Newbies or Better information?

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I'd like to throw out a thought here: should we worry about the decline in new editors? If we compare Wikipedia's history to the evolution of a similar Internet-based project -- the Linux kernel -- both share an important trend: more barriers to newbies (resulting in fewer newbies), yet a growing improvement in perceived quality. In the Linux community, the improved quality is due to the creation of a community of contributors who are encouraged & rewarded for participating; the fall-off of new blood is not seen as a problem in that community.

So what should the Foundation's emphasis be on: attracting more new interactive members (or contributors), or on improving the quality of the materials it provides to passive members (or readers), who are far more numerous? -- Llywrch 07:54, 11 March 2011 (UTC)

Llywrch07:54, 11 March 2011


Three points in response:

  • I think that the two are interrelated. Each newbie brings something new on the table, a breath of fresh air one can say. The newbie may spot the need for a particular article thats not there, and possibly start a future FA article - improving quantity.
  • They may also spot lacunae in current articles and correct that - so they improve quality. Further, we need to maintain a sizable editors community in order to maintain Wikipedia.
  • People are not going to stay forever, they will scale down or retire at some point, hence you need replacements - maintaining standards.

At WP:Mumbai (under WP:India) we are currently innovating ways to attract "new talented editors" if one may call it so (especially the fairer sex, as Sue pointed out in an interview last year that seems to be a rare species on Wikipedia). I guess this stands for most other parts of the world. AroundTheGlobe 08:43, 11 March 2011 (UTC)

AroundTheGlobe08:43, 11 March 2011

One way to think about this question is to quantify (even if approximately) the amount of information a new user needs to know to become a net contributor to Wikipedia. For example, how much does an editor need to know about editing on Wikipedia to create a durable new start class or B class article, which is adequately referenced and wikified, so it does not generate much cleanup work for the limited pool of other experienced editors. (By "durable" I mean an article that resists deletion. And by "how much" I mean how many bytes of documentation an editor needs to read and master, and how many hours of study this would take for various cohorts of people with different educational backgrounds. Organizations such as the USDOD which have been training recruits to fill standardized positions for many years have worked out a pretty solid understanding of their training requirements. So should we.) If a new user is not willing to put in the time and effort necessary to attain this minimal level of competence, then the editor's development may stall at a level that Fred Brooks calls "negatively productive". By Brooks' definition, a "negatively productive employee" is one who generates at least one hour of cleanup work for someone else, for every hour he or she puts in. Brooks' recommendation for such employees is to try to place them with your competitors. I would imagine that only a tiny fraction of the general population would have any real interest in reading and understanding enough of Wikipedia's manuals to attain a minimal level of competence. Particularly since we rely on self-study, in contrast to the rest of the world which relies on classroom training to inculcate complex technical skills. A new user's incentive to make that effort probably evaporates as soon as their first article gets deleted. Thus we really need a way to steer new users away from editing tasks that are too difficult for them, such as new article creation.

Teratornis09:05, 11 March 2011

But maybe new article creation is unnecessarily complex. What is an article really? Text and a few citation links, neutral point of view, encyclopedic style. If it were only a matter of reading one page, then going through a wizard, anyone with a highschool education should soon master the basics.

There is no place for elitism here. Of course, some editors have much more experience than others, and they certainly form the backbone of the operation. But let's remember, Wikipedia is a project for everyone. Many hands make light work!

Heavenlyblue11:11, 11 March 2011

And what is encyclopedic style? I ask this question because I have been looking for an answer to that question -- more specifically, what is an encyclopedia, beyond something along the lines of "a collection of essays in alphabetical order, usually printed in multiple volumes" -- & have yet to find a useful answer. I suspect that "encyclopedic style" is one of those things, like obscenity, which no one can define yet everyone thinks she/he knows it when they see it. Unfortunately, such a situation only leads to more disagreements than agreements. -- Llywrch 18:19, 11 March 2011 (UTC)

Llywrch18:19, 11 March 2011

There is no need for absolute agreement for a group project to function. If we had waited for an absolute, all-encompassing definition of the word farm and a thorough and complete explication of the concept of farming before any group of people planted seeds, we would have all starved long ago and there would be no civilisation as we know it. I'm being facetious, of course, but my point is that Wikipedia guidelines are quite clear that newcomers and their efforts are to be heartily welcomed, and that substantial knowledge is not required at the outset.

That being said, it is clear to me that most new article problems could be avoided by presenting (mandating?) a short, concise tutorial with clear examples (correct/incorrect) at a person's first edit and first article creation. This, paired with a simple, well-thought-out new article creation wizard would certainly reduce deletions and lessen the long-term workload for more experienced editors.

Here is how it can seem to new editors now: "Here, before you do anything, memorise this two-hundred-page manual. Then, when you begin editing, your work may suddenly and inexplicably disappear at the whim of some seemingly anonymous, malign entity or your modest efforts may unleash a torrent of harsh criticism from said entity."

Many experienced editors desperately need to reread and take to heart some core Wikipedia policies, such as Wikipedia:Please_do_not_bite_the_newcomers

Heavenlyblue20:45, 11 March 2011
"Here, before you do anything, memorise this two-hundred-page manual. Then, when you begin editing, your work may suddenly and inexplicably disappear at the whim of some seemingly anonymous, malign entity or your modest efforts may unleash a torrent of harsh criticism from said entity."

Actually I would say our main problem is that we do not adequately warn new users about this before they start editing. What you describe is the reality of how Wikipedia is: if you want to edit productively here, you had better read a lot of manuals (and read them repeatedly, because many of the concepts take time to sink in). Over on the Help desk, a lot of baffled new users ask Why was my page deleted? - they ask because they had no idea that Wikipedia has a thriving deletion industry that feeds on newbies, until after they got suckered.

I think part of our problem is our misleading use of the word "Save". Most people have used productivity software on their computers, which has conditioned them to expect that when you save something, it stays the way you saved it, until you edit it again.

On Wikipedia, "Save" doesn't mean anything like that. There is no predictable outcome from saving. Instead you are spinning the roulette wheel. Or maybe spinning the chamber of the revolver pointed at your head.

It's hardly surprising that we are seeing a drop in new users. What do we think happens when we delete someone's article? They probably get angry, and tell all their friends about how they got suckered into wasting their time. Word starts getting around that editing on Wikipedia is not a fun thing to do.

We shouldn't pretend that just because we think we have all these righteous and pure reasons for deleting articles, we aren't doing incredible damage to the way people perceive us.

Teratornis00:51, 12 March 2011

Heavenlyblue, the question of whether complexity is necessary or unnecessary is central to software development (and Wikipedia is an offshoot of software development). See Accidental complexity and Essential complexity. I suspect most of Wikipedia's complexity is not accidental, because Wikipedia's collaborative model is pretty good at trimming cruft we don't need. If a particular rule or procedure has outlived its usefulness, users are pretty good at ignoring it.

I think the biggest barrier to new article creation is not learning wikitext markup, nor most of the common things lumped into the idea of "usability". Usability is about making software better for helping the user reach his or her goal. The problem on Wikipedia is that many new users don't understand or entirely share Wikipedia's goal. Many if not most people look at Wikipedia and think, "Aha! I can use this to share what I care about." Wikipedia's welcoming user interface encourages this mistake. Instead, people need to understand Wikipedia probably does not care about someone's noble cause, a word they made up, their garage band, their procedural knowledge, what they consider useful, or most of what most people value. Wikipedia is a very specialized project, not even remotely an attempt to build "the sum of all human knowledge". Many people who try to edit on Wikipedia would be better off editing on one of the thousands of small wikis that cater to special interests rather than sneering at them as "not notable" as we often do on WP:AFD.

Teratornis23:02, 11 March 2011

Llywrch, Yes, it is absolutely worthwhile to worry about a decline in new editors. I also believe that quality of content is directly related to openness, and true openness can only be achieved through low-threshold access, which wikipedia does not currently have (by nature it is only available through internet, which still does not reach the whole planet etc.).

Sue, thanks for this study and the analysis. I do find these numbers fascinating and the discussions that accompany them (especially the work on female editors). I am still not quite convinced however about the magnitude of the problem. Yes, women are under-represented, as are Danes, Africans, Australians, retirees, and many other large groups of individuals. It would be helpful to say, select 100 articles from the 1911 encyclopedia and 100 articles from subjects on the WWII era (or any other notable event post 1912 copyright), and 100 articles that have been created on issues from on some US-based modern newspaper top-stories list and analyze the metadata on those articles, including the added edits to those 3 groups of articles over time.

Llywrch, I think it is an interesting idea to be able to offer different materials to passive members or newbies! I am not sure why you would want this for readers though. A more informative pop-up message to ip-users who have been blocked informing them what a block is would be a good start. I remember working for a company (no names) who used an intranet wiki extensively for product development and who linked back regularly to the live Wikipedia for detail information on basic terms. Their ip was banned probably because casual users there could not discern the difference between the two (or perhaps vandalism by disgruntled employees, who knows?). The people who worked there were completely dumbfounded by the message they saw (this was a few years back though). Jane023 09:19, 11 March 2011 (UTC)

Jane02309:19, 11 March 2011

Jane023, why do you "believe that quality of content is directly related to openness"? Is this a faith claim, or an observation based on some kind of evidence? Does anything in the real world work that way? For example, if we open up all the prisons, and eliminate police and door locks, will crime disappear? In every example I can think of, the way to increase quality is by weeding out incompetence and malice. There has to be a selection process of some sort, which recognizes and promotes competence and good faith. You want the recruitment to be open, of course, so you start the selection from the largest possible candidate pool. Wikipedia's selection process revolves around its astounding complexity. To edit on Wikipedia, a person has to be comfortable working within the minefield of things like en:WP:CSD, which punishes (often unwitting) transgressors with almost sociopathic indifference.

Also, why do you believe Wikipedia must be edited by everyone to achieve high quality? Isn't it more likely that once the pool of editors reaches some critical size, further increases in size will yield diminishing further improvements? (In other words, how many people does it take to write an encyclopedia? Ten thousand? One million? No previous encyclopedia has had as many editors as we do, I think.) If various groups feel less like learning how to edit on Wikipedia, how is that a problem? If Wikipedia's editors consisted only of white men, or only black women, as long as there were enough of them, they would still be a broadly diverse group. And Wikipedia is not supposed to contain original research. All we do is refactor information previously published elsewhere - and all that requires is the ability to read and write, not a particular gender or nationality. If the available sources themselves have bias, we have to reflect that bias faithfully, or else we violate en:WP:SYN.

Teratornis09:51, 11 March 2011

Since I love to generalize, I will just go ahead and generalize on my earlier comments by saying that nobody is as smart as all of us. As to your remarks on prisons, though I am not sure how relevant that is to "openness", whole countries have been founded by groups of unwanted "criminals" from other countries... Jane023 13:45, 11 March 2011 (UTC)

Jane02313:45, 11 March 2011

Prisons are full of people who don't like to follow instructions made up by other people. In some cases the instructions are unjust, and then they are prisoners of conscience who may be admired in the future. But the typical prisoner is a person who does not cooperate very well with other people, for example someone who disrespects the property rights or personal rights of others. People who frequently get in trouble with the law (in a state with just laws) tend to be impulsive and with an ability to rationalize taking what they want by force. They also tend to be disproportionately young and male, for what it's worth.

I have heard of some countries that gained part of their population from penal colonies. Either those prisoners were well managed by people with fewer criminal tendencies, or enough of them outgrew their criminal tendencies as they aged to form a stable society. When criminals take over everything you may end up with failed state like Somalia.

Openness is great but only when accompanied by good faith and empathy. We want Wikipedia to be as open as possible to everyone who genuinely shares Wikipedia's goals. Most people do not share Wikipedia's goals entirely, and they can only choose to conform to Wikipedia's goals in their editing activity here if they read and understand the detailed description of what Wikipedia wants.

One of Wikipedia's goals, then, is that every editor will read and understand enough of the manuals to understand what Wikipedia is and isn't.

People who come to Wikipedia without any desire to read the friendly manuals are less likely to help, even if they mean well. Unless by some miraculous coincidence their personal goals align with Wikipedia's goals in every detail.

Teratornis22:04, 12 March 2011

@Teratornis You might be a computer that only refactors information. I would not generalize that to everybody. Some people are actual human beings with passions, interests, beliefs and such ;)

Clumpytree14:40, 11 March 2011

It is true that humans are emotional. That is why humans are having a harder time becoming Wikipedia editors. To edit on Wikipedia requires essentially abandoning many normal human impulses, such as the urge to advocate for causes and write one's beliefs. Instead we are supposed to be neutral, and simply focus on refactoring previously published material without getting emotional about it. All we are supposed to do is summarize and attribute what other people have written about "notable" topics. The most important personality trait for a Wikipedia editor is wikt:sangfroid - the ability to remain calm for example when deletionists are calling one's work "crufty" and "non-notable".

I'm not suggesting Wikipedia's requirements for editors necessarily represent the highest possible form of human attainment, but rather that these requirements are distinctly unobvious to new editors. Most people who decide to start editing on Wikipedia have no clue what they are in for. They don't realize we have a thriving community of deletionists who have been getting better for years at destroying the work of successive waves of new users making the same new user mistakes. If we want to "fix" what is "wrong" with our "software", I'd suggest trying to make it more informative as to what editing on Wikipedia is really about. Editing on Wikipedia is about figuring how to defend what you want to write against the criteria for speedy deletion and all the other rules about what we cannot keep on Wikipedia. I'm thinking about those rules every time I edit. The new user probably doesn't even know those rules exist.

Imagine building a minefield, and noticing that fewer people are making it out alive each year. Is the solution to make the minefield look more enticing, so more people will blunder in without realizing it is a minefield? Or might it be better to clearly label all the mines before people step on them? I don't think it is charitable to lure people into a minefield under a false pretext. We should be honest about how many articles we delete. Why doesn't every first-time editor know that number?

Teratornis23:24, 11 March 2011
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Last edit: 19:45, 11 March 2011

I'm a newbie but very interested in these topics. For me quality increases through the diversity, accuracy, depth and engaging style of articles. Diversity is well served by newcomers, though they may not provide the accuracy, depth or engagement more experienced users do. I recently read about the diverse roles played by Wikipedians, and related to how each user takes on different roles. It seems that roles evolve too, and the role of a new user is to stir things up, inject new ideas, whereas an experienced user may spend more time refining, editing, mentoring and deleting. I imagine our goal would be to find ways of encouraging all users to adopt/retain the qualities of those at the other end of the experience spectrum so we can keep all aspects of quality high.

Skyglobeobserver19:45, 11 March 2011

Even the Linux kernel puts in place systems to help newbies contribute: There are relatively easy "janitor" jobs listed for newbies; the source code is modular which reduces the amount a newbie needs to know to make their first contribution (though this is true of any good source code); and the GIT version control system, originally designed by Linux's creator, allows anyone to have a go at making and maintaining whatever changes they wish without requiring special privileges.

Besides that, you've presented a false dichotomy. Established users do not create "better information". I don't believe anyone thinks that newbies have less to contribute than established users. It seems silly to blame the newbies for the shortcomings of Wikipedia which are driving them away.

Of course we should worry about a decline in editors. The same issues are driving away established users. Pengo 14:06, 11 March 2011 (UTC)

Pengo14:06, 11 March 2011

I disagree that I have posed a "false dichotomy" -- or even a dichotomy. My intent with my original post was to question assumptions in Sue Gardiner's March 2011 update, the major one being that the decline in new contributors is a bad thing. (And, just to be clear, I am not expressing an opinion on her assertion one way or the other.) The Foundation, however, seems to treat this as a dichotomy: money is allocated to improve "community outreach", yet AFAICS none is spent on how Wikipedia -- or any of the Wikimedia projects -- might provide information better. Or better information. -- Llywrch 18:27, 11 March 2011 (UTC)

Llywrch18:27, 11 March 2011

"Established users do not create "better information"." - it's not about information being "better", it's about information complying with Wikipedia's stupendously complex rules for allowable content. Established users are much more likely to have read pages like WP:CSD and WP:NOT, or at least to know that Wikipedia has such pages and a user community to enforce the rules.

Certainly there are people not editing on Wikipedia who have knowledge that could improve Wikipedia. But their kernel of knowledge acceptable to Wikipedia is wrapped inside the much larger sum of human knowledge that we don't want.

For example, consider Wikipedia's baldly elitist stance against procedural knowledge. This pretty much excludes most of the practical knowledge of people who work with their hands. On Wikipedia, you are not allowed to share your knowledge of how to paint a house, grow a garden, repair a furnace, etc. Instead we want editors to focus on useless topics like Heraldry. This restricts Wikipedia editing to the leisured class, which can afford to spend its time thinking about things with little or no practical importance. People who work with their hands and live paycheck to paycheck will have a very different perspective on what matters, and much of what matters to them does not matter to Wikipedia.

I'm not saying this is wrong, just that it is. Wikipedia has evolved in a certain way. I don't know how to make it evolve in a different way. I'm pretty sure wishing won't work. Not many people in the world know how to build a top ten Web site. A lot of those people happen to be at Wikipedia. They seem to like Wikipedia the way they have made it.

Teratornis23:43, 11 March 2011

I wouldn't argue that because Wikipedia is a top ten website, the people who have contributed to it are experts in how to build one -- or even know more than the average person about this trick. Offer a product or service which meets or exceeds minimal standards of quality for free (as in beer), & you will find a ready market. Wikipedia's success was due to filling this niche.

No one connected with Wikipedia should consider ourselves geniuses just because we managed to be at the right place at the right time. Not even Jimmy Wales. Although almost of us commit that logical fallacy. Including Jimmy Wales.

Llywrch05:27, 13 March 2011

I can't address your question from an information technology point of view, that's out of my field of expertise. I can, however approach it from a biological point of views. What has happened with WP over the course of these years is akin to artificial selection, i.e. a breeding program. Let's imagine we are talking about potatoes here. What you have in WP is an advanced cultivar or a potato that is resistant to certain diseases (e.g. vandalism), has a high yield (editors with high counts of contributions) and needs less resources (experienced users don't need other users to explain them how everything works). On the other hand, new users are like landraces, i.e. cultivars that were developed by ancestral populations during the domestication of the wild relatives of cultivated potatoes. They don't have any of the desirable characteristics of the advanced cultivar, but it has a much higher biodiversity. And that's the reason why breeders in general are perpetually trying to cross their advanced cultivars with land races and even wild species related to the cultivated one. Because biodiversity is the key to overcome the challenge of a changing environment. Going back to WP, and making the metaphor explicit, what you're missing by closing doors to new editors is knowledge. If you keep experienced editors because they know how to edit, you're keeping out new editors that may have a better knowledge of the topics needed to write good articles. Even if we would assume that current experienced users have all the knowledge needed for the articles in WP, in time that will change. Either because new articles will require new expertise or because knowledge may change (as it rapidly does in scientific fields these days) WP will need new people to stay current. And on that note, may I also add that I feel currently WP values editing savvy over expertise in a topic. Asinthior 13:57, 17 May 2011 (UTC), 17 May 2011