Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Wikipedia was founded in 2001 to provide a web based encyclopedia created, edited, and controlled by the masses.  The company has a very informal structure relying on a small number of employees to maintain the site and generate revenue while essentially outsourcing the content creation, editing, and control to volunteer contributors, known as Wikipedians.  Incredibly, the model has worked. Erroneous and/ or malicious updates are regularly deleted by other users who seek to provide the unbiased truth.  Wikipedia has set up a set of guidelines known as the Five Pillars of Wikipedia that govern the site’s content management process.  The Pillars are Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, has a neutral point of view, is free content, has a code of conduct, and does not have firm rules.  However, enforcement of these pillars has been largely left up to contributors as well mostly because of the 5th pillar Wikipedia does not have rules.  As such, content management has been the subject of many debates and has led to three distinct classes of Wikipedians in terms of how to deal with erroneous entries.
Deletionists are Wikipedians who believe that Wikipedia should be used to report accurate and unbiased information on as many topics that it can but no more.  Deletionists prefer not to add content to Wikipedia until such time that there is a significant amount of independent research to support the new topic.  While this mindset protects the Wikipedia brand from being tarnished by erroneous content, it also limits the site’s ability to stay current on emerging subject areas.
Inclusionists are the opposite of Deletionists.  These are the Wikipedians who believe that Wikipedia should offer as much content as possible and that through the process of editing, the unbiased facts will emerge and be validated by other users over time.  To Inclusionists, the argument that a topic has not yet been researched or developed enough to yield unbiased facts is not a reason to exclude it from Wikipedia.  Instead, they argue that emerging topics must be on the site to keep users informed of the most current developments and keep the site current and relevant.  The Inclusionist mindset does allow the possibility of erroneous content related to new topics to damage the Wikipedia brand.  However, this risk already exists because Wikipedia does not restrict update privileges to subject matter experts. 
The Middle Ground
The final class is comprised of Wikipedians who fall somewhere in between the Deletionists and Inclusionists.  This group is known as the Association of Wikipedians Who Dislike Making Broad Judgments About the Worthiness of a General Category of Article, and Who Are in Favor of the Deletion of Some Particularly Bad Articles, but That Doesn't Mean They Are Deletionist.  They believe that some content does in fact not belong on Wikipedia but others such as emerging topics should be on the site and allowed to be developed
By 2006, the divisions between the groups had widened to the point that it was beginning to wear on the community.  More troubling was that there was mounting evidence that new topics with limited source data were beginning to damage the Wikipedia brand.  Casual users could find information about a plethora of topics but the general perception was that it could not be trusted.  As this perception grows, it could enable a competitor to gain a foothold in the market and damage the brand.  Wikipedia Founder Jim Wales and the rest of the Wikipedia management team need to define a path forward for the community.  While the Deletionist mentality may be appropriate for topics that are well established, it does not lend itself well to emerging topics.  If Wikipedia follows the Deletionist mantra, it risks becoming irrelevant as many users go to Wikipedia to read about a new topic for the first time.  Worse yet, if Wikipedia deletes all topics that are not supported by enough independent research it allows a niche for a competitor to gain market share.  However, Wikipedia could not allow erroneous content posted on emerging topics to damage its brand either.  Users may rely less on Wikipedia if they feel that it is not reporting unbiased, fact-based information. 
Status Quo
Continuing down the current path is a strategy often left out of the decision making process but it does need to be considered.  At Wikipedia, the status quo is not necessarily broken.  Instead it could be argued that the process of creating, editing, and maintaining unbiased, fact-based content is working exactly as designed.  Wikipedians dividing into groups over when and how to create new topics and manage content may be a natural reaction to Wikipedia’s structure and lack of formal standards.  However, the status quo is also creating some discomfort within the community as more new topics without substantial independent research emerge at a growing rate.  Leaving the status quo in place may only allow a minor issue to snowball into a large problem.  However, if Wales were to come forward and reaffirm the company’s commitment to this process it may temporarily calm the storm and allow cooler heads to prevail.  This option does not require any significant capital investment and presents few short term risks as it would not change the Five Pillars that currently govern the site and its community.
Develop Criteria for New Topics
Defining what makes a topic eligible for Wikipedia would reduce the much of the debate of inclusion or deletion.  However, developing criteria to evaluate whether or not a topic is worthy for Wikipedia currently goes against the 5th Pillar which states that Wikipedia does not have firm rules.  While defining and implementing this policy would not require a significant investment, the consequences of such a policy would likely be far reaching as it would reshape the rules and norms of the Wikipedian community.
Disable the Delete Function
Management could disable the delete function or make the process of removing a topic more difficult by taking the stance that all topics are to be included unless it violates the Five Pillars of Wikipedia.  This follows the 1st Pillar that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and 2nd Pillar that it maintains a neutral point of view.  However, Wikipedia must protect its reputation and defend accuracy.  If Wikipedia allows topics with erroneous content to remain on its site until it can be edited, if it can be edited, it runs the risk of damaging its brand.  Wikipedia already has issues with its credibility.  Many in the academic and commercial worlds already look down on Wikipedia because the site allows updates by non-experts.  If Wikipedia makes it more difficult to delete topics, it prolongs the life of a topic that may not be worthy of an entry.  In doing so, it increases the opportunity for users to read the disputed entry and form a negative opinion about Wikipedia because of erroneous information.
Hybrid Approach
All of the above mentioned solutions offer some benefit to Wikipedia but all have significant risks.  Wikipedia could combine these solutions into a hybrid approach that would reaffirm the company’s commitment to its founding philosophy and take a stronger stance on referenced work.  Wikipedia cannot allow new topics with marginal source data to damage its reputation as an unbiased, fact based content provider.  Wikipedia can develop an alternate site where it can incubate new topics until such time as they provide unbiased, fact based data supported by multiple independent sources.  While this solution would require more capital investment and a significant change to the current process, it does solve the debate over what to do with new topics without alienating Wikipedians or damaging the brand’s reputation.
The hybrid approach provides the solution that will be accepted by most Wikipedians and must be recommended despite requiring the greatest investment.  This approach may also inadvertently create a niche market for a competitor to produce content on emerging topics but the hybrid approach allows Wikipedia to be the most useful (accurate and unbiased) to the most users.  The risk of creating a niche market for a competitor to exist creating data on emerging topics is relatively small as it would take a significant amount of time for any new entrant to develop a critical mass of content to be viewed as a credible source and rival Wikipedia.  More so the fact that any potential new entrant would likely be a niche service limits any potential impact it may have.   

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