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      CommentAuthorturing
    • CommentTimeDec 4th 2007
     (135.1)
    So, here's yet another story about the internal politics of Wikipedia leaking onto news pages, letting on that perhaps all is not well in Jimbo's info-utopia:
    Controversy has erupted among the encyclopedia's core contributors, after a rogue editor revealed that the site's top administrators are using a secret insider mailing list to crackdown on perceived threats to their power.

    Many suspected that such a list was in use, as the Wikipedia "ruling clique" grew increasingly concerned with banning editors for the most petty of reasons. But now that the list's existence is confirmed, the rank and file are on the verge of revolt.

    Revealed after an uber-admin called "Durova" used it in an attempt to enforce the quixotic ban of a longtime contributor, this secret mailing list seems to undermine the site's famously egalitarian ethos. At the very least, the list allows the ruling clique to push its agenda without scrutiny from the community at large. But clearly, it has also been used to silence the voice of at least one person who was merely trying to improve the encyclopedia's content.
    This should not surprise anyone who's kept half an eye on Wikipedia over the last couple of years. Paranoia, intrigue, politics, infighting, and clique-forming of this sort is standard procedure. It's what naturally happens when you set up a large project full of virtual identites following vaguely defined rules with no central oversight.

    The specific incident might be new, but this kind of cloak-and-daggering has been going on ever since Wikipedia grew beyond an easily manageable size. There's no other way for it to function. In the absence of clearly defined rules or a central editing authority, you get ad hoc rules developed by cliques of administrators. And that was actually a fairly workable system for a while. Wikipedia has grown into an immense and valuable web resource. But the bigger it gets, the less well that works. You get conflicts, different factions of editors disagreeing over matters major and minor. Not just specific articles, but the rules and procedures that control how articles and users are managed. And of course, all of this generates drama at a ferocious rate. Personality clashes, sock puppets, character assassination, edit wars, personal vendettas...

    And all of that arises just trying to deal with dedicated users disagreeing over how to legitimately edit, without even getting into vandalism and deliberate subversion. As the Register story illustrates quite well, there's now a huge amount of paranoia amongst hardcore editors about people working to subvert Wikipedia from within -- whether for corporate or other agendas, or just for shits-and-giggles. Users on sites like SomethingAwful have long delighted in seeing how well they can subvert Wikipedia articles for comedic purposes. (Often the idea is to find an absurd or questionably useful article that was added sincerely by a "real" users, and see how far it can be extended into parody before Wikipedians clue in that someone is messing with it.) This is the kind of behaviour one ought to expect emerging in an open system like Wikipedia, and the bigger the system gets, the less able it is to consistently deal with undesired input like that, especially the subtle kind. And it's only going to get worse.

    So what does the future hold for Wikipedia? On the one hand it (usually) appears to function very well from the outside, and gives (usually) pretty accurate results for most queries. But viewed from the inside, it's a seething mess of personality conflicts, ruthless politics, and wasted energy. All that madness keeps spilling out in little incidents like the story above, but I have to wonder when a big rupture is going to occur, and what it will look like when it does.

    So what do you all think? Are Wikipedia's problems solvable? Does it matter how batchrist insane it gets on the inside as long as certain level of quality is maintained on the outside? Is it worrying how Wikipedia is being treated more and more like an essential and trusted source?

    (I highly recommend listening to Jason Scott's Wikipedia talk from Notacon 2006, he gives an interesting and entertaining overview of some of the main problems that have arisen in the Wikipedia project.)
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      CommentAuthorJoe Paoli
    • CommentTimeDec 4th 2007 edited
     (135.2)
    Wow. Great post. This is my introduction to the entire issue.

    I envision several possible scenarios, but they all seem like offshoots of two possibilities:

    Wikipedia remains an internet tentpole.

    Or it doesn't.

    Dull, I know. But let me explain: enough people value and rely on it and believe in the wiki concept to want an all encompassing encyclopedia of everything to exist. Wikipedia is the best known, and because it works as well as it does it's bound to inspire competitors who want something that's a little bit different - or 'better' - in some set of aspects. If it stops functioning well internally or externally or the competitors function better for enough people, people (contributors, editors and users) will abandon wikipedia for the competitors.

    Eventually things will sort themselves out. But the question of whether wikipedia, or any system like it, can survive the inevitable clash of personality and style inherent in group settings is for me an unanswerable one. Either someone has to step in and take charge or enough people have to agree on a set of rules and guidelines on how to comittee-run it. And if there are backchannel power grabs and secret associations, I don't know how that's going to evolve without a wiki-Stalin coming in and purging all the Trotskys.

    It's possible that a big crash won't happen, even if it continues as it is. I think it's even odds. I think it's like a society - if enough people want it to work, it will, so long as there are more people supporting it than sabotaging it. The concept so far has proved sound, I think. So long as enough people find what they're looking for, and the information remains relatively accurate, all the sausage-making under the hood may just turn out to be the nature of the beast and wikipedia's inertia will sustain it. With the occasional wobbles.
    • CommentAuthorConfusion
    • CommentTimeDec 4th 2007
     (135.3)
    My entire problem with Wikipedia is that while I can (and do) exploit it to find out obcessive levels of detail about gaming products, or Star Wars/Trek. The exclusivist clique makes it impossible for me to track NEW internet things on there, and I can't add them. Because they're not deemed to be high enough knowledge.

    But that secret moderater thing doesn't surprise me at all, its exactly the kind of thing that all the stories point to all the time, isn't it? That and moron editors coming through and cleaning up similar articles with redirects that actually offer grossly different meaning in specialist fields.
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      CommentAuthorturing
    • CommentTimeDec 4th 2007
     (135.4)
    @Joe Paoli:
    Eventually things will sort themselves out. But the question of whether wikipedia, or any system like it, can survive the inevitable clash of personality and style inherent in group settings is for me an unanswerable one. Either someone has to step in and take charge or enough people have to agree on a set of rules and guidelines on how to comittee-run it

    Well, whether or not Wikipedia itself survives, there are definitely going to be Wikipedia-like things playing a very important role in the future of the web. So at the very least, the legacy of Wikipedia will be as a test bed showing us what the emergent properties of a massive wiki-based system are. It shows us what happens when you give people a system where they're forced to make their own rules and politics. There's a lot to be learned from it. I certainly hope we're learning from it, as massive collaboration on the Wikipedia scale is too useful an idea to not be used extensively in the future.

    I think the "test bed" idea also applies to Second Life: Sure it's a mess, but there are going to be much bigger, more important SL-like things in the future, and I certainly hope that the people who are building them are looking at SL and the emergent problems that you get in a system with that much inherent user freedom.

    @Confusion:
    Because they're not deemed to be high enough knowledge.

    Welcome to the wonderful world of Inclusionism vs. Deletionism, one of several great holy wars within Wikipedia.

    On the one hand, given how cheap and easy data storage and processing on a massive scale is becoming, why not include everything? Sure, I don't give a shit about Dragonball Z, let alone the arcane minutia of its lore, but somebody does, and it's not as if it's stealing page space from more important (whatever that might mean) articles. Wikipedia can effectively hold as much data as you can throw at it.

    On the other hand, can an information source remain coherent with that much cruft? Or does it turn into, as Jason Scott so poetically puts it in the talk I linked to in the top post, "a giant Katamari Damacy-like ball of shit rolling across the Internet"?
  1.  (135.5)
    Personally, I have always used it as a starting point, a jumping board. If I quote from it for an essay or whatever then I have to double-check the details, just to be sure. I wasn't aware of the byzantine power struggles going off under the surface. Superb post, turing.

    Options are as joe stated: Either this anarcho-utopian information exchange develops standardized rules, which means losing that 'something' that has worked so well untill recently, or it collapses into self-destruction. Reading your post makes me look at it like some kind of internet simulation of a small commune that has gotten out of hand. I will certainly have to get onto this...

    The idea is better on paper.
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      CommentAuthorScribe
    • CommentTimeDec 4th 2007
     (135.6)
    The first thing I learned about wiki is to never fully trust it. When using wiki for research, I have a protocol I follow.

    1. Click on the citations and find out where the author is getting their information from. Discard those that are not credible sources.
    2. Disregard phrases that show opinion and not facts.
    3. Check the external links for better sources.
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      CommentAuthorJoe Paoli
    • CommentTimeDec 4th 2007 edited
     (135.7)
    @turing
    Well, whether or not Wikipedia itself survives, there are definitely going to be Wikipedia-like things playing a very important role in the future of the web. So at the very least, the legacy of Wikipedia will be as a test bed showing us what the emergent properties of a massive wiki-based system are. It shows us what happens when you give people a system where they're forced to make their own rules and politics. There's a lot to be learned from it. I certainly hope we're learning from it, as massive collaboration on the Wikipedia scale is too useful an idea to not be used extensively in the future.
    Agreed completely. What remains to be seen is if wikipedia can survive to become a blue-chip fundamental of the net like google or ebay, or if it is insufficiently structured/conceived to grow into the mega-giant it wants to become. Really no different from a lot of large chaotic systems - civilzations, populations, corporations, clubs.

    @screaming meat
    Options are as joe stated: Either this anarcho-utopian information exchange develops standardized rules, which means losing that 'something' that has worked so well untill recently, or it collapses into self-destruction. Reading your post makes me look at it like some kind of internet simulation of a small commune that has gotten out of hand. I will certainly have to get onto this...


    I'm not entirely convinced that it can't survive indefinitely as it has been. It's possible that it could. We may be witnessing it's equilibrium state.

    Though I'm of the opinion that unless it has the ability to recognize where it's going wrong and self-correct its own process, it won't survive, or at least thrive enough to become a mega-juggernaut. It's possible these things will build themselves in, but it's also possible it will just be taken over by a group with a will strong enough to impose its will on it, for better or worse. Or just fall apart, or become unmanageable and become an untrustable source... or etc.

    @turing
    On the one hand, given how cheap and easy data storage and processing on a massive scale is becoming, why not include everything? Sure, I don't give a shit about Dragonball Z, let alone the arcane minutia of its lore, but somebody does, and it's not as if it's stealing page space from more important (whatever that might mean) articles. Wikipedia can effectively hold as much data as you can throw at it.


    It's that kind of thinking that lead people to say 'wikipedia doesn't fill this need? Fine! I'm making my own!' And if wikipedia alienates enough people looking for those things to be added, or fails to recognize the significance of enough things in time to add them, it's dead, or at least a lot less relevant. People will move on to the thing that does.

    @turing
    On the other hand, can an information source remain coherent with that much cruft? Or does it turn into, as Jason Scott so poetically puts it in the talk I linked to in the top post, "a giant Katamari Damacy-like ball of shit rolling across the Internet"?
    Well, I don't know about the physical side of making, storing, and maintaining a database of everything. (I'm reminded of the Steven Wright joke - 'I have a vast seashell collection that I keep scattered on the beaches of the world. Maybe you've seen it.' and 'I have a scale map of the United States: one mile equals one mile.') But I think it certainly can remain coherent so long as there are enough people working on it to maintain the articles.
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      CommentAuthorturing
    • CommentTimeDec 7th 2007 edited
     (135.8)
    More madness this week.
    In early September, the Wikipedia inner circle banned edits from 1,000 homes and one massive online retailer in an attempt to suppress the voice of one man.

    His name is Judd Bagley, and when the ban came down, he hadn't edited Wikipedia in over a year. He was merely writing about the site, from his own domain. The Wikipedia elite blacklisted Judd Bagley because he accused them of using their powers to hijack reality.

    Talk of Wikipedia admins trying to seize "the truth" may sound familiar. Famously, comedian Stephen Colbert has poked more than a few holes in the site's commitment to democratic consensus, making fun of its efforts to clamp down on edits deemed less than factual. And the web is still abuzz over the secret mailing list used by top administrators to silence inconvenient voices.

    But what happens when, say, the Wikipedia elite decides to take a topic as weighty as the health of US financial markets under its control without informing the public of its decision?

    It's weird, complicated stuff, but what it all really comes down to is that Wikipedia doesn't have any reliable method of solving internal conflicts in a way that's fair, binding, or open. The "anyone can edit" nature of Wikipedia is a great strength until you inevitably get to the point of "Oh shit, how do we make it so that someone can't edit?" To call the solution of axing entire IP ranges inelegant would be putting it mildly. Combine that with the fact that these decisions about who shouldn't be able to edit are being made in the dark by people who have elevated themselves to positions of ostensible oversight while still having a lot of very vested interests in the topics they're overseeing...
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      CommentAuthorturing
    • CommentTimeDec 7th 2007
     (135.9)
    @Scribe:
    The first thing I learned about wiki is to never fully trust it. When using wiki for research, I have a protocol I follow.

    1. Click on the citations and find out where the author is getting their information from. Discard those that are not credible sources.
    2. Disregard phrases that show opinion and not facts.
    3. Check the external links for better source

    The problem is that you can only do that if you're aware of how Wikipedia works and the reasons that a given article might not be perfectly authoritative and trustworthy. I don't think most casual visitors to the site really are.

    And there are a lot of things exacerbating that. For a while now Trillian has had a feature where you can get it to underline key words and a click gets you the Wikipedia "definition" -- without any explantion of what Wikipedia is or who writes it.
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      CommentAuthorBrand
    • CommentTimeDec 7th 2007
     (135.10)
    In Soviet Russia Wikipedia edits you! (Sorry had to do it...)

    Honestly I see them needed to install some kind of real structure to how the site is administered. I don't see wikipedia going anywhere though, it's such a vast store of knowledge that it would take some time for someone else to reproduce.

    I run a small wiki myself and it's interesting to see how it's taken a life of it's own. At one point I was the biggest contributor to it, now while it still uses the structure I set up, it's gone far beyond what I expected. There a just a few people but it is always getting updated. It does fine on it's own, I wish so much could be said for the message board I also host.