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.


  1. I think you might be on to a good idea there that, with refinement and with software backing it up (which is something Wikipedia is very deficient in), you could have a great idea.

  2. I might have skimmed over it, but did you consider that the list of jurors be kept private as well, to prevent canvassing attempts at them?

  3. And what if a royal assface is on the jury? Would you trust it then?

    I've always thought that RFAs should be called by outsiders with a knowledge of Wikipedia customs because that way, the outcome isn't influenced by hidden friendship or anything like that.

  4. "And what if a royal assface is on the jury? Would you trust it then?"

    If there's one of twelve (or however many you had) then it should make very little difference - assuming it was majority or supermajority, and not unanimity required.

    If there's six of twelve, from a random selection, on more than an exceptionally rare basis, then the project has a severe "excess of royal assfaces" problem and is probably beyond repair.

  5. An additional refinement would having a jury vote on all issues for a single day. With a good sample outliers could then be removed. So someone purposefully voting against policy would not sway close decisions.

    Another refinement would be to have issues which were not a clear-cut decision voted on by three different juries.

  6. I agree with much of this post, but I think more refinement of your premise is needed. This 'elite' class you talk about...part of your definition is that they wield power over others without their knowledge.

    Now, I know this refers to the "others" but in Wikipedia's case, I think a case could be made that it's all inclusive. I think much of this elite class isn't even aware of their own power. They live in it, surrounded by it, but the fundamental belief that "all are equal" prevents them from seeing themselves as above another. They see themselves as more knowledgable, more wise, as guardians, if you will.

    My early days on Wiki I was accused of being a sock. Why? I'm a programmer, a writer, and decent at analyzing logical systems. In other words, I went from newbie to experiences wikipedian much faster than the normal curve. At least, I looked the part...and that led many to think I must have been a sock (I bet some are still convinced.

    But even then, I wasn't taking sides, or pushing agendas. Just an ability to pick up on coding, social conventions, etc., made me stand out. And really, that's the heart of almost every argument I've ever seen on Wiki..."You don't really understand what Wikipedia is about!".

    The other day, an admin discovered images he'd uploaded being copied to Commons. Not wanting to work with Commons, and fearing his images would be removed from en.Wiki as duplicates, he actually claimed he was revoking his GFDL license on his contributions and began deleting his images himself.

    In the kerfluffle on AN/I, some have told this Admin he ought to resign his bit because obviously he doesn't understand what Wiki is really about. Every argument goes this way, folks, think about it...

  7. As I said (but I think you missed) in IRC, I'm not sure this would help.

    The "elite" obviously form a majority of the active community members. The "nonelite" are far more likely to be on a wikibreak or only log on to Wikipedia every so often. The jury would skew towards the elite, who wouldn't read the discussion anyway.

    I think the best solution right now (especially because of its ease of implementation) would be to remove the numbering and bolded "!"votes. If it was just a discussion which appeared to have consensus after so much time without the stupid vote tallying, it might be more effective.

    I understand that this would be even less structured, but at least for XfDs it would lose the binary mentality. ~~~~

  8. I agree with your analysis of the problem. Not so sure about the solution.

  9. Jeezus. How the fuck long did it take you to work this shit out? Next it will occur to you that the fiercest sockhunters are those who have the tightest groups of their own.

    You used to be told, when I first edited Wikipedia, that if you had a dispute, you should try to get support from other editors. But now if you try to do that, you'll likely face sanction. It's hilarious. Other people just have to notice your disputes "magically". Luckily for the already existing elites, they have each other's email addresses and can gather support offwiki.

  10. The random thing is good. A while back, I suggested having randomised admins with fairly short term limits. Wikipedia would benefit a great deal from stepping back from hierarchy and government by those who think they know what's "best for an encyclopaedia" (usually whatever's best for their own personal interests, curiously) and becoming much more distributed and, well, wiki-like.

    The sock thing is just ridiculous. In principle, you should win disputes because you're, erm, right, and not because you have the numbers. Wikipedia will never be "neutral" or any good so long as content disputes are decided by brute force.

  11. A small point (I by and large agree with this) but what you refer to as Wikipedia elites and outside elites should more properly be described in many cases as central elites and peripheral elites, or policy elites and topic elites. The effect is the same regardless; discussion is broadly considered the purview of the central forum, and discussants from the periphery are suspect.

    I suspect you're already following this line of thought, but the next step is to consider how the considerations that motivate one to become a member of a central elite define those groups' responses to direct and indirect challenges.

  12. Hmph. I wish people would point me to things I'm mentioned in rather than assuming I'm already aware of them. :)

    On the commons front, it's not that the current system is filled with socks... rather, it's very clique driven, and while we'd like to open it up more and bring more people in, we are paranoid about influence by socks. I think the paranoia is justified with our current decision making systems. The paranoia about socks seems to be common to the larger wikimedia wikis.

    The idea of using random selection to prevent interested parties from effectively making biased votes is, of corse, not something I invented. ;)

    People may find this editorial interesting:

    If you have a large enough pool of items to vote on randomized voting can provide nearly perfect immunity to socks, meat-puppets, and other forms of canvassing or vote stacking.

    Where randomized voting generally falls down is in having informed voters. For featured pictures, especially pre-qualified ones, being 'informed' isn't important. We're looking for impressiveness, and first impression counts.

    For things where being informed is more important you'd have to have an identified pool of informed people which is large enough. We might generally have that for other processes on our projects which require a greater level of understanding.

  13. Kelly continues to amaze and delight with insightful comments and ideas, applicable to online communities far beyond Wikipedia. She is a voice of common sense outside of WP, now that she's away from the corrupting influence of its power structure.