Monday, August 20, 2007

Meatpuppets, elitism, and structurelessness

Over the past month or so there have been a number of people accused of sockpuppetry, meatpuppetry, or other forms of inappropriate canvassing. That, combined with my recent "apology" regarding the sockpuppetry/meatpuppetry situation involving Poetlister et al, got me to thinking about Wikipedia's whole issue with meatpuppets and sockpuppets. On top of that, a friend reminded me of Jo Freeman's classic essay on the Tyranny of Structurelessness (which should be required reading for all Wikipedians). Rereading that essay brought me a realization: Wikipedia's policies on meatpuppetry and on canvassing, amongst other effects, entrench the current power structure.

Let me be clear about one thing: I am not questioning the good faith of those who enforce the sockpuppetry policies; I'm sure they think that what they're doing is for the good of the project. Nor do I think that they have, as an intention, the goal of perpetuating their own power cliques. But nonetheless, that's the effect.

Here's how it works: In any AfD, RfA, or other such voting-like activity on Wikipedia, if a group of editors not already generally known to be an "elite" appears and all votes together on an issue, and a member of an existing elite notices it, there is a good chance that an allegation of sockpuppetry or meatpuppetry will be made. Also, if editors should make the mistake of taking a position on such a vote in any communication where it can be seen, that editor will be almost certain to be charged with canvassing. In both cases, what is happening is Wikipedia's immune system is reacting to the presence of a foreign elite. The effect of these policies is to marginalize editors who, being not part of an existing elite, seek to form a coalition of their own to increase their influence. Wikipedia's governing philosophy holds that such influence peddling is inappropriate and officially excoriates those who do so, but in practice this is only applied to people who are not already members of recognized elites and who get caught.

"Elite", here, is defined as Freeman defines it: "a small group of people who have power over a larger group of which they are part, usually without direct responsibility to that larger group, and often without their knowledge or consent." Elites are simply "groups of friends who also happen to participate in the same [] activities"; in this case, editing Wikipedia. The existing elites have protected channels of communication (usually, email, IM, or private IRC channels) that allow them to engage in canvassing activity without it being seen by outsiders. Wikipedia policy explicitly encourages, in fact nearly mandates, that such power networks operate covertly.

The reason why this situation has developed and has been permitted to develop is, of course, complex, but fundamentally derives from Wikipedia's misguided love of consensus as a means of governance. Wikipedia's insistence that its votes are not votes and its use of pseudoconsensus (what Wikipedia calls "rough consensus" but which really means "a supermajority of some sort or another depending on how we feel today") as a means of governance leaves it very vulnerable to being manipulated by vote fraud systems. If Wikipedia would either use a true voting system with proper safeguards or, alternatively, actually earnestly discuss issues until a true consensus of involved parties is formed, they could develop governance systems that would be less vulnerable to sockpuppetry and other vote manipulation systems. The failure to do so has made "hunting socks" an increasingly important activity, which has led to ever-increasing use of checkuser, which itself has implications for the privacy-conscious. It's my conclusion that Wikipedia's failure to adopt methods of governance that are inherently sockpuppet-resistant has harmed it and will continue to harm it.

What made me think about this was a comment Greg Maxwell made to me about featured picture voting on Commons. Maxwell proposed to use pairwise voting to, over time, identify the "best" images on Commons. Basically, editors would be presented with two random images and asked to pick one or the other as the "better image". This method will, over time, identify the best images (assuming editors don't lie) and is virtually immune to canvassing and other vote manipulation methods because voters do not get to choose the images; they are chosen randomly. One can, of course, reload the page over and over again until one gets the image one wants to vote for, and then vote for it, but there are so many images that it would take a very long time to make this work. This is a great example of a sock-proof voting system. Maxwell only mentioned it to me because he had tried to discuss it with another Wikimedian, who simply couldn't see how it was better than the current system, which is apparently riddled with sockpuppetry accusations and canvassing efforts (which Maxwell, as one of Common's checkusers, ends up having to deal with).

This sort of approach won't work for RfA or AfD, but I thought of a way to at least reduce canvassing effects: randomly selected juries. Basically, whenever an "question" arises ("Should $EDITOR be made an administrator?", "Should $ARTICLE be deleted?", etc.) a discussion page is created as currently, and anybody who wants to can post comments on that page. However, there is no voting. Instead, after the discussion has run a reasonable time, the question goes to the jury pool. The system then randomly selects a certain number of editors, who will be asked to evaluate the discussion and vote on the question. An editor who does not vote within a reasonable time will be replaced automatically by another random editor. A sufficient supermajority of the jurors in favor of the question will lead to its being accepted; otherwise, the status quo is retained. The reason why this is much more immune to sockpuppetry and such than the current system is that there is no way for an involved editor to get the opportunity to vote on any given question. It also tends to undermine elites because the selection of jurors is completely random and cannot be influenced by an elite, and if individual juror votes are kept secret, the risk of elite retaliation against jurors is at least minimized.

Of course, this idea will not be implemented: the elites will be the big losers and will exercise their substantial will against it to ensure that it does not come to pass, and I'm sure there are endless objections hiding away in Wikipedia's philosophy. A pity.