May 2, 2012
another in a series of possibly-unwise posts to inside-the-beltway mailing lists, in this case wiki-research-l, in response to the following comment and quantitative research observation by Richard Jensen: “I find that most of the important writing was done in 2006-8. Typically, the article reached maturity about 2008 and since then the rate of editing has plunged. In most cases I see only minor or maintenance editing since then. The new material since 2008 is mostly cosmetic: illustrations still get added, lots of links are made, new categories added, new lists are appended, vandalism is removed. The citations are increasingly out of date. The articles are long in tooth.” My reply:
As a longstanding research interest of mine, I have a thesis about this topic, one which I expect to be controversial, and I would be very interested to hear whether other Wiki researchers have considered; it’s not one I see in the NPOV work or other critical studies of Wikipedia, at least so far, and it does bear on core features of Wikipedia itself.
a) “but for the shouting,” many major Wikipedia areas, especially in core areas of human knowledge, are becoming effectively finished. there is nothing major left to do. that doesn’t mean they will never change, or be expanded, etc., but as a general observation I think it has some strong prima facie evidence in its favor.
i know that’s controversial in and of itself, but i have an even more controversial observation that I rarely hear discussed in wiki circles:
b) while the finishing of major facets of human knowledge is an explicit goal of Wikipedia, it turns out that in addition to its abundant positive consequences, “finishing” (or mostly finishing) areas of human knowledge has very real negative consequences. the most salient of these is: leaving future generations with the feeling and even the factual situation that “there is nothing substantial left to do.”
much of the initial excitement about Wikipedia, speaking very impressionistically, appears to me to have been due to the fact that there was so much to do.
now, in such a short time, there is so much less to do.
that isn’t just a negative for Wikipedia–it’s a negative for everyone.
I am a college professor. At one time, it was fun to have students scope out areas of knowledge and either write or consider writing Wikipedia entries for areas of study.
Now, I have the opposite problem. For many topics I teach (but by no means all) I must tell my students to avoid Wikipedia, because it produces the instantly demoralizing effect: “it’s all been done/said already.”
I don’t think anyone can have anticipated this consequence 10 years ago, but I believe it is very real, and I wonder almost every day about how to handle it. because for many reasons, and I hope and believe there are people on this list who will sympathize with what i’m saying, what would be wonderful is if every generation could have the fun and excitement of building Wikipedia from scratch, rather than the demoralization that occurs when one happens to actually go look at a Wikipedia page on something about which one has the excitement of discovery, only to find it completely mapped out to a level of detail unimaginable just a decade ago.
i wonder about how Wikipedians consider and imagine the future as something more than a site for the “ultimate Wikipedia”–do they, do we, really think carefully about the needs of future people to have substantial gaps in knowledge that it becomes their job to fill in? Have we, to some extent at least, taken from our children (and their children, etc.) something they would be better off having? and if so, what can we do to return to them the curiosity and wonder and feeling that “human knowledge is not finished” that are absolutely necessary to the development of knowing individuals?
i am absolutely not denying that there will always be many parts of Wikipedia that can be fleshed out, many new areas of knowledge, Wikipedias in other languages, etc. I am talking primarily about historical events, major figures from every walk of life, major historical idea-based topics, and other central parts of human knowledge (esp. in the West, where Wikipedias are closest to being “finished”), because these are the areas in which the dispiriting effects I observe seem most worrisome.