Tuesday, November 27, 2007

On Durova

When I wrote a couple weeks ago, "Durova: Why choose the lesser of two evils?" I had no idea how prophetic those comments would be. At the time, I had no real idea who Durova was; all I knew is that there were a good supply of people who disliked her, mainly at Wikipedia Review, which doesn't really say much: Wikipedia Review, like Wikipedia, is full of people who dislike other people, for reasons that span the whole gamut from perfectly reasonable to totally bizarre. How was I to know that, at the time, she had circulated a document amongst the Cabal (that is, SlimVirgin's WikiHarassment mailing list, hosted at wikia) purporting to prove that a productive editor with the amusing username of "!!" was in fact some sort of evil confidence troll (possibly sent by Wikipedia Review) to undermine the wiki by editing too well, and was preparing to indefinitely block said user in what would prove to be the most dramatic event on the English Wikipedia since Essjay's secret identity got out?

The drama is largely over now; Durova has resigned her adminship and the ArbCom is well on its way to another kneejerk ruling (including the obligatory "controversial circumstances" stain that will likely ensure that Durova will never regain adminship again). An interesting side note, I think, is the ire directed at Giano for having the temerity to be righteously indignant at Durova's flatly bizarre logic for concluding that !! was a malicious editor. Giano is only a problem when other Wikipedians are being stupid. When people aren't behaving stupid enough to set him off, he's a perfectly productive (and in fact quite good) article editor. But when he detects stupidity in progress, he turns into some sort of FrankenGiano and goes off on a rampage, tearing through the pretty paper walls the wikicommunity has set up to protect its sensibilities while trying, in his unimitable and somewhat lovable way, to protect the project he quite clearly cares about deeply. I used to strongly dislike Giano, mainly because I and others I identified with had been the target of his rage. Having watched him go off on someone who, at least this time, I agree deserved it, gives me a new respect for him, and I'm much more inclined to forgive him for the arrows he slung at me back in the day. Giano isn't perfect, and I think sometimes his indignance is misplaced, but I can't question his commitment to the project. Jimbo's threat to ban him was stupid, and reflects how badly Jimbo has lost his way on this project. But then again, Jimbo is a large part of the problem.

The problem with Wikipedia is that, for so many in the project, it's no longer about the encyclopedia. Rather, it has become about the personalities. Durova's ceaseless hunting of vile troll sockpuppets is just a symptom of this. The problem is that Wikipedia's community has defined itself not in terms of the encyclopedia it is supposedly producing, but instead of the people it venerates and the people it abhors. Durova was honored (and remains honored, as witnessed by the syrupy outpouring of commiseration on her talk page) because she was so effective at ensuring that the "wrong people" were kept out of the club, not because she actually aided the encyclopedia. While I truly do think she thinks she was acting for the best of the "project", really she was acting in the best interests of the Wikipedia Club -- and the Club doesn't really do that good a job of tracking the needs of the project.

And this is how Jimbo becomes part of the problem. Jimbo wants to be popular. This is obvious to anyone who puts much effort into watching him. He abhors conflict and wants everyone to just get along. In order to satisfy this, he draws to him people who are willing to venerate him as the club leader. Jimbo has been very active in SlimVirgin's private "wikistalking" list, which ostensibly is supposed to be a discussion about how to deal with online stalking of contributors to wiki projects, but in reality operates as an elite backchannel for deciding who is "in" and "out" of the Club. Since this forum is dominated by SlimVirgin, whose paranoia knows almost no bounds, it exhibits strong paranoid tendencies. It was this list that Durova used as her "sounding board" for her own paranoid investigations; small wonder nobody there blew the whistle. We'll probably never know if there was active encouragement of Durova or not, as it is unlikely that any of the participants in that list are going to talk about it. And, it seems, they've already established a new, even more secret list now; anybody want to bet whether Jimbo is on it?

Furthermore, it seems quite clear from what I've read (and especially private correspondence) that the information that led Durova to conclude that her identification that !! wasn't actually a Wikipedia Review deep-cover troll wasn't someone telling her that "look, your evidence doesn't support anything". Rather, it was someone going to her and telling her who !! really is. From what I've been able to gather, !! isn't this editor's first account. This is disenheartening; what it tells me is that Durova still hasn't accepted that her methods are unfounded, just that this one time her net snared a "good fish" by mistake.

There are three possibilities going forward from here. First, Durova leaves Wikipedia. That's a distinct possibility, but one I think unlikely. She has too much personal involvement in her status to do that. Second, she continues to do her "sleuthing", passing on her findings to others in the Club (say, JzG), who will enforce her findings for her. Really, her mistake here was in letting it be known that she was acting based on confidential information, which itself is the result of becoming drunk on power and convinced of one's own invincibility (the same mistake I made, actually). In effect, she was bragging that she had more access than Ordinary People. I sense a kindred soul here, actually. The third possibility is that she will renounce her ways and return to writing articles, as she once did quite some time ago. I deem this unlikely, but not entirely impossible. If this does happen, it'll take her several months.

A less likely possibility is that she will turn to trolling Wikipedia the way I did after I stepped down. Anybody who does not recognize that my ArbCom run last year was a giant troll, set specifically to catch Geogre, is a fool. Likewise, the adminship nomination I "allowed" a few months ago was also trolling. Wikipedia is terribly easy to troll and has become progressively easier as the exclusionary, paranoid tendencies that Jimbo has allowed to set root have threaded their way deeper into the community. All it takes is the offhand suggestion that one has sockpuppets to set people off. (Yes, I do have sockpuppets. Technically I do have about two dozen, but most of them are accounts with no or only one edit, and as I've misplaced the file that lists what their names are I can't even use them anymore.)

I had a private conversation with James Forrester yesterday. I like James; he is typically a sensible guy. Has some blind spots, but that's to be expected. The main takeaway from that conversation was to confirm that Wikipedia is basically dead to me, in any role beyond that of casual editor. The portion of Wikipedia's leadership that cares more about actual substance is too small and too powerless to have any real influence against the portion that cares mainly about personality -- and most of that portion is actively antagonistic toward me. He has also recognized, as I've known for some time, that I have the "kiss of death": I can kill almost any idea for improving Wikipedia, merely by supporting it. (I caught Newyorkbrad the other day acting on this, when he commented to me privately that I had no standing to comment on anyone else's conduct in Wikipedia. I like NYB, too, but he's very much a part of the Club mentality. He, like Jimbo, wants everyone to get along, and is far more concerned about Community than Encyclopedia, although he justifies this by claiming that a happy community is good for the encyclopedia. I remain quite unconvinced of this notion.) The problem I have with contributing to Wikipedia, as it stands today, is that the site is so not committed to quality that I feel I'm wasting my time improving articles that will just regress within a short time anyway. There's no coordinated commitment to quality, mainly because the community is more interested in playing silly power politics than it is in writing an encyclopedia, and even when there is agreement that something needs to be done, the "bikeshed problem" ensures that nothing is actually ever done.

I could work on Veropedia, but the problem there is that I don't want to make commitments of time that I can't keep. I have a job that frequently makes unexpected demands on my time, such that I can't say "Ok, I will copyedit ten articles a week for you" because then something will come up and I won't be able to. Sadly, I've already seen articles get approved onto Veropedia that were still in need of copyediting, but Wikipedia has always been short on copyeditors (Wikipedia offers even less reward to copyeditors than it does to article authors, which is why the cleanup list is so incredibly long) and Veropedia doesn't have a good pool to draw from there. If there were an easy way for me to go somewhere and push a button and have it drop an article that needed copyediting in my lap where I could either copyedit it or push "Not this one, give me another", that would help. I can't imagine this would be hard to write, but I don't have the time to write it. And, of course, nobody else will, because nobody else cares enough (and besides, it certainly won't happened because I suggested it). Lack of time is the same reason I don't return to writing articles. Writing articles is hard. It takes a lot of time to write a well-researched article, time I just don't have to spend. I suppose I could go back to doing vandalism patrol, but I find vandalism patrol so utterly boring that I'd rather leave it to the kids with attention deficit disorder; besides, it would probably just exacerbate the RSI I've had in my wrist for the past ten years.

So what does that leave? Trolling, I guess. That's kinda fun, but as I noted earlier Wikipedia is getting so easy to troll that it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Also quite boring. Such a shame to see such a noble idea dragged down by basic human frailty. If only something would come along to replace it.... and I don't mean Citizendium!