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Wikipedia introduces new software for its editors

Molly Wood Dec 29, 2011

Wikipedia has always been somewhat idyllic in its business model: an enormous treasury of knowledge accumulated and edited by The Whole World. We all collaborate, as brothers and sisters, to build the world’s greatest encyclopedia that is ever expanding and improving.

The thing is: the plan worked. Wikipedia is huge and it is exhaustive and it is run by volunteers for the most part. The problem is that while readership is very high, placing Wikipedia consistently in the top five most popular web properties, the number of people working on it has not increased accordingly. The number of editors is flat and the number of administrators has actually dropped. This is worrisome to the people in charge.

There are a lot of reasons for this. One is technical. Go to a Wikipedia page, hit edit, and see this huge wall of programming code daring you to alter it. It’s intimidating. People don’t want to deal with that. To that end, Wikipedia is introducing new software that makes the experience of writing and editing much more like a common word processing or blogging experience.

The other challenge is greater: editorial. The community of Wikipedia editors is very exacting about what gets to live on the site and what doesn’t. The citations need to be meticulous, there are long squabbles among the editors, it can feel like you’re trapped in a discussion between highly pernicious English teachers. And who wants to be there? That’s not fun. And that’s not how it used to be. The idea of the collaborative Wikipedia experience was that you could go on a topic page, add what you knew, if it really didn’t belong, someone would fix it.

“You’re already starting to see some very popular topics, things you would think that Wikipedia would be THE go-to place, having some problems,” says Andrew Lih, who teaches journalism at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. “So to take something very much in pop culture, almost everyone knows that Justin Bieber has a girlfriend, a very famous girlfriend, Selena Gomez. You will not find a single mention of her in his article because of the very high stringent standards for verifiability, and that it’s actually very hard to find a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or USA Today article definitively saying they are boyfriend and girlfriend.”

“The strange thing is that Wikipedia, when it was rising, was always the place to go to for things that you couldn’t find in Britannica or the World Book, things that were recent, things that everyone knew about and you wanted to find a definitive reference source for and now Wikipedia is starting to fail in some of these areas simply because it’s a high standard, and it’s harder for new people to edit in Wikipedia.”

Going forward, Wikipedia has to pull off something of a balancing act. “Probably the reason Wikipedia has decided to tackle the software side of the problem first is that it’s the low hanging fruit,” says Andrew Famiglietti, assistant professor of emerging media and communication at the University of Texas at Dallas. “The challenge of changing the way that people respond to new material posted by new users, changing the way that they relate to one another is going to be much harder because Wikipedia needs to find a way to make the community more friendly to new users without alienating or pushing away the experienced users who make up such an important part of their community.”

Also in this program, YouTube has a new way for you to kill a few minutes at the office. It’s called Slam.

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