Wednesday, September 20, 2006

On Wikipedia, geek culture, and culture conflict

Right now, there is a significant-sized group of people calling for my head on Wikipedia. I've been trying to understand why these otherwise sensible people are being so viciously nasty about things. And I had something of an insight about this in the car.

Wikipedia is, primarily, an instance of geek culture. This means, amongst other things, that standing within the culture is largely based on merit: the more effective you are at accomplishing whatever you're supposed to be doing, the higher your standing will be. This is rather atypical in broader culture, where social status in a community is more likely to be based on nonmerit things like affability, appearance, or class distinctions.

The problem occurs when people from nongeek culture -- who are used to obtaining social status through socializing -- come to Wikipedia and attempt to gain social status. One of their creations -- Esperanza -- is widely reviled by geek Wikipedians, because it seems to serve no real function. But for nongeeks, membership in this sort of organization, dedicated to Sharing Warm Fuzzies, is essential to gaining social status in the world these people come from.

So, these nongeeks, who have been drawn to Wikipedia in larger and larger numbers, including significant numbers of people who are seeking higher social status. And they go through the usual motions they've learned in the larger world for gaining social status. And here's the key: they don't work. Wikipedia's geek meritocracy ignores, or in some cases actively disdains, such efforts to gain social status.

This leads to frustration for many of these interloping status seekers. Having failed to obtain the status they expect, they start looking for explanations for why they have failed. And here, again, they are caught by the culture clash between geek culture and nongeek culture. In geek culture, if you have failed to obtain status, it's because your worth have been measured and found wanting. In nongeek culture, if you've done all the appropriate things, and have failed to obtain status, it's because someone has put the kibosh on you through a backchannel. And so these nongeeks, upset at their failure to obtain status, start blaming the backchannels for their failure to obtain the status they feel they deserve. Their failure to appreciate geek culture causes them to blame the wrong thing for their failure.

In fact, there are backchannels all over Wikipedia. But, at least on the geek side of Wikipedia, those channels are used simply to discuss things that need to be discussed in a quieter environment. We don't use them to decide who is a good person and who is not. Most of the discussions that even come close to this sort of topic are reactive, responding to some move for power made by another person and how to react to it. Very little discussion centers on arbitrarily deciding who is to be "in" and who is to be "out", except insofar as people have earned such status through their actions. If one were to start arbitrarily fucking around like that, the logs would get out real fast and whoever tried to do it would lose status REAL fast.

So the nongeeks are attacking geek backchannels, which the geeks rely on as a way to communicate without having to deal with what they view as (a) stupidity from nongeeks and (b) all the silly social posturing that nongeeks do. In short, nongeeks are attacking a geek "safe space"; small wonder the geeks don't like that.

Best I can figure is that people like Geogre are nongeeks who have, in the past, earned respect from geeks for their contributions (which are quite meritorious), but don't realize that it's their contributions that have earned them their status, not their adept social maneuvering. A brief examination of their talk pages evidences that they are engaging in social maneuvering as well as editing, and it's clear that they are also using backchannels for social purposes. The conflict occurs when one of the members of one of these social groups does something to lower his claim to merit. The geeks will drop that person just like that. The nongeeks don't understand that, because they compute social standing on a nonmerit basis, and so they get upset because their social standing has been changed without them doing anything that should have affected it. Again, the temptation is to blame backchannels.

A geek, on the other hand, who fails to achieve social standing will often assume that her work simply isn't good enough, and will either become frustrated and leave (or, possibly, become a troll, which on Wikipedia materializes primarily as vandalism), or else will work even harder to please. The former is easy to identify and the latter (if successful) will eventually lead to social success. A geek in nongeek culture who works harder to achieve social success through merit will, of course, fail, because merit is not how one achieves social success.

The solution? I don't have one. Geek culture was predominant in Wikipedia in 2003. Over the past three years, it has been grossly diluted by an influx of nongeeks, and geeks may actually be the minority. Geeks don't cope well with nongeek social ordering systems, and nongeeks are so trained to use their social ordering systems that it's hard for them to adapt to meritocracy.