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Sun, 30 Dec 2018 00:18:40 -0800

Hi Yaroslav, 
Several recent developments relate to this situation which I think you have 
described reasonably well.
Short descriptions help a bit. But they are too short to help much
Simple Wikipedia tries to keep things simple and easily understood, but perhaps 
concentrates too much on a small vocabulary.
I do see a real need and a use for a "Readers Digest" or "executive summary" 
version of long and complex articles for people who doní»t have a need for the 
full story, but as a complementary version, possibly linked from the top of a 
desktop view, and possibly the primary target in mobile. This would not be 
needed for all articles.
Cheers,
Peter Southwood

-----Original Message-----
From: Wikimedia-l [mailto:wikimedia-l-boun...@lists.wikimedia.org] On Behalf Of 
Yaroslav Blanter
Sent: 29 December 2018 23:34
To: Wikimedia Mailing List
Subject: [Wikimedia-l] Is the death of Wikipedia imminent?

I have written a long text today (posted in my FB) which the readers of
this mailing list might find interesting. I copy it below. I understand
that it is very easy to critisize me for side issues, but if you want to
comment/reply I would appreciate if you address the main issue. The target
audience I was thinking about was general (not necessarily
Wikimedia-oriented), and for the readers from this mailing list the first
several paragraphs can sound trivial (or even trivial and wrong). I
apologize in advance.

Cheers
Yaroslav
_________________
I currently have a bit of time and can write on the future of Wikipedia.
Similarly to much of what I write it is probably going to be useless, but
someone may find it interesting. For simplicity, I will be explicitly
talking about the English Wikipedia (referring to it as Wikipedia). I am
active in other projects as well, and some of them have similar issues, but
there are typically many other things going on there which make the picture
more complicated.

Let us first look at the current situation. Wikipedia exists since 2001,
and in a couple of weeks will turn 18. Currently, it has 5.77 million
articles. I often hear an opinion that all important articles have already
been created. This is incorrect, and I am often the first person to point
out that this is not correct. For example, today I created an article on an
urban locality in Russia with the population of 15 thousands. Many articles
are indeed too short, badly written, or suffer from other issues, and they
need to be improved. There are new topics which appear on a regular basis:
new music performers, new winners of sports competitions or prizes, and so
on. As any Web 2.0 project, Wikipedia requires a regular cleanup, since
there are many people happy to vandalize the 5th website in the world in
terms of the number of views. However, as a general guideline, it is not so
much incorrect to state that all important things in Wikipedia have been
already written. Indeed, if someone looks for information in Wikipedia -
or, more precisely, uses search engines and gets Wikipedia as the first hit
— they are likely to find what they need with more than 99% chance.

In this sense, Wikipedia now is very different from Wikipedia in 2008 or
Wikipedia in 2004. Ten and especially fifteen years ago, everybody could
contribute something important. For example, the article on the 1951 film
"A Streetcar Named Desire", which won four Academy Awards, was started in
2005, as well as an article on Cy Twombly, at the time probably the most
famous living artist. This is not possible anymore. This is why the number
of active editors is currently dropping - to contribute to the content in a
meaningful way, one now has to be an advanced amateur - to master some
field of knowledge much better than most others do. Or one can be a
professional - but there are very few professionals contributing to
Wikipedia in their fields, and there are very few articles written at a
professional level. Attempts to attract professionals have been made for
many years, and, despite certain local success, generally failed. They have
been going now for long enough to assume they will never succeed on a large
scale. Wikipedia is written by advance amateurs for amateurs. However,
despite the decline in the number of editors, there are enough resources to
maintain and to expand the project. It does not mean there are no problems
- there are in fact many problems. One of the most commonly discussed one
is systemic bias - there is way more information on Wikipedia on subjects
pertaining to North America than to Africa, and if a topic is viewed on
differently in different countries, one can be sure that the American view
dominates. But it is usually thought - and I agree with this - that these
drawbacks are not crucial, and Wikipedia is atill a useful and sustainable
project. Wikipedia clearly has its ecosystem, there are no competitors to
talk about, and all attempts to fork it were unsuccessful. There is a
steady development, and everybody is happy.

Does this mean that everything is fine and we do not need to worry?, just
to wait until missing articles get written, or even to help this by writing
them ourselves?

Absolutely not. To understand this, we can look again at the editor base.
There are detailed studies, but, for a starter, it is a nightmare to edit
Wikipedia from a cell phone. It is possible but not much easier to edit it
from a tablet. The mobile version is different from a desktop one, and it
is not really optimized for editing. This is a known problem, but one
aspect of it is clear. Most Wikipedia editors actually own a desktop and a
laptop. This brings them into 18+ category. There are of course exceptions,
but the fact is that the editor base gets older, and this is a problem. The
problem is not so much at this point that we all die and there will be
nobody to edit Wikipedia. The problem is that the next generation (18-) has
very different ways of getting information. And I guess they are not
interested in editing Wikipedia, and they will not get interested when they
grow up - possibly beyond introducing minor corrections, which can be done
from a phone.

Traditionally, students were always among the core of the editors base.
They already have some knowledge and they still have time to edit. When
they graduate, find a job and start a family, they have way less time and
typically stop editing. The next group are retirees. Between students and
retirees, we have a tiny fraction of dedicated enthusiasts who are ready to
take time from work and family, but they are really not numerous. Well, and
very soon we are going to lose students as editors. And we should be happy
if we do not lose them as readers.

I am 51, and I do not know much about the 18- generation, but I know two
important things about them. They have a very short attention span and
difficulties to concentrate. And they get a graphical and visualized
information much more easier than texts. For example, my son is capable of
watching three or four movies per day, but he has difficulties to read 20
pages from a book.

Well, the first question is whether an encyclopedia is an appropriate / the
best format for them to get knowledge (as it is for us). I do not know the
answer. What I write below assumes that the answer is positive, otherwise
the rest of the text does not make sense.

The next question is what should be done. How Wikipedia should look like to
be accessible to this generation? The answer seems to be obvious. Articles
must be short and contain a lot of graphic information. May be they need to
be videoclips. Short clips. Or, at lest, they must contain clips, with more
voice and less letters. If one needs more detailed information or just
further information - one hops to the next article or watches the next clip.

This is a paradigm shift. Currently, the editors generally consider that it
is good to have long Wikipedia articles - because long means more complete.
Sometimes there are even proposals (fortunately isolated and without
followup) to delete all short articles even if they describe notable topics
and contain verified information. Clips are almost not in use.  Of course
they still need to be made, but this is not such a big problem - there are
plenty of school students who have their own youtube channel, if they can
make clips, everybody can.

The most difficult question is how this can be realized. I believe it is
not possible to just transform Wikipedia like this - make articles shorter
and simpler and spit them. First, this might be good for the young
generation, but this is still not good for the 18+ generation. Second, such
reforms should be either be approved by Wikipedia community through
consensus, or be imposed by the Wikimedia Foundation who owns the project.
The likelihood of either is zero. Just to give one argument, the community
is, well, the community of editors, of the same 18+ people with laptops who
have no difficulties reading long texts.

I envision it differently. Ideally, we have the Wikipedia as it is now, but
on top of this, every article has a collection of shorter companion
articles, simple and a paragraph or two long, so that each of them can be
read in half a minute, They should not have excessive markup, references,
categories or anything else which can be found in the main article if
needed. References in Wikipedia are required not for the sake of having
references, but as a means to ensure that the information is verifiable -
and if the main article does it the companion articles do not need to. Some
of these companion articles can be in fact clips - there is a difficulty
that clips can not be edited collaboratively, but I am sure this one can be
solved. If anybody wants to solve it.

The status of what I have written above is science fiction. I am sure if I
come with this proposal to a village pump of Wikipedia, it will be dead
within a day. In addition, it requires some modifications of MediaWiki
which can only be done by the Foundation. And I am not really looking
forward for the Foundation implementing this either. I have a lot of
respect for some of the Foundation employees, but it has now grown up into
a big corporation now and behaves as a big corporation, where some people
care less about the product and more about other things, and some look at
Wikipedia editors, aka "unorganized volunteers", as some annoying
phenomenon, which they can tolerate but are not willing to listen to. My
forecast is pretty pessimistic. Unless a miracle happens (and I currently,
at least not from my perspective, do not see any reasons for a miracle to
happen), soon or late will realize this, It might be a startup company, or
a non-commercial. And Wikipedia will stay as it is, and, after the
standards change many times, it will not be readable / accessible to most
of internet users, and will slowly die. And the results of what were were
doing for 20 years will disappear. This is a usual development and happens
to almost every human activity. We know that only a few percents of pieces
of Ancient Greek and Roman literature survived until now.

Yaroslav Blanter, editor and administrator of the English Wikipedia, 125
000 edits.
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