Wikipedia: We’ve won. No tail-lights. Now what?

Wikipedia has won. Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone actually consults, ever. In fact, it’s the first in history that everyone actually reads, rather than just having fond high school memories of. Wikipedia now defines what an “encyclopedia” is in popular conception. Wikipedia conventions now shape the English language.

So we don’t have tail-lights to chase any more. What sets our direction? Do we just drift? What does “encyclopedic” actually mean when we can’t just point at Britannica and assume people will understand? “Do more of whatever it is we’re already doing” is the default for new recruits, but with no direction we risk going over a cliff.

It’s 2014. What is an “encyclopedia”?

For Wikimedia in general, we have a good vision statement with clear implications, and a mission statement which is only slightly adverb-hobbled. Neither has the necessary level of detail to accurately explain Wikipedia to the world as well as to ourselves.

Alec Conroy noted a few years ago, in a fantastic foundation-l post on the terrible content filtering idea:

The further we can get away from the model of elementary schools and towards the model of the global universities, the better.

This gives a conceptual model to work to: Wikimedia as the sum of all university libraries. Obviously, this is far from the complete answer — we already do both more and less than that — but it’s the level of vision we need to chase to automatically know what to do next.

What other examples do we have of conceptual goals on that level?

Edit: Hacker News comments.

22 Responses to “Wikipedia: We’ve won. No tail-lights. Now what?”

  1. Jordan Henderson says:

    Drifting is underrated and misunderstood.

    It doesn’t imply purposelessness, it means letting go of direction to allow random discovery.

  2. Tony Sidaway says:

    I still feel a little gooey sentimentality about Jimmy Wales’ informal mission statement: “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing.”

    It turns out that an encyclopaedia website that anybody can edit in their own native language is a very effective and popular way to do that. Wikipedia somehow blundered into redefining the field of human education. I don’t know that it had any more to add except to keep going. The Wikipedia model has “disrupted” the traditional propagation of knowledge, but I don’t think Wikipedians have any special expertise or insight in what they’re doing.

  3. Nile says:

    It’s 2014. What is an “encyclopedia”?

    Look it up on Wikipedia. Because the old definition of encyclopedia is an interesting piece of history, and it’s nice to know there’s an explanation with citations you can look up if you’re interested.

    The founder’s mission statement about the sum of human knowledge still holds water, and the working definition of Wikipedia’s output is that it’s a searchable source of explanations and summaries on everything and everyone significant enough to have accreted a mass of published information large enough to summarise and explain, with citations.

    How that output is created is as much a work in progress as the Wikipedia entries.

  4. David Macfarlane says:

    I don’t think that Wikipedia can be as comprehensive as you say unless and until the significance requirement is lowered. There are lots of interesting and relevant articles that are killed by exacting admins who think that Wikipedia’s scope shouldn’t be quite as, well, encyclopedic, as others. Wikipedia can be the place for well researched obscure knowledge as much as it can be an accessible place to find the famous stuff.

    Indeed, the more obscure information it supports, the more useful it will be in the long term as an accretive force for knowledge. Once someone has created a certain page for something obscure, over time others will add to that knowledge and make it more valuable.

    This is the advantage of bits over atoms – adding more content is far easier in digital documents.

  5. David Gerard says:

    Mmm. The trouble is, it got this way because of the firehose of shite and spammers. The problem doesn’t exist in isolation.

  6. John Broughton says:

    I don’t think we risk going over a cliff. I think the largest danger is having an ever-decreasing number of editors responsible for an ever-increasing number of articles.

    What we *should* be aiming for is to expose *every* college freshman (and more) to the process by which Wikipedia is edited, hopefully in the context of *their* adding information to it.

    One reason, of course, is to make the encyclopedia better. The other – even more important, I think – is to show people that a civil, constructive process, more-or-less following how *scientific* knowledge changes over time, can arrive at a reasonably accurate depiction of reality.

    Visual Editor and Flow are both important steps in expanding who edits Wikipedia. But Wikipedia editing should be done within a set of work processes, which can be semi-automated (a “requested article” collects citations, then becomes a draft article, then is promoted to regular article status, with the software preventing duplicate efforts, for example).

    Or, if you will: A wiki (blank sheet of paper) was fine to start with, but it’s now a kludge. Images and tables and templates and citations and interlanguage links and Wikidata statements are all incompatible with a “blank sheet of paper”; we should realize that and look more systematically at how to make encyclopedia-building easier (and more accurate) for humans.

  7. If Wikipedia becomes the source. How do you get around the 3rd party primary source requirement?

  8. David Gerard says:

    stephen: Probably the way it’s done now, i.e. “getting around”. People already create third-party sources for the purpose of being Wikipedia references.

    All of this does presume there will still be primary and secondary sources.

  9. Pierre says:

    No you haven’t won. Wikipedia is succumbing to the increasing intransigence of a coterie of self-appointed fanatics. I am an IT professional with 45 years experience, and have had my entries deleted by ‘editor’ busybodies. I have better things to do than getting into a pissing contest with trolls such as the Welsh Buzzard.

    Wikipedia has gone to great lengths by publishing rules and guidelines to welcome newcomers. Unfortunately many in your Inner Circle haven’t read the memo.

  10. Bhua says:

    There are many opinions on many topics. Perhaps allow some sort of branching.

  11. Joe Altmaier says:

    I’m puzzled why anything is deleted. Why not archive it all? Storage is not a real issue. Perhaps content can be rated instead of a binary keep/delete.

  12. David Gerard says:

    Bhua: content forks are a perennial proposal, and other sites have been set up encouraging these. The usual grounds is to quieten arguments between editors; but I think that doesn’t serve the reader. Ideally, a good neutral Wikipedia article should summarise all the noteworthy views in dispute on a topic.

  13. David Gerard says:

    Joe: Deletionpedia (a place for deleted articles to go) died of disinterest, so it turns out that not even the people who advocate keeping it all are actually interested in practice.

  14. David Macfarlane says:

    Deletionpedia failed because all the traffic is on Wikipedia. Once you take the page out of circulation at Wikipedia, hardly anybody is going to find it.

    I’m going to continue to advocate for keeping everything – the marginal cost is almost zero, and the value is definitely greater than zero. If I enter a wiki page with some obscure information, and just one other person in the next five years learns something from that page, isn’t that worth it? Maybe ten other people will add knowledge to that obscure page and it will become less obscure.

    But the whole potential is erased when an editor kills the article because it didn’t make the significance hurdle. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

  15. Two things occur to me:
    1) It would be good to have articles aimed at different reading levels. At the moment the levels vary dramatically, so it would be good to have explicit introductory articles and advanced ones.

    2) On a larger scale, it irks me that genealogy information is held in numerous proprietary databases, rather than a single central source of Truth. Wikimedia would be a perfect place to hold a central “Here are all of the people on earth, and where they came from” repository. Let’s free that information from the shackles of sites that charge people £10/month just to hold less than 1MB of data for them.

  16. David Gerard says:

    Joe: Though there is http://speedydeletion.wikia.com , which is maintained automatically. I have no idea what its pageviews are like.

  17. Gustav says:

    Oh we’re not there yet. I won’t settle until a full blown http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encyclopedia_Galactica , you can set that as a reference if you want.

  18. Throgmorton says:

    I agree with Pierre. Topic squatting is a big problem with Wikipedia. There are certain subjects on Wikipedia which are completely dominated by a few very unpleasant, extremely motivated activists. There are rules to alleviate this, but the fanatics know how to use the letter of the law to subvert the spirit of the law, making those rules worse than useless.

  19. Geert Lovink says:

    Thanks a lot for posting these concerns. I only want to point out here that similar arguments have been made before and that our Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam, together with partners in Bangalore and Leipzig have organized three international conferences on this, in 2010, and that the results can be downloaded for free. This was an independent event. The research network was called Critical Point of View (CPOV): http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/cpov/lang/de/.

  20. David Gerard says:

    Geert – yep. I originally wrote this in 2011, and only just found it sitting in my “drafts” folder … I think it was incontrovertibly obvious Wikipedia was the last contender standing by 2010.

    Everyone – read Geert’s link.

    I’m now wishing I’d better distinguished Wikipedia and Wikimedia in this post. It may have made more sense as two posts. Oh well.

  21. Phil Sandifer says:

    The idea that Wikipedia can be the equivalent of the world’s university libraries while having policies on sources and the nature of research that sound like Michael Gove wrote them is ludicrous on the face of it.

    Wikipedia’s policy is designed such that elementary schools are the best that can be hoped for.

  22. David Gerard says:

    Wikipedia’s epistemology is brittle and shallow, but works well enough, enough of the time, that very few readers complain. So I don’t see a fix soon. But there’s potential in the rest of Wikimedia, the question is how to bring it to life.

Leave a Reply