Visualizing Wikipedia

Visualizing Wikipedia

This Saturday marks the 10-year anniversary of Wikipedia, a site that's become a paragon of crowdsourced knowledge, and such a pillar of the web that, like Google, it had to be verbed. Need to learn more about China's history, istopes of aluminium, or how, exactly, a nettie pot works? Maybe you want a quick-and-dirty biography of Madame Curie, George Soros, or Fidel Castro. Wiki any of these subjects — or one of more than 17 million other entries — and you will join 78 million others who now traffic the site each month (statistics brought to you, unabashedly, from Wiki's own About page).

As Doc Searles, the Senior Editor for Linux Journal, recently wrote on his blog: "You may notice that most of my links to subjects, both in my online writings and in my photo captions, go to Wikipedia entries. Sometimes people ask me why. One reason is that Wikipedia is the closest we have come, so far, to a source that is both canonical and durable, even if each entry changes constantly, and some are subject to extreme disagreement."

This visualization illustrates a slice of that disagreement: the top 100 articles that, after much deliberation, Wiki's editors have chosen to delete.

Created by designer Moritz Stefaner, in collaboration with cognition researcher Dario Tara­borelli and informaticist Gio­vanni Luca Ciampaglia, the branching diagram depicts what in Wiki parlance are known as AfD discussions — ­Article for Deletion discussions. According to Searles, any editor can nominate an article for deletion and, if this nomination is legitimate, a community discussion takes place where fellow editors have the opportunity to make their voices heard. The usual process is to have a week-long discussion during which community members can discuss in favor or against keeping the article. At the end of this period an administrator reviews the discussion and speaks the final verdict.

Here we see the 100 longest AfD conversations in Wiki's ten-year history that ultimately resulted in a negative verdict. Each discussion, writes Stefaner, is represented by a thread beginning at the bottom center of the graphic. When a new Wiki editor joins the discussion and makes a recommendation to "keep," "merge," or "re-direct" the entry, the designers added a left-tilting green segment. When a new editor advises "delete," they added a red segment tilting to the right. As the discussion tapers off, and the line stops growing, it traces a distinctive pattern of "Deletes" and "Keeps."

With Wikipedia's soaring success, it's easy to take the online resource for granted. But keeping the sites' burgeoning mass of information from devolving into a tangled mess takes work. It's like a garden, says Searles, that needs constant weeding. Today there are more than 91,000 active Wikipedians working on articles in some 270 language — editorial greenthumbs who have challenged the assumption that free and open libraries can't be, with proper tending, as reliable as the venerable Britannica or OED. After all, they do encounter articles that raise questions, invite concerns, or simply aren't up to Wikipedia snuff. And on the strength of gathered consensus, they do, occasionally, press Delete.

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