Monday, October 30, 2006

A Group is its Own Worst Enemy

I set up the del.icio.us bookmarking tool for Firefox, just to experiment with it, and as a result have been looking at some of my old saved bookmarks. And I ran across this one, an essay by Clay Shirky on group dynamics in online groups from 2003. And it is remarkable how much of what it says is relevant to Wikipedia today.

Three patterns in online groups:
  1. Sex talk. Anybody who spends much time on any of the wikipedia-related IRC channels will notice this.
  2. Identification and vilification of external enemies. Check, got lots and lots of that. Sollog, Wik, Lir, Daniel Brandt, Karmafist, Willy on Wheels, you name it, Wikipedia has lots of identified and vilified enemies -- whether or not they really deserve it. In most cases, the enemies have earned at least some of their ill repute, but it invariably gets blown up to epic proportions to the point where even contemplating whether the enemy du jour should be considered an enemy is grounds for sanctions within the group. (Part of me wonders how long before I become identified as an "enemy" of Wikipedia....)
  3. Religious veneration. This is quite evident in the IRC channels too. Jimbo as Godking. Danny as his right-hand man. There are lesser cults around other prominent figures, such as Raul654, Geogre, SlimVirgin (while this one mostly avoids IRC, it's very active in email), and even myself (although, thankfully, that one is breaking up now that I've left Wikipedia).
The author (a psychologist named Bion) who originally noted these patterns noted them in his group therapy sessions for neurotics. However, they seem to apply to nearly any group. What Bion noticed is that these behaviors actually work to undermine the purpose for which the group exists, by subverting the group's ostensible goals and replacing them with goals related to basic urges of human dynamics. Shirky goes on to suggest that groups have to have rules and structures to protect themselves from themselves.

Shirky later mentions Wikipedia positively in the article -- but it should be noted that he wrote this in 2003. Wikipedia was much smaller then and did not have the disordered group dynamics it does not, or at least they were still in a very juvenile state. The current state of Wikipedia very much resembles the anecdote he tells of Communitree, an online intentional community that was overrun by teenagers and destroyed, because their community was too open to assimilate the teenagers into a structure that would channel their activity into the goals of the group.

Shirky lists three things that must be accepted. First, that one cannot separate the technical and the social. I think his main point here is that technical solutions to social problems may (and generally will) have unintended results, either failing to solve the original problem, creating new problems, or both, and that one must not rely on purely technical solutions to resolve social issues, or vice versa, for that matter.

Second, that members are different from users. (This is one Wikipedia sadly gets very wrong.) Any successful group, says Shirky, is going to have a core group that "gardens effectively". The obvious group to be doing this in Wikipedia is the administrators -- but administrators, as a group, do not do this. Administrators on Wikipedia are far from homogenous. Wikipedia does have a group of gardeners, and certainly a great many of them are administrators, but not all. One of the problems that the gardeners are having is alluded to in Shirky's article: such groups tend to establish alternate communication channels (such as the "Old Hats" list from a.f.u) in order to communicate in a lower-noise environment. Other people in Wikipedia are objecting very strongly to such channels, and doing everything they can to undermine them.

These same people also object to the third point: the core group has rights that trump individual rights. The same people who object to "backchannels" routinely make accusations of cabalism -- and essentially that is what is going on. The problem, as I see it, are people who complain about the gardeners forming a cabal, while at the same time doing no gardening themselves. (I'm sorry, but writing featured articles, reverting vandalism, or really most of the actual work on the encyclopedia itself are not "gardening". Gardening, from this point of view, is maintaining the community, and more specifically conveying the norms, expectations, rituals, and practices of that community to newcomers so that they may know what is expected of them. It is something that Wikipedia does not do a very good job of, and it is why most Wikipedians today have little or no sense of community.) This is exactly what Shirky (and Bion) are talking about when they talk about letting base instincts override sophisticated goals.

Shirky identifies four things to design for. Two of them seem especially relevant to me here, the third ("establish barriers to participation") and the fourth ("protect the group from scaling"). Wikipedia suffers badly from the lack of both of these design characteristics. Wikipedia does have barriers to participation, but they are terribly low and easily gamed. And its conversational systems scale terribly, as anyone who has been involved in a heated policy discussion on the wiki can testify. It is small wonder that so many groups have retreated to other communication channels (IRC, email, whatever) for their discussions: it is impossible to hold them in the wiki itself because there are simply too many potential participants.

Reading this article (written over three years ago) really reinforces my belief that Wikipedia's culture has headed off in the wrong direction and is not only ill-suited to serve its main purpose, but will become increasingly more so until major corrective action is taken. I don't know what that action is, or even if any action is possible at this point (the current community norms have become quite soundly entrenched and there is nobody with the power to alter them significantly in any sort of smallish timeframe) short of forking, but I'm quite certain that the horse is definitely not still on the track.