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Thriving Wikipedia Pronounced Dead by Critic

Nicholas Carr announces “The death of Wikipedia” in a tendentious posting that doesn’t begin to prove his point. He does point out, fairly, that some of the Wikipedia rhetoric has not matched reality (such as the flat statement that anyone can edit anything; there are some speed bumps and a few trolls are banned outright).

But his own rhetoric, which some commenters call trolling (I disagree), is surprisingly free of depth, given his record for thoughtful commentary.

Wikipedia is not, and has never been, perfect. It has always had flaws. I would never suggest that anyone use it as a single source of information, and anyone who made a big decision based on what’s posted there is a fool (just as it would be foolish to make a major life decision based even on what is in today’s New York Times; some things you have to check out for yourself).

But the questions about Wikipedia that its critics aren’t interested in asking are whether a) it’s better than nothing (it is); b) is improving (it is); and c) helps people understand the value of online collaboration (it does).

They seem to fear the idea of edge-in work that sometimes, not always but defintely sometimes, produces something better than what the annointed — through titles, degrees and, yes, achievement — might have done. I don’t understand their paranoia, and worry that it gives support to the centralizers of our world, the people who want control and don’t want the rest of us to make our own decisions and tell each other what we know.

Carr insists that a few speed bumps and modest policing shows that the wisdom of the crowd is bogus, that a top-down hierarchy will always be necessary. The model he embraces is an old one, designed for a manufacturing economy.

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s benevolent monarch, governs with the lightest possible touch. To suggest that this is resembles a traditional hierarchy misses what is new in the collaborative world we now can share. In an open system such as Wikipedia, where no one owns the result, anyone can take the pages — all of them — and create a new ‘pedia for himself. Try that with most projects, and you’ll get arrested.

Wikipedia’s leaders can exert their “control” only with the absolute consent of the “controlled” in the community. This is a crucial distinction.

Again, Wikipedia is not perfect. But it is a valuable resource, and is getting better. That matters.

(Note: Jimmy Wales is a member of this Center’s board of advisors, and I am an investor in a company he has founded.)

4 Comments on “Thriving Wikipedia Pronounced Dead by Critic”

  1. #1 Wikipedian
    on May 25th, 2006 at 10:58 am

    I’m currently working on an article describing some of my experiences at Wikipedia. One of the things I’m missing is an estimate of Wikipedia “turnover”. I think it would be worth not only sampling for this estimate, but looking at the reasons for attrition: Are people getting bored? Do they disagree with the direction their favorite articles are taken? Were they driven off by pests who “game the rules” of Wikipedia to drive people off – either because they feel harassed or it’s taking up too much time to deal with the stress of dealing with the harassment.

    The people who complain about “trolls” on Wikipedia have a legitimate complaint. Trolls can easily create a lot of time-consuming annoyances, and they can exploit the slow admin mechanism to reveal private information. Some appeals to admins over privacy issues are never answered, and a Wikipedia user has to keep checking and following the trail of the pest since they can leave remarks all over the system and slip in privacy attacks. I have a problem right now where a troll is posting fake complaints about me in order to slip in speculations about my personal life.

    Another issue is what seems to be the use of video game strategies to “win” at wikipedia. Here are some strategies that I’ve seen. On several occasions, I’ve made an unpopular edit on one article, and then my “opponent” tracked down edits I’d made to other articles to make “revenge” edits. For instance, I complained a corporate logo constituted POV and possibly an ad. My opponent (an admin!) then promptly found an image I had placed on another article and listed it for deletion. Another problem is ganging up when an editor seems to be alone. If I seem to be the only one editing an article, and a troll is out to harass me, he or she will go recruit other Wikipedians so they can revert my edits as a gang: I can’t defend them by myself without being blocked for making too many reversions. And yet another problem is vandalizing my talk page, where the troll replaces my words or otherwise modifies the page: in theory Wikipedians should be able to get their personal talk pages protected from this. In practice, it’s hard to get help unless an admin is specifically in your corner. God help you if your on the wrong side of the admin’s editorial pov.

    I recently attempted to invoke my “right to vanish” on Wikipedia because I have a troll who has been vigorously creating work for me. He wreaked havoc under someone else’s ID, and now he’s raging after everyone who tried to stand up for the victim. Wikipedia admins have done nothing to help. In fact some have taken advantage of the situation to get the upper hand in editorial disputes. For instance, when I invoked my “right to vanish”, an admin protected the main article I work on to make sure that no anonymous or new users could work on it. In other words, they are giving me the choice between enduring harassment and continuing to work on the article. This is abuse of admin power. Most people would leave at this point. Since I’m the main consumer advocate editing the article, I’m not sure what I will do.

    Obviously I’m still organizing my thoughts on all this, but I do think it’s important that this problem be publicized. I think part of the problem is that when people way “Wikipedia troll”, people who don’t use Wikipedia think it’s just someone taking advantage of online anonamous IDs to spout cuss words. The real issue is that Wikipedia can be played like a video game, and the people who are playing this game can easily make it so it’s too difficult and time-consuming for people with, say, a full time job, to contribute. When you add the slow admin reaction to threats to privacy on top of that, you have a guarantee that Wikipedia will eventually be populated by nothing but shark-brained gamers.

    I’m not anti-Wikipedia. I find it particularly useful for looking up pop culture information. That’s why I hope you will take the complaint seriously and give Wikipedians a streamlined way to deal with harassment – especially when it’s geared toward winning editorial disputes or used as a method to drive people with a dissenting opinion out of the system.

  2. #2 Seth Finkelstein
    on May 25th, 2006 at 1:31 pm

    Where to begin …

    1) Almost all hierarchical organizations exert their control with “consent” in some sense – you can leave your church, quit your job, resign your appointment, even move out of countries. But it’s misleading to pretend this is somehow unusual at that level.
    I mean, one rarely sees “The New York Times exerts its control of the national discourse only with the absolute consent of the readers. This is a crucial distinction. Nobody is forced to read the _Times_. And other organizations can start another national newspaper, and some have”.

    2) Sure, people could fork Wikipedia – but that’s sort of besides the point. People have forked religions too. The Catholic Church is still a hierarchical organization even if the Bible is open-source (literally).

    3) Your “questions” are like “The people talking about a housing bubble aren’t interested in asking whether 1) a house is a shelter (it is) 2) It’s the American dream (it is) 3) real estate is finite (it is).” – that is, it’s a marketing brochure.

    By the way, I think it’s relevant to disclose that the company is selling wikis.

  3. #3 Wikipedian
    on May 25th, 2006 at 2:05 pm

    Seth – your remark about the massive expropriation of labor raises another issue. If the pages are “semi-protected” so the “raw material” can be shaped by privileged users, then the original users are being robbed. Their contribution was an investment, predicated on the expectation they would be able to edit on an ongoing basis. Protecting the pages amounts to stealing the work of the initial contributors, for the material benefit of Jimbo Wales. Or is he planning to compensate the people who were disenfranchised by the protection process?

  4. #4 StrayPackets » Should We Adopt A Lower Standard for Wikipedia?
    on May 25th, 2006 at 3:09 pm

    […] Dan Gillmor comes to Wikipedia’s defense in response to Carr’s post: I would never suggest that anyone use it as a single source of information, and anyone who made a big decision based on what’s posted there is a fool (just as it would be foolish to make a major life decision based even on what is in today’s New York Times; some things you have to check out for yourself). […]