Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Friday, June 20, 2008

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dion McGregor (1922–1994) was a New York City-born songwriter, whose main claim to fame is that he was a voluble dreamer, or somniloquist.

Deletionism by the numbers

Deletionism continues to annoy the public. Plus, they finally know it's called deletionism!

It wouldn't matter to me if it was just about the article being deleted. But it's about more than that, which makes me sad (see kitten).

Let's run the numbers.

Everyone who adds knowledge to wikipedia does so for a reason. The motives might vary (that warm fuzzy feeling of helping humanity? enjoying the sound of one's own fingers on the keyboard?), but let's invent a generalized unit of contributor motivation called a kitten.

1 kitten = the amount of motivation needed to get 1 person to spend 1 minute trying to improve an article

We can say, quite literally, that Wikipedia runs on kittens. In fact, entrepreneurs discover this every day when they try to start a "crowdsourcing" site and nobody shows up.

So, what generates kittens? Foremost, it's the possibility of someone else learning from what you wrote -- not just immediately, but at any time in the future. (This point is vital; I'll come back to it.)

The Heavy Metal umlaut article contains a history section that begins:

The German progressive rock band Amon Düül II (aka Amon Duul II) released their first album in 1969. However, their name came from "Amon, an Egyptian sun god, and Düül, a character from Turkish fiction", so this use of umlauts was not gratuitous. The third part of Yes's progressive rock epic "Starship Trooper" is entitled "Würm" (on The Yes Album, released 1971). However, this again is probably not gratuitous, seemingly coming from the Würm glaciation.
That section is read by about 700 people per day.

Now, how many people will read that section over the entire course of history? It's actually possible to estimate this using calculus. (Even if, like me, you failed that course.)

Imagine that for every day that passes, there's a 1-in-ten-thousand chance that the Heavy Metal Umlaut article will vanish even without getting formally deleted (wikimedia servers might perish in a global thermonuclear war, for example).

Now, if this has already happened, and you have somehow escaped ArthurDent-style, you can key in the data to your portable Hitch Hiker's Guide and come out with something like this:

The area underneath the line is the total number of views. If the article has been around for five years, that's:

5 years x 365 days a year x 700 views a day = 1,277,500 views

That's a lot of kittens. And note that the sooner nuclear war happens, the fewer kittens there are (because who's going to write about umlauts when they should be stocking the fallout shelter?).

Even if you have no way of knowing the exact date the article will be destroyed, only the chance it has of surviving each day, you can still graph the effective number of times the article will be viewed on a particular day in the future.

Even with a 1-in-a-ten-thousand chance of blowing up each day, the article's likely to last the better part of a century!

Just the same way, you can find the total number of times the article's been viewed before a particular day. This is just the area underneath the first graph:

With a 1-in-ten-thousand chance of being destroyed each day, the article will rack up exactly seven million views over its lifetime.

That, my friends, is just a fuckload of kittens.

So what exactly is the point of all this? And did you really fail calculus?

Yes, but nevermind that. The point is that deletionism is very damaging.

This is a story about trees.
I think of the oak beams in the ceiling of College Hall at New College, Oxford. Last century, when the beams needed replacing, carpenters used oak trees that had been planted in 1386 when the dining hall was first built. The 14th-century builder had planted the trees in anticipation of the time, hundreds of years in the future, when the beams would need replacing.
Think about that: what would it be like to live in a climate of such incredible stability? And how many factors allowed the college to survive?
  • It was never expunged by a theocratic regime (political stability).
  • It was never destroyed in a war (geographic location on a rainy island far from napolean and hitler).
  • It was never invaded by marauding wolves (luck?).
If you wanted to graph Oxford University, its daily survival rate would be like 99.99999%.

Stability is a good thing. (There's a reason singapore solved malaria before it could embark on economic growth. Time-sensitivity keeps people poor. If you're worried about dying from malaria, you might just take that 5000% payday loan.)

Stability is also what gets people to write articles for keeps. And even tiny changes in the daily chance of deletion create huge cumulative effects over time.

These videos show the lifetime pageviews of an article, just like before. (The horizontal scale is ten years, instead of a hundred. The first video shows views per day; the second shows total views.)

At the start of the videos, the daily chance of the article vanishing is 1 in 10,000. At the end, it's 1 in 500.

Here are direct links, if you're reading this via feed: 1, 2.

But that's oversimplified!

Well, it's just an illustration. There are all sorts of feedback loops and variations between articles, and the whole thing is far too complex to analyze using the mathematical part of your brain; you need the social part (which is 10 times bigger).

And really, the social part already knows that deletionism sucks. :)

I'd like to thank red bull for making this article possible. If you enjoyed it, and want to help me buy more red bull, you can pre-order our upcoming book, How Wikipedia Works.



Hostile media effect

Escaping the tech ghetto

More about the foundation's experiment in turning middle-aged and elderly people into wikipedians.

Even if some of us were long-time Wikipedia contributors we learned a lot about Wikipedia within the first week:
  • the longer Wikipedians contribute to Wikipedia the more they forget that Wikipedia is a very complex system. Newcomers are overwhelmed by this complexity and often don't know where to start.
  • Wikipedia's help pages are confusing. The printed brochure "Das kleine Wikipedia-Einmaleins" we distributed at the opening (see the picture on the right hand; click on the picture to download the PDF) was much more useful as older people prefer printed material to online material.
I think this is a good time to plug my book, How Wikipedia Works

Sunday, June 15, 2008

An older generation of Wikipedians?

The foundation is starting a program to turn senior citizens into "trainers" who will be able to run their own Wikipedia workshops.

The course will last six weeks. During the first weeks the participants will learn the basics of how to edit Wikipedia articles. In a second phase the participants will collaboratively develop a concept for Wikipedia courses for senior citizens. Subsequently, the participants should be able to act as Wikipedia evangelists and motivate other people of their age to contribute to Wikipedia.
This is a great idea; it's easy to forget how big the gap is between techies and the general public (McCain doesn't know how to use a computer, for example; Peter Jennings submitted his stories on a typewriter until the day he died).

I just hope Wikipedia itself will be welcoming when the seniors actually hit the water. Has anyone tried showing Wikipedia to people over 60? How did they react?