Sunday, July 08, 2007

What do lava lamps have to do with Wikipedia, anyway?

So, the current scandal in the Internet is over how Wikipedia's article on lava lamps was blanked and protected for about two weeks by Swatjester (aka Dan Rosenthal). I haven't seen the ticket (I just checked, and my access to OTRS appears to have been terminated; not all that surprising, really) so I can't say for certainty what happened, but my guess is that this was someone alleging some sort of trademark-related claim. I have yet to see a trademark-related claim that justifies a complete blanking of an article. There are sometimes libel or copyright claims that justify them, but I would never do something like that without consulting with at least two or three other of the people who handle such matters, and preferably either counsel or the Board. From what I can tell, Dan did this entirely on his own initiative, without consulting anyone else, and he did so in a particularily hamfisted way.

Of course, whenever anyone "unilaterally" does something like this to an article, alleging "secret reasons" (OTRS) for doing so and threatens dire consequences for interfering, people are going to complain. And in this case, there wasn't the "BLP" (biography of living persons) excuse to fall back on: Lava lamps are objects, not people, and they don't have feelings to hurt. The rest of the community was understandably irritated at being told "No, you cannot write about lava lamps this week. Somebody doesn't like what you'd said about them, but we won't tell you what."

Enter the Register. The Register has long been critical of Wikipedia, sometimes with merit and sometimes not. In this case, the Register's comments are pretty much right on the money. But that doesn't stop Wikipedians from having a cow over them; as many of us have noticed, Wikipedians have problems with criticism, no matter how well-deserved, and tend to try to shoot the messenger instead of respond to the criticism. One of them even went so far as to declare that the Register cannot possibly be considered a "reliable source" and should be listed "as being unsuitable for referencing". The same person responded to a reasonable comment about how the Register is a well-respected source for certain material with a diatribe about how the Register once had a bad article about guinea pigs (a topic well outside their general area of acknowledged expertise) and therefore should be considered totally without any merit whatsoever. Fortunately, not all Wikipedians follow this sort of mindnumbingly stupid binary thinking about reliable sources, but I've run into it far too often.

This whole episode illustrates a number of Wikipedia's endemic problems. The tendency of its adminstrators and maintainers to operate in a siege mentality and overreact to issues with overbearing force without taking the time for consultation or discussion. The tendency of inexperienced, potentially even unqualified, people to be put into positions of responsibility where they will be called upon to make decisions with immediate public impact without any oversight, supervision, or guidance. The tendency of its community to magnify situations, when they do occur, by gravitating to and amplifying the drama. The tendency of the community to react to external criticism by vilifying the critic instead of responding responsibly to the criticism. (To be fair, some of the mailing list contributors did acknowledge that the Register, for once, had a point.) And finally, the tendency of the community to favor simple binary logic to nuanced evaluatory principles (in this case, the concept of reliability as it relates to sources). All of these tendencies have been endemic for quite a while. I don't expect any of them to go away, or even to get better, in any reasonable timeframe; they've become quite solidly entrenched and there are likely vested interests who would oppose the changes required to move away from them.

Expect this sort of thing to happen more, not less, often.