Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Castle Built of Sand

Since I started Wikraffiti with friends, I've had ample time to scour the edit histories of articles on Wikipedia. MY objective in these searches is, unsurprisingly, to find amusing vandalism (as opposed to wholely purile, offensive, or incoherent vandalism). Wikipedians have adopted an approach that makes finding vandalism really, really easy, actually: anything an article is reverted, a little "rv" or "Reverted to" comment is made. What this has let me do is get a sense of the global frequency of vandalism.

What I'm beginning to find is a little worrisome to me. The largest, most general articles (e.g. Abraham Lincoln) are vandalised a half-dozen times a day, with very, very few meaningful contributions. It's as though an article reaches a certain maturity (where nothing more can readily be added), and from that point on, it's a battle to keep the article intact as droves of dumbasses descend on it from on-high. It's like I built a castle out of sand, but as it becomes a popular attraction, all I do anymore is follow people around repairing the damage they do, rather than improving the place.

What this might be a sign of is the early stages of a more mature Wikipedia (or any wiki, for that matter), where many major topics are as good as they can reasonably be expected to be, but receive constant pageviews, guaranteeing that assholes will vandalize it. In a way, it's a nightmare scenario compared to the much more enjoyable process of building a major article from scratch. Wikipedia's major success has, in large part, relied on the overall pleasantness of the process, allowing people to actually share their knowledge with the world in a meaningful way. What happens, however, when the areas that require expansion increasingly tend to be new trends and products, celebrities, and opaque technical terminology? The day-in, day-out slog of constantly rebuilding the fort as people proceed to trample it can't be especially pleasant.

The question is: can Wikipedia reach a saturation point where it can no longer sustain growth in areas of general interest, which in turns weakens its currently iron-clad reliability thanks to the constant attention of a host of dedicated Wikipedians? If Wikipedia cannot continue to replace active Wikipedians at the rate it looses them, will the quality "peak" and suddenly become less reliable?

Phenomena like Wikipedia are so new that it's impossible to say precisely how it will play out. Already, the counterintuitive success of open-source and community projects has many scratching their heads, and where things go next is a big (and admittedly exciting) unknown. The prospect that these are the golden times for now-big projects like Wikipedia is worrisome, though, not only because Wikipedia might get less good, but because at a more general levels, projects such as these (i.e. those that work on a centralized core of information) may stagnate.

For my part, I certainly hope people will act more maturely than that, but that's never a proposition I'm willing to back up with cash. A sucker's bet, if you will.


Post a Comment

<< Home