Sunday, March 11, 2007

Why do people edit Wikipedia?

I mentioned sourcing as the solution to the credentialing problem in my last post. And in thinking about some of what I wrote there, it occured me that Wikipedia's greatest problem has to do with "goal management" in the community. Wikipedia not only suffers from the lack of a meaningful goal statement itself (it defines itself as "a multilingual, web-based, free content encyclopedia project", but that doesn't really set measurable goals for the community), but also suffers because, in my expectations, the personal goals of many of its contributors do not align well with the overall project goal.

Really, why do people edit Wikipedia? And I don't mean "what draws people to Wikipedia". I want to know why people stay at Wikipedia. What addicts people to this site? And how does the personal pursuance of whatever personal wants these people are satisfying through their participation help make Wikipedia more of a "free content encyclopedia"?

I suspect that one of the major motivators is the desire to show off one's own knowledge. Quite a few people (including a number of the so-called "active contributors" who are currently claiming the right to VestedContributor status) are exercising this motive. And that's fine -- up to a point. There are at least two problems that come out of participants who are acting out of this motive. One of them is the tendency to claim ownership rights on one's own contributions. For these people, their contribution list, and especially their list of "featured articles" or otherwise specially-recognized content, becomes a substitute for penis size, and they thereby become unreasonably possessive of the articles they craft. They may also attempt to subvert the quality recognition processes in order to ensure that their own content is more likely to be favored with designations of quality, again in order to boost their own importance.

Another is the tendency to doggedly defend what they "know to be true" even when doing so is not defensible. Sometimes it's just due to lack of sourcing -- I could write a lot about computers, or electrical systems, or any of many other topics, based on my work experience, but I couldn't source most of it because I've learned what I know by osmosis, and don't have reference materials to back it up. Quite a lot of Wikipedia's content is of this origination. If Wikipedia had a dedicated corps of fact-checkers and fact-sourcers, this wouldn't be a problem; such articles would merely be treated as unverified drafts, presented as such, and eventually cleaned up to the next level. The problem is that that doesn't happen. The lack of such a corps is why the English Wikipedia has about a 9:1 crapticle:article ratio right now. As long as most of the content on Wikipedia is in the nature of "verbal diarrhea" (which so much of it is) this won't easily change.

Another major motivator is the urge to belong. Especially in the past year or so, Wikipedia has become one of the "places to be" on the Internet, and a large number of people have been attracted to Wikipedia for reasons that have rather little to do with Wikipedia being an encyclopedia. I have, in the past, referred to this as "playing the Wikipedia MMORPG". By and large, these people are teenaged boys, and virtually all of them are vandalism patrollers, some to the exclusion of all else. They have brought with them a number of undesirable dynamics: an expectation of hierarchy, a quest to achieve rank, a tendency toward dogmatic, unthinking application of rules, a propensity toward hazing those below them in their perception of the hierarchy, and a near-complete failure to understand the real purpose of Wikipedia in anything but the most superficial of ways. (That is to say, they usually claim to understand that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, but have no idea what that means, and they have no grasp of board policy principles, only the specific statements made in individual policies.) I strongly suspect that PDD spectrum disorders are pervasive in this element. The sad thing is that these people are eminently useful to Wikipedia: they tend to be organized and follow clear process well, many are good at analyzing detailed data, and they generally do not mind doing repetitive tasks over and over again. We should put them to work sourcing articles; instead, we expect them to manage interpersonal conflict, which by and large they are really really bad at, and to deal with vandalism and trolls, which requires more diplomacy and discretion than the average member of this group can produce.

Another motivation, not entirely unrelated to the above, is to be important, powerful, influential, or even just noticed. I think this explains the Essjay situation to some degree. It can also explain a lot of trolling (since trolls typically do what they do in order to be noticed) as well as the addiction to drama that seems to pervade certain segments of the Wikipedia community.

Other motivations include the desire to overthrow the copyright system, or even to overthrow capitalism, a genuine interest in creating free content, and altruistic desires to create something of value for mankind. These people tend to be more likely to have an appreciation for the broader principles of the project. And they tend to run into trouble because they're the minority in the community.

The main failing, in my opinion, is Wikipedia's failure to erect a structure that can be used to channel the people in the second group into useful work. I am reminded of the death of the CommuniTree (see Shirky's article). The near-total lack of rules and structure on Wikipedia at the time these teenaged boys started flowing in meant that these children could not be channeled into useful work by an existing structure; had there been one most of them would have either flowed into it willingly or else rejected it and left. Because no such structure existed, they created one. And the one they created is designed not toward the purpose of creating a quality encyclopedia meeting certain fundamental core values, but instead toward the purpose of playing the Wikipedia MMORPG. Many of the current problems in the Wikipedia community is that there is a large, active subcommunity which views itself as having vested rights and which is pursuing goals that are at least somewhat at odds with the foundation goals of the project.

Fundamentally, Wikipedia needs to contemplate what the motives of its editors are, and find ways to discourage those whose motives are unproductive or which tend to work at cross purposes to the project's purposes. I don't think much effort has been put into understanding why people edit Wikipedia; in most cases we don't know at all, and where we have any clue it's based on voluntary responses to a survey, which often fails to reveal self-serving or otherwise "undesirable" motives that respondents don't want to admit to.

The conclusion I keep coming back to is that the wide-open unrestrained editing model that Wikipedia started out with simply will not lead to long-term reliable quality. Worse, the community structures that have evolved in recent months seem designed to entrench the current miasma of low-quality articles; I fear that without major change Wikipedia has reached the endpoint of its evolution.

It's a shame that Meatball is down at the moment; there's a lot of good stuff there that is pertinent to this discussion.