just that the math articles are full of impenetrable jargon, but that there's really no way to 'get there from here'. You can just kind of randomly follow links, but all of them are written at the same level. For example, following the link to 'cotangent bundle' you get:

"In mathematics, especially differential geometry, the cotangent bundle of a smooth manifold is the vector bundle of all the cotangent spaces at every point in the manifold. It may be described also as the dual bundle to the tangent bundle."
posted by empath at 3:26 AM on October 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


there's really no way to 'get there from here'

I've been struck by this problem before as well. When I have time (heh), I'd like to see if there's a way to use NLP to determine which articles are most likely to be prerequisites for which other articles, forming a graph of dependencies. If that could be accomplished, then a topological sort of that graph would yield a good reading order for learning the material.
posted by Jpfed at 5:48 AM on October 25, 2013


there's really no way to 'get there from here'.

Well, that's not strictly true; the way to "get there from here" is to take a course in symplectic geometry. I mean, a sympletic manifold, that's something I didn't know what it was until -- well, I'm not even sure I learned it until after I got my Ph.D., and in general it's something I expect most mathematicians don't learn about before, say, their second year of graduate school. For a layman to understand what a symplectic manifold is, in any meaningful sense, would take hundreds of hours of work; because those words in the think you linked to are not just jargon, they are actual objects in the world which you need to understand and understand well in order to get what a symplectic manifold is.

In math there's no such thing as "just tell me what it is in plain English." It's a practice. You wouldn't expect someone who's never looked under the hood of a car to be able to figure out how to repair their engine by reading Wikipedia pages about it. It takes practice, and, very probably, interaction with somebody who already knows how to do it. I don't think understanding what a symplectic manifold is is that much easier than repairing an engine.

I mean, if for some reason it was vitally important that I had to tell you something about symplectic manifolds and I only had an hour and my life depended on it, I guess I would probably tell you what a phase space was, which I think I could do in that amount of time depending on what you already know -- more accurately, I wouldn't tell you what a phase space was, I would give you one example of a phase space -- and then I would say "and a symplectic manifold is something which is geometrically 'like a phase space' though it doesn't have to actually BE a phase space." But of course I would not have even come close to telling you what a symplectic manifold is.

In fact, the Wikipedia article actually does this, at the beginning of a section titled "Motivation," and what's more, links that sentence to Ben Webster's blogpost "What is a symplectic manifold, really?" which consists of notes from an introductory graduate course he was teaching -- so, not aimed at people who already have Ph.D.'s, but people who are just starting Ph.D.'s.
posted by escabeche at 7:18 AM on October 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


BTW, I'm reminded this morning that this conversation is greatly impoverished by the loss of Aaron Swartz.
posted by Nelson at 8:11 AM on October 25, 2013


I think the problem with that is that unless you are okay with no quality control over obscure articles, it's going to be a problem to set the minimum notability level at zero.

This often gets held up as a problem but it actually is self-solving - articles which are too obscure to have any quality control done are also going to be too obscure to have an audience. Sure, you could make a Wikipedia page about yourself, but how many people are going to bother looking you up on Wikipedia unless you're actually famous or important in some way?
posted by mstokes650 at 8:16 AM on October 25, 2013


You wouldn't expect someone who's never looked under the hood of a car to be able to figure out how to repair their engine by reading Wikipedia pages about it.

I grant your point about mathematics, but this is a poor analogy because it is in fact possible to learn how an IC engine works and how to troubleshoot and repair one by reading an introductory book on the topic. It's not a practice you can only master after years of familiarization with core topics; you can pick up the necessary core topics in far less time than it takes to take the engine apart and put it back together again.

I think the reason topics like synaptic manifolds look out of place on Wikipedia is the same reason it looks out of place that there is a 30,000 word article detailing every episode of some late 80's television series; that sort of information, like the very high level math, is far more detailed or directed than what you expect in a universal general encyclopedia. The print Britannica might mention at some point that synaptic manifolds exist but I doubt it would have the room to go into the detail the math wonks at Wikipedia have.
posted by localroger at 9:58 AM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


And if an encyclopedia were to tackle the subject it could go into great detail about how it came to be, who gets credit, implications, etc. And that would be fine. Encyclopedia! =textbook
posted by lordaych at 11:19 AM on October 25, 2013


Encyclopedia! =textbook

That's my problem with a lot of the medical articles, as I said above. Yes, they are factually accurate (I assume; I ain't no doctor) but they're inappropriate for a general audience, which just wants to know what is it, what's it look like, who is susceptible, how do you get it, should I see a doctor for it, that sort of thing. It doesn't need to be written for idiots, but it doesn't need to make me feel like an idiot either. But writing plain clear English is hard.
posted by Fnarf at 12:51 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wikipedia is a cyberspace version of what would happen with Lord of the Flies if you put Piggy in charge.
posted by jonp72 at 12:58 PM on October 25, 2013


If it wasn't for this thread, I never would have discovered Wikipediocracy, which has some very reasoned but still quite devastating critiques of Wikipedia and Wikipedia culture.

Things I found via Wikipediocracy include:

The obsession of xenophobic Norwegian mass murder, Anders Behring Breivik, with editing articles to push his extreme right-wing viewpoints, including a section on "Battleground Wikipedia" from his manifesto (link)

The banning of a longtime Wikipedia editor over disagreements over articles on Monsanto and GMOs (link)

A half-serious guideline published on Wikipedia itself about How to Ban a POV You Dislike in 9 Easy Steps.
posted by jonp72 at 1:21 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oddly enough, empath's mere excerpt of that Wikipedia article on symplectic geometry, together with escabeche's very helpful comment, have given me a better grasp of it (i.e. not quite zero) than I got buying Guillemin and Sternberg's book about it long ago, carefully reading the preface and introduction, and wistfully glancing through it occasionally over the years.
posted by jamjam at 2:38 PM on October 25, 2013


I more or less stopped making edits after being called a sock puppet by a group of editors who were running a smear campaign against another editor who disagreed with them on something, to the point of calling his local police and reporting him for things he'd written fiction about. The evidence that I was a sock puppet of the guy they hated, or his friends, was that my edit history was suspiciously free of the usual newbie mistakes. Nobody starts out making good edits, therefore my good edit history is proof that I'm someone else with a lot more history that I'm trying to hide. Not that, you know, I lurk a lot and don't find the markup syntax particularly difficult.
posted by hades at 11:49 PM on October 27, 2013


After a while, I think sock puppetry becomes the paranoia of every editor involved in an edit war of some sort or another. Just like paranoia, just because you think there are sock puppets, doesn't mean there aren't.


...but yeah, Wikipedia deserves a big "Barn Star for Running Off Potential Great Contributors" slapped on the front page.
posted by Atreides at 1:25 PM on October 28, 2013


BTW, I'm reminded this morning that this conversation is greatly impoverished by the loss of Aaron Swartz.

Aaron Swartz celebration/hackathon kickoff, Nov 8
posted by homunculus at 1:49 PM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


« Older Star Trek Meets Monty Python   |   Well reem, innit? Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments