I've seen the same thing in just three years of editing at en.wikipedia. Referencing has also improved—many currently well-written and well-referenced articles began with editors simply writing from their own experience, without supplying references. The bar for contributing is being raised all the time. So is the quality of the articles. Which begs the question - is the main purpose of Wikipedia to write a world-class encyclopedia, at which it is becoming increasingly successful? Or is it to create a welcoming and friendly online community, at which it seems to be failing? Obviously it doesn't have to be either/or, but the issues around the second question can't ignore Wikipedia's main purpose, which is to create a world-class encyclopedia.
That exact question, First Light, is what I raised here days ago. Unfortunately, the Foundation directs its attention -- & its money -- at supporting the community.
That might be because the Foundation doesn't see a way to encourage better quality without appearing to wade into the thicket of opposing opinions over content. However I see several. One would be to compile guidelines for what should be in certain kinds of articles -- a checklist, so to speak -- of the points an article should cover. This is an issue that has confronted me numerous times when writing article: what should an article about a town or city contain? Or what details of an individual's life should be covered in a biographical article? (It is remarkable just how many articles on famous intellectuals fail to include any discussion about their ideas or beliefs.)
But instead of engaging someone to create these guidelines or checklists, hiring people to perform community outreach is easier to spend money on.
I know others have raised this issue, including yourself, but I thought to raise (rephrase) it again because people are focusing too much on the details at times. I think guidelines and a checklist for articles are a great idea. We need real and concrete ways of helping newer users succeed at Wikipedia before they fail and leave in frustration. Like others, I learn through imitation, so early on I found articles similar to the new plant species articles I was creating, and copy/pasted my way to creating my own template for such articles. Not everyone works that way, so your idea of a checklist would save new users so much frustration.
I think part of the cultural problem (to over-generalize) is that encyclopedias tend to be written by basement boffins who don't specialize in warm and fuzzy human interactions. The other extreme (to exaggerate) is the people who come here hoping for a MySpace/Facebook social culture. Both are needed, and I think the Wikimedia foundation is recognizing the strength that a Facebook type of community can create. How to bring the two together is the question that should be asked, and why I phrased it the way I did.
Well, the paragons responsible for creating great literature have never been known for their social skills. My favorite example of this was the time the two most prominent literary artists of the 20th century met at a dinner party: James Joyce & Marcel Proust. After introductions were made, the two men looked at each other & one said, "I haven't read any of your works." -- "Well, I haven't read any of yours." End of conversation, & to the best of my knowledge neither bothered to read anything written by the other afterwards, nor spoke to the other again.
The fact that online communications only make it easier for someone to be thought of as rude -- as well as to be rude -- only complicate the issue.
I believe the information is available elsewhere: there are plenty of important areas of knowledge underrepresented in Wikipedia, not to mention some of the other projects. None of them might be in one's area of knowledge, expertise or experience. However, as an experienced wikipedian one may still be extremely useful and helpful to the less experienced editors. They need to learn how to write according to the wikipedia requirements.
The suggestion of article guidelines or better guidelines, ties very well with the Foundation strategy, outreach and a thriving civilized community. Once you have the guidelines, you need editors to write the articles according to those guidelines. Nobody would want to write guidelines, if there isn't anybody to follow them.
As a counter example, some of the paragons responsible for creating great literature have been known for their high social skills. It is also a fact that online communications make it easier for someone to be thought of as polite -- as well as to be polite -- makes it a lot easier to belong to a community where many forms of crime cannot be committed.
I would like to compliment Ian for his commitment to continue to contribute to Wikipedia; the correct reading of the reality made by First Light; and Llywrch excellent suggestion of added and/or renewed emphasis on article guidelines, once done it is a extraordinary time saver for anyone writing or expanding an article. Let me conclude quoting Robert Frost: "A civilized community is one which tolerates eccentricity to the point of doubtful sanity." There should be room in it for the "basement boffins", the "fuzzy humans" and all of us.
Virgilio A. P. Machado
"Nobody would want to write guidelines, if there isn't anybody to follow them." Actually, the policy and guideline pages are often inhabited by people who do mostly that: legislate for those who actually write stuff, so then they can smack them in the head with their new rule for endashes, punctuation relative to quote marks, and what not. You're ignoring what motivates most people who edit Wikipedia for a long time, which I've described elsewhere here.
You made the right distinction: policies and guidelines. By guidelines I meant rational, useful recommendations that editors can use at their own discretion in order to make their work easier. I was talking about decent people doing decent work. You are addressing the dark side of the Wikipedia. Does the dark side rule Wikipedia? Anybody that has to ask that question doesn't know a thing about the making of Wikipedia. I took notice of your contributions here, but if you would care to send me a message through «E-mail this user» or to the e-mail address listed no my user page, with a link to your description, I would appreciate that very much.
Virgilio A. P. Machado
@First Light: The main purpose is "to write a world-class encyclopedia", this seems obvious to me. The community is a means to this end, this is something we should never forget - certainly we need a welcoming and friendly community so that contributing to Wikipedia is a positive experience and people aren't driven away, but we must always have in mind the consequences for the real purpose of the project, which is the encyclopedia product. People "who come here hoping for a MySpace/Facebook social culture" need to be told that Wikipedia is not about the community - the community is a great thing, without a doubt, but it is a community with a specific purpose and a goal. Wikipedia is about its content. I think that "editors" who are in fact not editors but mainly talkers who don't really contribute to the content or to its maintenance can be detrimental to the project. Of course we need "meta talk", which is what we're doing here right now, we need to discuss the project and its policies, but people who become focussed on only this and lose the base of plain article work tend to get the project not a millimetre further. So, I agree with Llywrch that attempts to improve the "community spirit" should always be tied to actual article editing - in Wikipedia, it's not just about "how to be nice to each other" but "how to improve Wikipedia whilst being nice to each other" ;-)
As a main reason of dwindling editor activity, however, is not connected to questions of community spirit at all, but to the simple fact that easy, popular topics are now already well covered in the biggest Wikipedias (see also Thread:Talk:March 2011 Update/Lack of easily filled gaps), I think that in the future editors need more help regarding how to write good articles for niche topics, and how to find and use the increasingly specialist information needed for filling the remaining gaps.