Friday, March 6, 2009

Can You Improve Wikipedia's Entry on Global Health?

After 27 months, Wikipedia's entry on "global health" is finally starting to take shape. I look at this as yet another lesson on the need to wait for (or build) a critical mass.

Not all conversations on the Web happen so fast and include so many partners that it makes your head spin. Some are so long and laborious that you might think the participants were Treebeard and the rest of Tolkien's Ents. Case in point: the 27-month long conversation behind Wikipedia's entry on "global health."

Back in June of 2005, a volunteer Wikipedia editor who went by the name "Drgregmartin" wrote a short entry on Wikipedia about "global health." A few months later, I came along and did a little copy-editing, added some historical context and a few external links.

By the fall of 2006, this short, not-great entry had morphed into something completely overgrown and unreadable. A number of anonymous users from several universities clearly decided to do a little self-promotion while others added several giant tangents or pet peeves. Eventually, the entry got flagged as "needing clean up."

So far, I have described the natural history of countless Wikipedia entries. An earnest soul writes a short piece, others discover it and soon so many editors have a hand in it that it morphs into something that is far worse than whatever it started off as. In the best circumstances, this chaotic phase settles down and editing becomes much more stable--and the writing and the rigor improve.

Trying to be a good Wikipedian, I started a conversation on the global_health talk page about how to fix the entry and get to the next, more stable phase of Wiki writing. My proposal was met with deafening silence.

Meanwhile, the entry was getting longer and less readable. I contemplated fixing things myself but figured I would be out-revised by the self-promoters. Every once in a while I would come back to check on things. The entry kept getting woolier and woolier. I chalked it up as a reality-check on how Wikipedia works: popular articles are more likely to be better.

But, every now and then, someone would add a comment on the talk page. In more than two years, there have in fact been seven responses--all fairly substantial. And here's the most intriguing thing: they actually can be read as a conversation with genuine give and take.

Gradually, a Wikipedian by the name of Useknowledge came along and edited the entry back to a form that is more manageable.

It is still not perfect, but it is an improvement over the original post. The next step, as someone who may be Evelyne de Leeuw from Australia wrote, is to try to make the focus more health-oriented and less disease-oriented.

So, what do you think? Will a community arise organically to do this or is going to take concerted effort by a few people to create that community?

Some of the more utopian aspects of the web have enchanted many of us into giving credence to an "if you build it, they will come" mindset.

For me, the history of the "global health" entry on Wikipedia so far shows the limitations of that ideal (especially since already there is a new, more sophisticated round of self-promotion happening with external links to a number of academic centers). But I was heartened by the improvements that did happen. I suspect, however, that I may need the lifespan of an Ent to see the full flowering of the global health entry.

Or you could prove me wrong by taking a crack at

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