Jim Giles reported last week in the New Scientist on a “new study” by Ed Chi and colleagues1 at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California that not only “the website’s explosive growth is tailing off” suggesting that the website peaked in 2006, but also that its regular community tends to “shut out new users” and “resist to new content”.
But is it really that new? Over two years ago (March 23, 2007), Geoffrey Burling had already asked Is Wikipedia approaching a barrier? He wrote then that two years earlier, he had “speculated that the growth of Wikipedia’s articles would plateau”. Later that yet (in June), Andrew Lih asked almost the same question, Wikipedia Plateau?, noting then what Chi suggests now, that “Sometime in September/October of 2006, the growth rate of Wikipedia dropped dramatically. It crossed over from overperform to underperform in that time. And it’s been mired in that slump ever since.”
As to the attitude of the Wikipedia “community”, it has been at times compared to a kindergarten playground, a clique or even a religion or a cult, with laws, endogenous and external wars and excommunications (see Ed Chi’s 2007 interesting presentation about Conflict and Coordination in Wikipedia). In 2005, Nick Carr, whose blog articles have been dissecting very intelligently and lucidly the social phenomena related to the Internet, reminded us of the New Age characteristics of the Web 2.0 in general and of Wikipedia in particular. He wrote of “its superficiality, its emphasis on opinion over reporting, its echolalia, its tendency to reinforce rather than challenge ideological extremism and segregation.” The problem is, he said, “When we view the Web in religious terms, when we imbue it with our personal yearning for transcendence, we can no longer see it objectively. (…) Might, on balance, the practical effect of Web 2.0 on society and culture be bad, not good?” (this is, incidentally, the title and the topic of Philippe Breton’s 2000 book, Le culte de l’Internet – une menace pour le lien social ?). More recently, Carr expounded the negative effects of the Web (and of Google, this time, in particular) on cognition in an article published in The Atlantic.
As to the behavior of the Wikipedia regular community as noted by the PARC researchers: the Personality Characteristics of Wikipedia Members have been a subject of research in 2007 by Yair Amichai-Hamburger and colleagues. In this study, they concluded, among other things, that “Variance analysis revealed significant differences between Wikipedia members and non-Wikipedia members in agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness, which were lower for the Wikipedia members.” In other words, Wikipedia members are less open than the average Internet users. So if we add to this the increasingly complex rules governing the Wikipedia and the cliquish behavior of its members, it is clear why they tend to “shut out new users”. Additionally, the increased technical complexity of the writing and cross-reference process is an ever-higher barrier for potential contributors who are not Wikipedia specialists but may be specialists in their domain (see e.g. this author’s discussion of a seminar about Wikipedia which took place in January 2008).
It may well be that the utopian, childhood, age of the Web (which is a characteristic of every new communication technology from the radio on, as Philippe Breton has shown in several interesting papers and books as early as 1995) is coming to an end and turning into adulthood, as if it were. One of the signs is what appears to be an emerging trend of restricting the amount of free contents provided by news media.
1 As the New Scientist does not cite a source, it is not clear where they got this information. Ed Chi’s bibliography lists a 2009 paper to be presented at the WikiSym 2009 conference next October, The Singularity is Not Near: Slowing Growth of Wikipedia? in which he is listed as the third co-author. If this is the source, the article should have attributed it to the first one, Bongwon Suh, rather than to “Ed Chi and colleagues.”
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