Newbies or Better information?

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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.

09:05, 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!

11:11, 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)

18:19, 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

20:45, 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.

00:51, 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.

23:02, 11 March 2011