September 22, 2020

When Wikipedia Converges

Many readers, responding to my recent quality-check on Wikipedia, have argued that over time the entries in question will improve, so that in the long run Wikipedia will outpace conventional encyclopedias like Britannica. It seems to me that this is the most important claim made by Wikipedia boosters.

If a Wikipedia entry gets enough attention, then it will likely change over time. When the entry is new, it will almost certainly improve by adding more detail. But once it matures, it seems likely that it will reach some level of quality and then level off, executing a quality-neutral random walk, with the changes reflecting nothing more than minor substitutions of one contributor’s style or viewpoint for another.

I’d expect a similar story for Wikipedia as a whole, with early effort spent mostly on expanding the scope of the site, and later effort spent more on improving (or at least changing) existing entries. Given enough effort spent on the site, more and more entries should approach maturity, and the rate of improvement in Wikipedia as a whole should approach zero.

This leaves us with two questions: (1) Will enough effort be spent on Wikipedia to cause it to reach the quality plateau? (2) How high is the quality plateau anyway?

We can shed light on both questions by studying the evolution of individual entries over time. Such a study is possible today, since Wikipedia tracks the history of every entry. I would like to see the results of such a study, but unfortunately I don’t have time to do it myself.

Comments

  1. Entries will mature, but that maturity will be relative to the maturity of a particular topic as a whole. For example, the entry on you will mature, but continue to change as there becomes new information available about you. Once you die, then we will see changes in the entry on you dwindle, most likely.

    Wikipedia will continue to expand and improve as human knowledge and experience, at least those things worthy of entry in an encyclopedia, will expand. Wikipedia will expand faster as it gathers the vast storehouse of existing knowledge, but will still continue to expand as knowledge is created.

  2. David Bolton says:

    Could the study of Wikipedia’s accuracy be enhanced by asking that correctors note somewhere (in Wikipedia presumably) the number and types of errors (factual, disputed, etc) they found on a page when they issued the correction. After a period of time has elapsed this may help determine estimates of errors in Wikipedia in different classes of entries. Could this be determined from the logs of changes already?

  3. Scott Preece says:

    It would be interesting to know how often wikipedia articles are essentially replaced by new presentations of the topic, as opposed to piecemeal corrections of bits within articles.

  4. I think I agree that most entries will eventually cease to significantly change. But it’s not an issue of maturity or quality, it’s a consequence of a sociological fact that Alex Halavais uncovered.

    Articles have guardians. People who look for changes in “their” article and resist them. I’m certain these are largely the contributors to the article. Consider this sequence: A writes an initial version of an article; B comes along and adds to the article, essentially orthogonally to A; A, standing guard over what he has written, does not object to most of what B wrote; now both A and B guard the article; if C comes along with a viewpoint orthogonal to both A and B, then A and B will allow C’s addition–C joins the guardians; if C comes along contradicting A or B (or both), then A and/or B will “correct” C’s contribution out of existence. At some point this process stops. An article reaches the point where no significant change can be made without treading on the toes of one or more of the guardians. As long as the guardians remain watchful, that article will stabilize. People are jealous of what they have created.

    Perhaps over a long period of time, some guardians may relax their watch, lose interest, move on to other things. That would provide an opening for a new point of view to enter an article.