Friday, 4 January 2008

Wikipedia imploding?

I'm not a big fan of wikipedia. Don't get me wrong, it can be a useful starting point to find out the basic facts on non-controversial topics. But it is now ubiquitious and relied upon far too uncritically*. That makes the flaws in the systems behind the scenes important.

Anyone who's contributed more than a few lines to wikipedia will be familiar with the outpourings of acronyms from wikipedia regulars, be it WP:AGF, 'sockpuppet', WP:NOR, WP:SNOW, or WP:OVER, and these are just the tip of the iceburg of a bureaucratic and hierarchical administrative system.

In reality the day-to-day running of wikipedia is by the lowest administrative tier called, unsurprisingly, 'admins'. They are supposed to be trusted and productive long time regular editors, not that these regular editors and admins necessarily write the bulk of the content, rather they are responsible for tidying the whole thing up (number of edits = social status in wiki-land, so correcting minor typos is a quicker route to kudos) which might explain at least partly the uneven quality of article content. Admins are 'elected' by other registered users (or at least those following the various bureaucratic processes in action at any one time (including WP:AN, WP:AFD, WP:DRV, Arbcom, and many many others) and and have the power to stop articled being edited or to ban registered users or whole IP addresses from editing wikipedia.

It is probably unsurprising that factional fighting has arisen from time to time among these thousand or so individuals, but there have also emerged prominent and powerful players on the scene, some with positions in the higher echelons of the wikipedia administrative structure, but many merely important as part of the social structure, not least the much loathed 'SlimVirgin' who seems to have created an entire subculture dedicated to her true identity and supposedly nefarious goals. Because these individuals essentially run wikipedia among themselves the startling bureaucracy is actually surprisingly flexible when it comes to allowing the actions of their favoured ones, however hypocritical that might appear to the proles.

As with any other social enterprise conflicts on controversial issues (be they the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or internal wikipedia policies) result in conflicts between different power bases, and admins in particular have access to solutions (banning) and allies (other admins) to gain the upper hand - all a far cry from pretentions towards being a 'real' encyclopedia.

But wikipedia is also in conflict with those outside the wikipedia society, in particular those critical of wikipedia itself (such as websites Wikipedia Review and Wikitruth, the former created by banned former wikipedia members, and the latter by anonymous wikipedia editors and admins opposed to various cases of articles being 'censored').

The latest little spat in wiki-land highlights how far the internal social life of wikipedia has come to dominate the thinking of its members and heirarchy. As described here in El Reg:

"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.
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...

Durova continued to insist that she had some sort of secret evidence that could only be viewed by the Arbitration Committee. "I am very confident my research will stand up to scrutiny," she said. "I am equally confident that anything I say here will be parsed rather closely by some disruptive banned sockpuppeteers. If I open the door a little bit it'll become a wedge issue as people ask for more information, and then some rather deep research techniques would be in jeopardy."

Then someone posted a private email from Durova in which she divulged her evidence - and revealed the secret mailing list. Basically, Durova's email showed that Bang Bang was indeed a wonderfully productive editor. She was sure this was all a put-on, that he was trying to gain the community's "good faith" and destroy it from within.
This sort of extreme paranoia has become the norm among the Wikipedia inner circle. There are a handful sites across the web that spend most of their bandwidth criticizing the Wikipedia elite - the leading example being
Wikipedia Review - and the ruling clique spends countless hours worrying that these critics are trying to infiltrate the encyclopedia itself.

Bang Bang was a relatively new account. Since this new user was a skilled editor, Durova decided, he must be "a vandal" sent by Wikipedia Review. "I need to show you not just what Wikipedia Review is doing to us, but how they're doing it," she said in her email. "Here's a troublemaker whose username is two exclamation points with no letters: !! It's what I would call [a] 'ripened sock'...Some of the folks at WR do this to game the community's good faith."

Former Arbitration Committee member Kelly Martin confirms that this bizarre attitude is now par for the course inside the Wikipedia inner circle. "Anyone who makes large changes to anything now is likely to get run over by a steamroller," she says. "It's not a matter of whether your edit was good or bad. All they see is 'large edit my person not known to me' and - boom! They smack you on the head because vandals are so bad."
Recently, in another effort to quash "harassment," several members of the wikipedia elite tried to ban the mention of certain "BADSITES" on the encyclopedia, and naturally, Wikipedia Review was on the list.
Dan Tobias was one of the
many editors who successfully fought this ban, and as he battled, he marveled at how well organized his opponents seemed to be. "Over the months that I've been fighting people over issues like the BADSITES proposal, it looks like a lot of these people I was fighting were on this secret email list - at least I suspect they were," says the Floridia-based Tobias. "They always seemed to be show up in right place, at the right time, to gang up on people."

...Wales and the Wikimedia Foudation came down hard on the editor who leaked Durova's email. After it was posted to the public forum, the email was promptly "oversighted" - i.e. permanently removed. Then this rogue editor posted it to his personal talk page, and a Wikimedia Foundation member not only oversighted the email again, but temporarily banned the editor.

Then Jimbo swooped in with a personal rebuke.

"You have caused too much harm to justify us putting up with this kind of behavior much longer," he told the editor.

The problem, for many regular contributors, is that Wales and the Foundation seem to be siding with Durova's bizarre behavior..."

And sadly this is just the latest in a long run of embarrassments for wikipedia where the ruling elite have sided with their own even at the expense of the reputation of wikipedia itself: examples include the Essjay saga where Jimmy Wales backed a wikipedia employee pretending to be an academic to gain dubious authority and thus the upper hand in disputes over the content of wikipedia pages, and where Jimbo dispatched his minions to rewrite history to make him sole founder of wikipedia when Larry Sanger left to form his own online encyclopedia. And that is just the tip of a huge iceburg that is there if anyone has the energy or the stomach to look.

As wikipedia moves from new articles to pointless lists I think we can expect that the wikipedia community will increasingly create further drama from its infighting, but somehow I doubt it will implode because most people have no knowledge and little interest in what goes on behind the scenes.

* Here's a terrifying thought:
"Wikipedia is one of the most common sources cited and used by my (1st and 2nd yr) bioscience students. This is at a Russell Group Univ where you need As and Bs to get on the science degrees. It is not uncommon in 1st yr essays to find Wikipedia listed as the SOLE source. Second yr students are a bit more “catholic” in their tastes and tend to cite multiple web sources, plus the occasional textbook.

Of course, it is just as common to find the students have cut’n'pasted most of the essay from Wikipedia without sourcing (i.e. acknowledging) it at all.. For this yr’s first yr essays I read plagiarism of this kind was in about half of the essays I read.

Anyway, however you cut it the students clearly have great faith in Wikipedia as a source …!"


Anonymous said...

Wow, I reckon there is a cracking Sociology PhD thesis in this whole farrago.

Moulton said...

There are sociologists and cultural anthropologists studying Wikipedia's dominance hierarchy.

Eventually there will be scholarly books published on the phenomenon.

Andrew said...

My favourite ever bit of uncritical wikipedia use was when Ronnie Hazelhurst died. Someone had edited his wikipedia page to say he wrote S Club 7's "Reach", and a fair few obituaries, which clearly hadn't been properly researched, repeated this. The claim was removed from wikipedia after that, but people keep adding it now as they think it's true -- and this time they have citations, and by wikipedia's policy that makes it true.

The whole system just doesn't work. Any article vaguely controversial is locked so you can't change it; any article about anything bad is mangled by their ridiculous "NPOV" policy so that it says "Hitler was a successful german politician" or something and then has a section lower down titled "Criticism"; they have a stated aim to include a "comprehensive" guide to webcomics bur delete the article of any website outside the Alexa top 1000 or so...

I think of it as the Hitchhiker's Guide: it "has already supplanted the great 'Encyclopedia Galactica' as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in [that] it is slightly cheaper"...

It'll be interesting to see if 'knol' fares any better by having several competing articles per title. Certainly there won't be any revert wars.

Poor Pothecary said...

Good analysis. Personally I think Wikipedia Review and similar critical sites waste their energy on obsessing about in-politics and personality issues that don't actually much affect content. The effort would be better directed at the kind of interested editing that shows up on WikiScanner.

Anonymous said...

2008: The year that Wikipedia dies.

Good riddance. Not a word of it can be trusted. Normal encyclopedias have errors too, but at least the correct parts don't become wrong.