Wikipedia Uncertainty Principle

September 4th, 2008

Reading this reddit thread today, I found this idea regarding Wikipedia to be most profound.

Tarantio:

Thus, the Wikipedia Uncertainty Principle.

One cannot call attention to a wikipedia article without causing that article to be altered.

theCroc:

At any given time a wikipedia article both contains and does not contain any one given fact. Observing it will cause only one of the cases to be true. Calling attention to it will cause the other case to become true for a short time until it resettles on the first.

Obviously, this is a play on the original Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics. This suggests, in simple terms, that the observation of a subatomic particle changes the ability to measure it accurately.

Wikipedia is free-content encyclopedia that anybody (to a limit) can edit. It is one of the most frequently used references on the internet and is generally considered to be a trustworthy source. However, due to it’s open edit policy, controversial topics may contain debatable and frequently changing information. Thus, the wikipedia uncertainty principle comes into play.

When a discussion about a precise piece of information within wikipedia occurs, occasionally somebody will actually be editing that information in wikipedia during the discussion. In fact, the discussion actually increases the chances that people will add, remove, or modify that information. Depending on the edits, the debatable information may or may not be there at any one time.

The bigger the discussion, the more edits that will occur… and the more “uncertain” is that data within wikipedia.

Web surfing can be categorized into two very different styles, techniques, or phases. All internet surfers use these two methods. The Quick phase is rapid and requires very little attention. The Slow phase requires focus and invokes memory. These are not just an internet phenomena. Our modern brains process our everyday lives with these techniques. It should not be a surprise that we filter the web with similar methods.

Ever sit down and just surf an hour away? At the end of that experience, pull up your browser history. Most users will have scanned a ton of sites and remember very little about any of them.

Imagine a lady walking through a bookstore looking for some old fashioned pleasure reading. As she is walking through the sections, her mind is quickly filtering and evaluating potential purchases. Within a few minutes she has collected a few selections. Sitting down with a cup of coffee, she examines each one in more detail until she finally makes her purchase.

She has used two distinct forms of attention. During the Quick phase her mind filtered through hundreds of books. Her selections are unlikely to be based on complex thought. She is unlikely to remember the books that she did not select. When she sat down to review her potential options in more detail, her attention entered the Slow phase. Reading passages and contrasting choices require complex decision making. Deciding between the few books at her table may take much longer than her initial selection of a few from thousands.

In many ways web users are like the lady in the bookstore. A user is topically scanning many web pages and links before finally deciding something worthwhile of focused interest.

Quick Phase:

Digg, reddit, lifehacker, youtube. After a user finishes a visit to these sites, they seldom remember anything that they just visited. Aggregation of content through RSS or social sites supplies a constant supply of information to evaluate. Most of the interesting links are followed, quickly scanned, and then forgotten. The non-engaging, non-interacting traffic of the flash of the digg effect / slashdot effect models this classic behavior. The Quick experience is a repetition of brief, pleasurable, forgettable encounters.

Ever sit down and just surf an hour away? At the end of that experience, pull up your browser history. Most users will have scanned a ton of sites and remember very little about any of them.

The Slow phase is the less frequently experienced opposite of the Quick phase. Users in the slow phase are reading intently like a novel or textbook. The article is read deeply and completely. The attention is completely locked and interruptions are not well tolerated. The flashlight beam is now narrow and bright.

This should not be surprising. Channel surfing on that ancient device called a television has been rewarding the quick attention centers of brains for years now. Dead-tree magazines and newspapers utilize the inverted pyramid story format to get the high yield facts in the article to the top to facilitate scanning.

When ad clicks during the Quick phase occur, they are due to simple curiousity. The user is in exploration mode and visiting a random interesting ad continues the wandering. These clicks are very unlikely to convert for the advertiser. Quick phase users are scanning and surfing. The odds of them thinking about something long enough to purchase it are slim. Is our bookstore lady going to buy that book without flipping through it? Probably not.

In terms of attention, the bond between the user and the content is very weak during Quick phase. If focus is a flashlight, the beam here is wide but dim. One link drives to another link and to another. Interruptions during the Quick phase are easily tolerated. The likelihood of committing the content into memory is low.

Slow Phase:

The Slow phase is the less frequently experienced opposite of the Quick phase. Users in the slow phase are reading intently like a novel or textbook. The article is read deeply and completely. The attention is completely locked and interruptions are not well tolerated. The flashlight beam is now narrow and bright.

Well-targeted ads clicked by users in Slow phase are more likely to yield conversions for the advertiser. Complex thinking and decision making are occurring and frivolous clicks are unlikely to occur. In this circumstance, any click is highly likely to be successful because of the focused interest.

After experiencing Slow phase on a web site, the user is more likely to consider the entire web site as authoritative. Commenting is more likely to complex, intelligent, and thought provoking. Users are more likely to subscribe to comment threads and revisit the page to continue the conversation. Lessons can be learned. Opinions can be changed.

Superficial content such as funny pictures and quick stories are increasingly filling up and diluting the aggregation sites like digg and reddit.

An interesting phenomena is that articles that may potentially engage Slow phase will be more likely to be bookmarked. When a user is browsing in Quick phase, there is a lot of inertia to stay in that mode. Instead of dropping into Slow phase after scanning, the user frequently saves it as a favorites or to del.icio.us for quieter, more focused times.

The Slow / Quick Balance:

As web users, web authors, and as simple humans, we should seek a balance between the Quick and Slow phases. Many factors, however, are pushing us into continuous Quick phase. The multitasking geek lifestyle is continuously driving us to consume content in the Quick phase. The ecstasy of getting aggregation traffic is pushing us to create sexy Quick phase content. The simultaneous experiencing of all our friends at once through social networking Quick phases us through our connections and communities. Mainstream news media delivers us packages of information in handy bite sized morsels.

Superficial content such as funny pictures and quick stories are increasingly filling up and diluting the aggregation sites like digg and reddit. Aggregation sites are experienced in quick phase. Because of Quick phase inertia, users will be more likely to submit superficial content. Power-users can accurately scan and vote on many superficial articles in a brief period of time. Deep, Slow phase articles require more time and effort to evaluate. Predictably, popularity increases dilution.

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For many users (like me), the initial attraction of these sites was the lumping of many Slow phase inducing, high quality sites together. These users tread off to smaller niche areas which drain more high quality content from these aggregation sites. Not surprisingly, however, ad campaigns on these sites frequently have low conversion rates. With advertisers evolving away from clicks and views as successful measures, superficial content is being less rewarded. Improving moderation and tagging techniques are helping to filter away less substantial content.

I do not believe one can assume that Slow phase content is good or that Quick phase content is bad. Like everybody else, I spend a lot of my day in Quick phase. That is natural. The evolution of aggregation sites toward Quick phase just makes it harder for me to get my Slow phase fix.

It is not an unique idea that a balance between the deep and superficial is essential. Scanning the sky with the naked eye and exploring a planet with a telescope–both are unique pleasures. Focus has this dual nature. The fact that people surf the internet in two profoundly different ways cannot be ignored. By developing techniques to better isolate and evaluate valuable content, web users can more efficiently learn without becoming virtual mouse potatoes. By supplying users with Slow and Quick phase experiences, web authors can gain the rewards of both styles.

Let us be the first to start the discussion…