Wikipedia Case Study

Fascinating case study on the history and sub-culture of Wikipedia by Karim Lakhani and Andrew McAfee of HBS.

The study delves into the evolution of Wikipedia and makes for an interesting read. You can see the controllers of Wikipedia struggling to strike a balance between the need to empower people and the need to ensure that the system is reliable. The result – Wikipedia has more than 10 times the number of articles available in Encyclopedia Britannica, an extremely high page-rank, and a community that, although rickety and slow at times, produces an astonishing quantity of quality content. Nick Carr, has an interesting take on the bureaucracy at Wikipedia (reminded me of a number of big corporations):

For some of us, the popular online encyclopedia has become more interesting as an experiment in emergent bureaucracy than in emergent content. Slashdot today points to Dirk Riehle’s fascinating interview with three high-ranking Wikipedians, Angela Beesley, Elisabeth “Elian” Bauer, and Kizu Naoko.23 (See Dirk Riehle’s article (PDF). Note that the article is copyrighted and does not fall under GFDL.) They describe Wikipedia’s increasingly complex governance structure, from its proliferation of hierarchical roles to its “career paths” to its regulatory committees and processes to its arcane content templates. We learn that working the bureaucracy tends to become its own reward for the most dedicated Wikipedians: “Creating fewer articles as time goes on seems fairly common as people get caught up in the politics and discussion rather than the editing.” And we learn that the rules governing the deletion of an entry now take up “37 pages plus 20 subcategories.” For anyone who still thinks of Wikipedia as a decentralized populist collective, the interview will be particularly enlightening. Wikipedia is beginning to look something like a post-revolutionary Bolshevik Soviet, with an inscrutable central power structure wielding control over a legion of workers.24

Another interesting piece of the study deals with the tussle between different visions of what Wikipedia should be:

As the encyclopedia grew, a tension appeared between Wikipedians who had broad and narrow definitions of notability, or what made a topic worthy of a Wikipedia article. Inclusionists adopted the slogan “Wikipedia is not paper,” reflecting their belief that since new articles consumed no scarce resources, they should be encouraged and welcomed because they would help make Wikipedia more comprehensive. Their Wikipedia page stated:

Inclusionism is a philosophy held by Wikipedians who favour keeping and amending problematic articles over deleting them. Inclusionists are also generally less concerned with the question of notability, and instead focus on whether or not an article is factual.

If, for example, an article has some good content and some substandard content, the inclusionist will see the good content as reason to keep the article and, like eventualists, will have faith that the wiki process will improve the substandard content in time.

Deletionists, in contrast, maintained that “Wikipedia is not a junkyard.” Their page stated:

Deletionism is a philosophy held by some Wikipedians that favors clear and relatively rigorous standards for accepting articles, templates or other pages to the encyclopedia. Wikipedians who broadly subscribe to this philosophy are more likely to request that an article that they believe does not meet such standards be removed, or deleted.

Deletionists’ two central goals were to “1) Outpace rampant inclusionism and 2) Further our goal of a quality encyclopedia containing as little junk as possible.”

Overall, the authors have done a great job putting together a case that reads well along with exhibits that provide a lot of interesting information for those who are not very familiar with how Wikipedia works.

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4 thoughts on “Wikipedia Case Study

  1. A fascinating read. The evolution of Wikipedia (Deletionists and Inclusionists?) will serve as a case study for future endeavors in mass collaboration. Nick Carr also has a great post titled “Wikipedia’s cash crunch”. It seems altruistic to keep Wikipedia ad-free, but at what cost?

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