I've been thinking about commenting on "reader contributions" for weeks, but I keep putting it off because I want to be positive, and because it's hard to explain what I'm trying to say. But I'll try.
The current Wikipedia model (basically) has two categories of users:
- Readers: Simple. They come seeking information, they are hopefully well served, and they hopefully leave happy. Our core mission is accomplished.
- Editors: Editors have free access to powerful tools, editors are largely trusted to do almost anything at will.
Why it works:
- Editing tools are publicly accessible, but they are presented with low-profile links in a basically Pull technology. Someone who isn't particularly interested in editing will ignore the links. If they do randomly explore the links they'll realize it's not want they're looking for. They move on. The tools are generally only used by people who take a serious interest in the project.
- We expect to be able to communicate with other editors. That is how we teach and socialize them.
- People who make bad edits generally quit, or eventually get blocked. Either way, the inflow of bad contributions is terminated. That quality review happens in the natural course of editor-editor interaction.
- We don't complain (much) about poor edits from newbies because it's part of the learning process. If they stick around, we expect them to start learning policies and how we work. It's the on-ramp to becoming a skilled, powerful, and trusted editor. One experienced, skilled, trusted editor is more valuable than a horde of contributions by a horde of random internet yahoos.
The Readers Contributions idea basically suggest creating a third class of user.
- The "reader tools" are closer to a Push technology. Some prominent call-to-action is splashed on top of each article served, actively soliciting contributions from people who didn't come to Wikipedia to contribute.
- There is zero expectation for these users to communicate. Anyone who is unwilling or unable to participate in discussions is a problem... a problem that we can only fix with the BLOCK button.
- There is zero expectation that these users know anything.
- There is zero expectation that these users learn anything.
- There is zero expectation that these users have any competence.
- There is zero expectation that these users have any meaningful interest in the project.
- The target audience is explicitly "causal", with no real expectation of progress. The only avenue of progress is to abandon the "reader tools" and find the edit button & community pages.
- These users are walled-off from, or shielded from, the general powerful editing tools. (When in fact the tools are just a click or two away.)
- These users are treated like children who need extraordinary supervision by "real editors", because of the above points.
It's almost silly to impose elaborate "editor moderation" systems when these people could simply make the edit themselves by clicking the edit button. But those systems are necessary because of how these features are being presented to users, because of the audience you are targeting.
Perhaps it's not politically correct to say this out loud, but the average editor is more intelligent than the average internet commenter. Seriously... editors are people who think writing an encyclopedia is a fun hobby. That's a pretty unique group with a rather intellectual interest. That's a major reason that Article Feedback Tool failed. The average Article-feedback contribution was significantly below the average editor contribution, and half of the feedback contributions were below it's own average. I wasn't active during Article-feedback, but I know some of the feedback was referred to as borderline illiterate. It wasn't worth spending editor time reviewing it for anything of value. Skilled editor time is better spent on editing.
I'll discuss probably the best proposal, and perhaps the worst proposal. You may be surprised by my comments on worst :)
Geolocation picture contributions. This is a high value contribution. This is not work that can be done, and be done better, simply by having a random experienced editor show up at the article. This is a case where it's worth it if one person takes the picture and they need someone else to add it to the article. This is a highly targeted call-to-action, which is likely to draw minimal garbage-uploads. This is also something where people can develop a real motivation and investment in the project. I can see this contributor seeking out many other important things to photograph, and perhaps exploring editing in general.
One of the proposals mentioned identifying typos/spelling-errors. The obvious point here, and the wrong point, is that it's a really lousy division of labor to have skilled-labor review those submissions to carry out trivial edits. That work is best done by an editor spotting the issue and simply doing it themselves. However there's a less obvious aspect here. Let's say there's a typo. Ninty-nine readers spot it, and do nothing. Then the next reader comes along, they see the obvious and trivial typo, and they think it's dumb to leave it there. They are motivated by that typo to try out the EDIT button. They find they're able to fix it, and they save the edit. They think "Oh wow! I just edited Wikipedia!". That's how people get hooked. That's how we get new editors. We want the reader to make the edit.
I've heard stories from the early days of Wikipedia were people would deliberately add typos and spelling errors to articles. They did it explicitly to bait readers into trying the edit button. Now we're so fast at cleaning up vandalism, and we're so good at cleaning up the trivial stuff, that we undermine our best on-ramp for new editors.
The last thing we would ever want is a dead-end interface for non-editors to summon an editor to fix a typo.