Saturday, September 08, 2007

Devolving power

One of Wikipedia's major problems today is the role of administrator. Administrators have substantially more power than non-administrators; they and only they get to decide what stays and what goes, and for that matter who stays and who goes. Although Jimbo has long tried to impose the notion that "administrators are no big deal", the simple fact is that being an administrator is a big deal and people will go to considerable lengths to gain that power.

Devolving power from administrators seems an obvious thing to do. The problem is finding ways to diffuse the power currently held by administrators and devolve it into the community without creating a lot of bureaucracy. The community already votes on deletions, and it's quite obvious that this isn't working too terribly well. Voting on blocks is even more problematic, because a block decision amounts practically to a trial, and really trials by popular vote are a really bad idea.

Deletion is especially easy to devolve, so easy in fact that there's been a proposal to do it since October 2003. The so-called "pure wiki deletion system" (which is labeled on the English Wikipedia as a "rejected policy") effectively devolves the deletion decision away from administrators by allowing any editors to delete any article. It also resolves one of my personal gripes with deletion on Wikipedia: the fact that most editors cannot retrieve deleted articles, even when those articles have been deleted for being "nonnotable". Right now, deletion on Wikipedia is used for two totally different purposes: one is to remove articles deemed "unworthy of inclusion in the encyclopedia", and the other is to remove content which is legally, morally, or ethically problematic. The problem with using the same mechanism for both is that the first leaves too few people with the ability to see the "unworthy" article, while the second leaves the dangerous content where too many can see it -- any of 1300+ admins, who we really have no reason to trust because the selection process does a piss-poor job of screening for trustworthiness.

The pure wiki deletion system allows for "ordinary" deletions to be made, and reversed, by anyone; anyone can also come along, examine the prior content, and either reuse it in some other article (or for some other purpose entirely), restore any prior version of the article, or write a better version. The current practice loses the history, which encourages people to repeat the same mistakes that came before. "Extraordinary" deletions, the sort that are required by copyright, libel, or other legal, moral, or ethical standards, would be exercised by a much smaller, more carefully chosen group with a deletion power similar to the current badly-named "oversight" privilege. I don't see any way around that power being held by a small group; the risk of abuse is too high, as we already well know. Devolving this power is one of the ones I haven't figured out how to deal with.... fundamentally, some things are going to have to be held only by a limited number of people; the trick becomes choosing those people wisely, something which the Wikipedia community has not shown a great deal of capability of to date.

So the real question is, why hasn't the pure wiki deletion system been implemented? It's not technically very challenging; I suspect I could make the necessary code changes in a few days, and someone more familiar with the MediaWiki codebase could probably do it faster than that. No, the problem here is that it devolves power from those who have it. And since the people who would be losing the power are the people who at least have a large say in whether or not they will lose that power, they naturally resist it. Entrenchment's a bitch, isn't it?

So, while it's certainly quite possible to think of ways to make Wikipedia run better or more reasonably, there's no hope of getting them implemented, precisely because the people who stand to lose the most through such changes are in a position to prevent them from happening. There is no leadership, and in fact a very strong community attitude against having leaders of any sort, to push any real efforts at reform.

So at this point I don't have much hope that any of my proposals, suggestions, or ideas will ever see the light of day on Wikipedia, but I do hope that they will inform the people who build the next online encyclopedia project -- the one that will eventually replace Wikipedia, so that they at least do not mindlessly repeat the same mistakes that Wikipedia made.