Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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More on Wikipedia usage / prod-users & pro-sumers

April 28th, 2006 by Seb Chan

Andrew McAfee at Harvard posts about Wikipedia statistics and discusses whether or not it is realistic to expect consumer to producer ratios to be higher in enterprise uses of wikis and blogs than in the real world.

What is interesting are the figures for Wikipedia from their November 2005 statistics.

I think there’s also a long tail among people, and it relates not to willingness to consume (i.e. demand) but rather to willingness to produce. In November of 2005, the most recent month for which comprehensive stats are available, Wikipedia had over 850,000 articles in English, and 2.9 million across all languages (including more than 10,000 in Esperanto). This content was generated by fewer than 50,000 contributors in English, and 103,000 total.

A ‘contributor’ is defined by Wikipedia as someone with a user ID who’s made at least ten total edits. Anonymous and more casual participants are certainly important at Wikipedia, but it’s my understanding that the bulk of actual content comes from the population of contributors (please correct me if this is wrong). And even this population is skewed: active English wikipedians (more than 5 contributions in a month) numbered 15,600 last November, and very active (100 or more) numbered only 2081.

The Internet lets Amazon aggregate demand for books at the end of the long tail, and thereby profit. The Net also lets Wikipedia aggregate supply from people at the end of the long tail of willingness to produce, and we all profit. But these people are a tiny, tiny fraction of all Internet users.

Wikipedia DOES have very low barriers to participation – indeed anyone CAN edit. But obviously not everyone does. This is something that plays out across ALL media, new and old.

For some reason we are quite happy to accept that not everyone is a writer, film maker, or even wants to publically share their photographs, but we find it difficult to accept that not everyone will (want to) be a blogger, wiki-writer, or even an active participant in web 2.0-related activities.

Nicholas Carr, known for his 2.0 skepticism, commenting on McAfee’s post writes

McAfee makes a critically important point. But I’d go even further. Although wikis and other Web 2.0 platforms for the creation of content are often described in purely egalitarian terms – as the products of communities of equals – that’s just a utopian fantasy. In fact, the quality of the product hinges not just, or even primarily, on the number of contributors. It also hinges on the talent of the contributors – or, more accurately, on the talent of every individual contributor. No matter how vast, a community of mediocrities will never be able to produce anything better than mediocre work. Indeed, I would argue that the talent of the contributors is in the end far more important to quality than is the number of contributors. Put 5,000 smart people to work on a wiki, and they’ll come up with something better than a wiki created by a million numbskulls.

The quality of any entry in Wikipedia, for instance, is ultimately determined not by how many people work on it but by how many talented people work on it. An entry written by a single expert will be better than an entry written by a hundred fools. When you look deeply into Wikipedia, beyond the shiny surface of “community,” you see that the encyclopedia is actually as much, or more, a product of conflict than of collaboration: It’s an endless struggle by a few talented contributors to clean up the mess left by the numbskull horde.

What has this go to do with ‘prod-users’ and ‘pro-sumers’?

My feeling is that in working so closely with production technologies ourselves – which have come down in price and have become relatively ubiquitous amongst our peers – we have begun to lose sight of the majority who don’t want produce (regardless of continually lowering barriers to participation and incentives). Or, that will only produce, insofar as ‘production’ relates to the production of ‘meaning’ through the act of reading a text.

And that ‘interactivity’ will, for the many (the vast majority) will remain a relatively trivial act of SMS voting on a reality TV show, or reading (and not contributing to) a blog, a website about the latest blockbuster, or simply reading/following (but not adding to) the walkthrough on their latest xBox/PS2-3 game.

For everyone who ‘produces’ and shapes their public identity through a MySpace page, blog, or even just through a post to a forum, there are a far greater number who don’t and won’t. It is worth remembering that for many digital natives, teenagers and the like, the internet is a communication tool used primarily for instant messaging (cf the continuing popularity of MSN) – not the creation of more formalised and less transient identity production like MySpace. And even when this creation does occur it is often communication-purpose driven (see Facebook)

We need to remember that not only has technology opened up the means of production, it has also opened up the means to consumption (search technologies especially) – and that these are not necessarily directly connected.

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