Saturday, July 14, 2007

Reactionary English Wikipedia Admins

In order to promote the upcoming DC Meetup, Greg Maxwell developed some spiffy Javascript code that will display a dismissable notice only for editors who are located within a specific geographic region (based on IP geolocation). This was added (by Kat Walsh) to the English Wikipedia "common.js" file, and promptly removed (by Jeffrey O. Gustafson) citing "complaints on IRC". The subsequent discussion is a combination of Chicken-Littlish "it might possibly break so let's not use it", clear anti-Foundation sentiment (which is based entirely because it was implemented by Kat Walsh, who happens to be a Board member), and bare power gaming by people who seem to feel that "consensus" means "you have to get my explicit permission before doing anything I might not approve of". None of the objections is even remotely based on reality; all of them are I-don't-like-it objections masquerading as technical or process based reasons which don't hold up on examination.

The problem that this episode illustrates is the way "consensus" has evolved on the English Wikipedia to effectively create an extremely reactionary environment where making any sort of change is really really hard. You have basically two choices: you can either spend about a month going around identifying all the people who might object to your change and convincing them that it's not going to cause the death of the wiki, and then implement it (only to have someone who you didn't talk to object and revert it), or you can change it then spend about a month arguing with all the people who objected to it in a discussion that you will probably eventually lose. Basically, there's a lot of people with admin bits who are convinced that there's no consensus unless they were personally consulted. Some of them will revert even changes they otherwise agree with simply because "process wasn't followed". The effect of these people is to make Wikipedia extremely reactionary.

Fundamentally, the mistake here is in taking "consensus" as the governing principle for writing articles (an activity that rarely involves more than a half dozen editors) and applying it as the governing principle for operating the entire project. Consensus doesn't scale well. As is noted in Robert's Rules, "a requirement of unanimity or near unanimity can become a form of tyranny in itself". This sort of tyranny seems to have become quite well established in the English Wikipedia.

Update: In response to the commenter who alleges that "the notice slowed down the site for people seeing the message": No, it didn't. It is specifically designed not to do so. Anybody who is experiencing such problems has defective JavaScript in their own custom JavaScript (which is a very common problem, to be sure). Greg's already looked into the one such claim that reached him, and that was exactly the problem. And the commenter is exhibiting the same sort of juvenile powertripping that causes so much trouble. Note that the objection isn't that the notice is bad; rather, the objection is that "it was concocted off-wiki". Why does that matter? What should matter is whether or not it's a good idea. Complaining about its origin is is focusing on process instead of product. Wikipedia is not Nomic; if you want to play process games, find somewhere else to do it.