Something Wikied This Way Comes

Thanks to a friend of mine I came across a Newsweek article titled “Take this Blog and Shove It” from the beginning of August that announced the imminent death throes of Wikipedia and cheerfully proclaimed an end to the whole crowd source movement.  Apparently the number of contributors to Wikipedia has been in such decline that Wikipedia has been forced to–oh the horror–actually go out and recruit people, college students no less, to work on its content.

It’s not a great article.

In fact, it’s a really crappy article.  I mean, when you are left trying to explain a complex phenomenon by appealing to “human nature” then it is a pretty clear sign that you have neither the knowledge base nor the analytical chops to cope with such a topic and you should go back to manufacturing horoscopes.  But that is what assemblers (one hesitates to call them writers, authors, or journalists) Dokoupil and Wu resort to: Wikipedia’s woes can be explained by an appeal to a human preference for sloth.  Right.

In typical journalistic fashion they quickly string a few facts together and cobble together a trend:

Evidence of this ennui is everywhere. Amateur blogs, the original embodiment of Web democracy, are showing signs of decline. While professional bloggers are “a rising class,” according to Technorati, hobbyists are in retreat, and about 95 percent of blogs are launched and quickly abandoned. A recent Pew study found that blogging has withered as a pastime, with the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who identify themselves as bloggers declining by half between 2006 and 2009. A shift to Twitter—or microblogging, as it’s called—partly accounts for these numbers. But while Twitter carries more than 50 million tweets per day, its army of keystrokers may not be as large as it seems. As many as 90 percent of tweets come from 10 percent of users, according to a 2009 Harvard study.

The sloppiness here is quite striking.  What exactly is being quoted at “Technorati?”  Which Pew study are they referring to?  Since the article was posted on the web, God forbid that they should actually include anything as revolutionary as a link or anything.  I’m assuming, however, that it was the February 2010 report on “Social Media and Young Adults.” There, indeed, the authors report that blogging on the part of those aged 12-29 fell from 28% to 14% in a three year period.  During the same period, however, blogging by people over 30 rose from 7% to 11%, an interesting trend to say the least (and one that parallels the number of people over 30 taking to Facebook in droves).

Moreover, their discussion of Twitter is a bit of a red herring in this regard, since the same report notes that only 8% of the younger group use Twitter.  (I am both greatly encouraged for the future of our planet and discouraged for its present by that statistic: all the “kids today” with their supposedly short attention spans have stayed away from the idiocy of Twitter in droves; it is, instead, the fossils of my generation who are wetting themselves silly over it.  Getting a Twitter account may be the best predictor yet of the onset of mid-life crisis.).  I wouldn’t let any of my students get away with this kind of sloppy analysis and cherry-picking research, but this is almost de rigeur in mainstream journalism.

Now there could be many reasons for the shift charted by the article.  Because Dokoupil and Wu are determined to smack these uppity young’uns with their utopian dreams and airy-fairy crowd sourcing into next Sunday they offer the idea that no one wants to work for free.  Hence, the problem is that all of these once enthusiastic young people are feeling like they need to be “compensated.”  They mean that in the sense of tangible rewards (because, they want us to believe, underneath all facade this generation growing up in the new media revolution is really just as lazy and venal as their elders).

The Lonely Crowd

Explanation 1: The Romantic in me (and it is a pretty small part, admittedly) would like to believe that blogging etc. is declining because all those twenty-somethings are too busy getting out and living their lives.  As opposed to those of us over 30, who are clearly taking up blogging to write about the lives we wish we had had when we were twenty.

Explanation 2: However the Pew study probably hits a little closer to the mark (even closer than Newsweek? No!  Surely not) when they argue that perhaps younger people are now using social media like Facebook to get what they got–or, more likely, didn’t get–from blogging.  In this sense  the Newsweek piece may be partially right: the problem is compensation, but not tangible compensation.  The problem is rather the lack of intangible compensation associated with activities like blogging (or editing Wikis).

Writing at all, not to mention writing well, is bloody hard.  It is also time-consuming, however many tools you throw at it.  Here it is worth noting that the majority of nifty little tools associated with blogging haven’t made the actual graft of producing original content any easier; they have simply made it easier to capture and recirculate–we Digg, and Redditize, and Facebookificate–someone else’s content and then offer a brief comment on it.

I suspect that many bloggers have abandoned their blogs after discovering the truth that writers have known for centuries.  You don’t want “followers,” you don’t want “subscribers,” much less the legions of anonymous dolts who show up on your comment pages only to stream piss in an attempt to compensate for the wretched state of their own lives.  What you want is an audience.

Since human beings first learned how to put stick to papyrus, writing, for the few who aren’t either writing for patronage, profit or for a job at someone else’s behest has often been a cold, thankless activity.  Not that I subscribe to the myth of the isolated artistic genius misunderstood by everyone.  That’s another form of compensation designed to make artists in particular feel better about their shit lives.  Acquiring an audience has always been the result of an almost impossible conjunction of timing, marketing, taste and sheer dumb luck.

Web 2.0 enthusiasts fell into the same trap as the early Web 1.0 enthusiasts (hey, there’s this great new thing, you can link to anything else!) in mistaking ease of production, publication and recirculation for the ability to establish meaningful connections, which is what cultivating an audience is all about.  And when you do cultivate that audience it seldom gives you any tangible benefits: it is more the simple enjoyment that someone enjoyed what you wrote, or was moved by it, or took it in an unexpected but singularly apt direction.  There’s a feeling of having made, at least temporarily, and probably fleetingly, a connection.

Obviously there are bloggers out there who have large audiences.  But what the declining number of bloggers demonstrates, I think, is that bloggers haven’t been much more successful, on average, than writers in general at acquiring mass audiences.  In fact, as a blogger, it is pretty hard to acquire any kind of substantial audience.  When you figure that out, writing just becomes, for most people, too damn hard to justify those one or two daily hits (and those mostly due to someone mistyping the name of some animal-based sex act into a search engine).

So yes, I wouldn’t be surprised that people were turning to Facebook.  While people, especially teenagers, do get carried away to the point of absurdity with the whole friend thing, what you get with Facebook is something very much more like an audience.  People responding to you, giving feedback, connecting. . .or at least doing a passable simulation of said activities.

Explanation 3: However, I’m not sure that is all there is to it.  I’ve started to notice my students, for example, “burning out on the whole Facebook thing.”  One of the first things they seem to do after leaving college (or, increasingly, while they are still in college) is do a massive purge of their hypertrophic friends lists and begin to limit their Facebook activity.  So perhaps there is some other explanation for where all these people are going if they aren’t going to blogging or Facebook.

Perhaps they are playing games.  After all, the period following 2006 has seen an explosion in the popularity of online multiplayer gaming in particular.  If you are looking for connection, for socialization, and for exchanges that are typically more meaningful and fulfilling than 140 characters of drool or pressing a “Like” button, then these days you head into the fantasy worlds of the Internet.

Indeed, the kind of behavior observed by the Pew study–overhyped potential leading to massive enthusiastic adoption followed by reality check and disillusion followed by a mad exodus in search of the new shiny–looks very much like the standard MO of MMORPG players.

No evidence, just speculation.  But hey, maybe that is enough to get me a job at Newsweek!


There is, of course, considerable irony here. It isn’t Wikipedia that is in danger of disappearing but Newsweek itself.   Newsweek is a legacy media institution that is in its death throes largely through failure to adapt to a changing media climate (damn!  if they just could have figured out this newfangled hyperlinking thang!).  Gutted, and recently dumped by The Washington Post for a bargain basement price, the aging mag is, like many of its print brethren, not long for the world.  So maybe you can excuse Dokoupil and Wu here; they probably no longer have an editor to check their work, and are hence free to channel all their frustration at the fact they soon won’t have a job into a roundhouse blow aimed at the very forces that have rendered them obsolete.

Pity they missed.