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Wikipedia and the Utopia of Openness: How Wikipedia Becomes Less Open to Improve its Quality

October 15, 2011 2 comments

I found out today that I have never posted my final paper of the Digital Methods of Internet Research. During my year in the Master New Media at the UvA, this was one of the most interesting researches I have worked on. With a final grade of 8.5, I was also asked to present it on the Digital Methods Conference. In this blog post, I have put down the abstract and the method. If you find it interesting, the full paper can be found here under a CC-BY-SA license.

Abstract

Wikipedia has become an enormous source of information in the last decade. Because of its ubiquitous presence on the internet and the speed of which it is updated, it has become more than a reference. It becomes ‘a first rough draft of history’. In this study the changing politics of openness are analyzed. By looking at both small articles, as well as one extremely popular, the role of openness and transparency within Wikipedia is discussed. In this study I point out that in order to improve the quality of Wikipedia, it is sometimes necessary to limit the amount of openness, which is not a problem as long as the process remains completely transparent. At the same time, more transparency is needed to improve the smaller articles, which are often created by a single person.

Method

In this paper, I want to take a deeper look inside Wikipedia and the way that the articles are created. Who is responsible for the content that can be found on Wikipedia? What is the consequence of the fact that ‘anyone can edit’ at any time and how is dealt with a project that has become so incredibly large? In the first part I will point out how Wikipedia works. The basics of Wikipedia will be explained and a more in-depth analysis of the politics of Wikipedia is done. By looking at the rules and regulations of Wikipedia, as well as how they are actually regulated by the community I will point out how Wikipedia has managed to control such a large group of editors and created an encyclopedia of high quality in stead of an anarchistic chaos.

In the second part, a closer look is taken to how an article is created and how it develops. Who creates the article? Is it a dedicated member of the community or an anonymous user who believes he can add something to the encyclopedia,? It is also interesting to see what happens after the creation. How does the community respond and what kind of edits are made? By taking a couple of articles as a case study, this will be made clear. This will make clear that a user should look at the average Wikipedia article more critically. Since this is hard for the average not so media-savvy Wikipedia user, Wikipedia should make this process of creation more insightful

In the third part, a more closer look will be taken to articles who are subjected to heavy editing. By taking a more deeper look into the Wiki article about Julian Assange the it will be made clear how the community responds on a topic like this and what this means for the idea of the ‘open’ and collaboration.

From this analysis, I conclude that the role of Wikipedia has changed, it has gone to be more than an encyclopedia, as it functions as an up to date news source. This has implications for the openness of Wikipedia and other ideas from the early days. To make sure Wikipedia can stay and become a more reliable source of information, transparency is the key.

Discussion.

The fact that Wikipedia is becoming bigger everyday, both in size, as in its ubiquitous presence, makes it an important object of study. On a daily base, millions of people use Wikipedia as a source of knowledge. The Wikipedia community is well aware of this and does its utmost best to create articles of better quality. This is not only done by checking new edits by both humans and bots, but also by creating new policies and guidelines. It seems that in the ten years of existence, the ideology of the early days has been abandoned. Rules can in fact be made and changed and the amount of openness can de reduced, as long as it benefits the quality of the content.

Wikipedia has developed from a small and open project, into a huge bureaucracy. This has several implications. It has become harder to start editing Wikipedia, new users often are frustrated by the wall of bureaucracy they run into and are therefore demotivated to become a Wikipedian. The consequence of this is that a declining group of people, is forming one of the biggest sources of knowledge. At the moment this does not affect the popular articles. As showed in the study to Julian Assange’s page, it is checked and discussed more than ever, despite the limited accessibility. It can however, reflect on the quality of smaller articles since more expertise is required and may as well lead to more conflicts between editors.

The increasing bureaucracy has two effects. On the one hand it decreases the amount of transparency. Because of the enormous growth of the policies and guidelines, it becomes harder to get the basic rules of Wikipedia and to see why a decision is made. At the same time, the user can assume that the article is of better quality because the content that is actually in the article, complies to all the rules. This however, does not apply to articles where only one editor created all the content. Most of the rules have to be checked by other users. As this research has shown, the text created in less popular articles is usually not changed much after that. The only edits that were made are text formats or adding categories and inlinks.

Therefore, I suggest that Wikipedia must give more attention to how the specific article is created and make it visible for every visitor. This way it brings back the transparency that has always been so important and improves the knowledge of the reader. It should be shown in the article how many users created it. For example, note a percentage in the top that shows how many of the content of the article is written by the same person and how many edits were made all together. This gives the user a better idea if an article is trustworthy and unbiased. By making the creating process even more transparent, it becomes easier for the user so decide how to approach the given information

It is up to Wikipedia as well as scholars to study better ways of indicating the quality of the article. With more than 3.5 million articles in the English-language Wikipedia, this can not be done efficiently by the human contributors, which numbers are slowly declining. New ways have to be found to automatically identify the quality of an article, as some researchers have already started discussing. This way, Wikipedia can indicate the quality of the article and show this to the user. This does not only make the user more aware of the fact that the content of Wikipedia is not perfect, it makes it also possible to automatically generate lists for the Wikipedians of articles that need to be checked for quality. It might even be possible to regulate the edit options automatically, giving more access when an article has proven to be of less quality, decreasing the amount of bureaucracy for starting editors.

This study has shown that Wikipedia has transformed since it was found, leading to a more bureaucratic organization. This has several implications, mainly on the openness of Wikipedia. As pointed out, these decisions can benefit the quality of Wikipedia, as long as the process remains completely transparent. By making less popular articles also more transparent, not only the quality of the content will improve, but it also notifies the reader how reliable an article is.

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Promotion or Contribution?

October 3, 2010 Leave a comment

Wikipedia is the biggest online encyclopedia in the world. In the English version one can find almost 3,5 million pages. With more than 640.000 pages, the Dutch version comes in the fifth place, next to Italy and Poland. So to find a subject where I could write something about, and one that did not already have a page, was quite hard. I decided at that point to write something about the one thing I absolutely know most about in the world: my own band.
My entry could not just be a copy from our bio that I wrote about a year ago, that was for promotion. Wikipedia demands a neutral article without any opinions and judgements.
With that in the back of my head I started writing, constantly wondering, is this not too much my own opinion? With that thought it is pretty hard to write about something that is your own.

After a while I decided it was time to add my first entry to Wikipedia. I published the text I wrote and started to look for a way that I could add a photo. For visual content, Wikipedia has a very strict copyright policy. Therefore I took a picture that a friend of mine once made during a concert. If I selected the option that it was not me who took the picture, the picture was probably not accepted instantly, so I decided to tell Wikipedia that it is my own work. I guess that the original author of picture does not have a problem with that. After that I started to create a form where all the standard band information (name, members, genre, etc.) can be found. All famous bands have one on their Wiki page, so we had to have one too.

Then it happened, 5 minutes after I finished my page, all the sudden there was an announcement on top of the page saying: “This page is on the list for deletion”. The reason was that they doubted the neutral point in my entry. It was noted as an advertisement or propaganda. I immediately responded and edited my post to an even more neutral article and waited if this was accepted.

In the discussion part about articles that are nominated for deletion, I found two comment concerning my article. The first one was that this article is self-promotion. This is because they could see that it was written by the singer of the band so maybe I should not have taken my real name as a user name. The other reason was the fact that at the end of my article I wrote: “at the end of 2010 their first album will be released”. The user ‘Fred’ made a comment that we first should release this album before a Wiki page is justified. After that I edited the page once more and now, a week later, I’m still waiting what is going to happen to my entry. If you type our name in Google you can find the entry in Wikipedia, so it is still not deleted. Is this because they are not sure about it or just because nobody of the moderators has found the time to actually delete the page?

This got me thinking, how do the moderators decide that your subject is not important enough to be on Wikipedia? Probably none of them have ever heard about us, but how do they find out that almost nobody in the Netherlands has ever heard of us? What are the criteria? And for that, what happens when somebody writes a really interesting article about a subject that none of the moderators have ever heard about? Who is going to decide if the article is approved or not? Especially today, where all the general subjects have their own page and it is hard to find one that does not have one. How do they decide that it is an advertisement instead of a contribution?

For now I think my entry will be deleted. Just for the fact that we have had so little succes up till now. Maybe after a while, and after the release of the album, I will try again, with a different user name…