Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Register disses Wikipedia, this time with class

I was interviewed last week by a reporter from the Register about this whole Durova thing. The article is out now. It's actually a pretty good read; the Register has a history of, um, poor coverage of Wikipedia and I was a bit hesitant to do the interview at first, but I'm glad that I did. (I'm sure the dedicated Wikipedians are all slamming it; they have to. It's required as part of maintaining their culture of identified external enemies.)

Slashdot ("we haven't broken a new story since 1997!") has, of course, an article about the Register article. Normally I don't read Slashdot, but just this once I did. Most of the comments are crap, of course, but this one was actually insightful:
Most of us have some idea that there is a class of people who, to a varying degree, want to be part of an "in group". To create an in group you also have to create an out group. Then you differentiate the in group and the out group, ascribe exaggerated virtue to the in group and look for scapegoats in the out group. You do this because in this way you focus power into the in group. It's essential to have secret, restricted means of communication between in group members.

These people will of course seek to infiltrate and take over any organization perceived as having any kind of power, whether it is over ideas, money or people. That's because, after all, this is what they are after.

It makes no difference whether it is religion, politics or an Internet encyclopedia, offer an entry for the people with psychopathic tendencies and they will come. The rant quoted in the Register article is simply typical of the breed.

To get people to do moderation work unpaid, you have to offer them something. That something is described above -a small amount of power and the feeling of being in an in-group and privy to secret knowledge. Depressingly, what I conclude from this is that the only real answer is to pay people and have competition. Payment offers rewards to people who do not care about power or exclusivity. Competition means that disgruntled customers and competitors go elsewhere, i.e. they can escape from an abusive in group. What Wikipedia needs is a commercial model and competition. That way, the psychopaths and compulsive neurotics are unlikely to take over the shop (and the ones on the staff can waste their energy litigating, which seems to be the main way we keep psychopaths out of trouble in the English speaking world.)

I don't know who Kupfernigk is, but he (or she) is spot on here. Unfortunately, he doesn't offer a viable solution to the problem. That's been my problem, too: I can readily see that there's a problem (unlike so many Wikipedians, who insist that all is well in Wikiland despite evidence to the contrary) but I have no idea what the solution is. (Well, actually, I have some ideas for solutions, but no idea how to make them happen. The power dynamics of Wikipedia are really deeply entrenched.) What I do know is that the first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge that it exists. So far, Wikipedia refuses to do that. Until it does, there will be no improvement.


  1. Could it be that the iron law of oligarchy always stands true? It would be a fallacy to say that the situation as it stands now could not have been predicted. Yet, little was done to address the problem in the beginning.

    We're perhaps witnessing the birth-pangs of the world's first virtual bureaucracy and putting a price on things wouldn't help. You can't "buy" responsibility, but perhaps you can buy an illusion of responsibility.

    The first step as you say, is in admitting that there is a problem, and I don't even want to extrapolate to what this could lead to, but then what can we do?

    Putting a price on access will only lead to the creation of a new elite who not only have the information to share but also have the money required to allow them to share it. This will inevitably lead to a new class-structure and people will still get cussed for not formatting their pages correctly, only the situation will be intensified because now, money will be involved.

  2. Honestly, the problem is that Jimmy Wales enables all that bad behavior, and it just trickles down from there. All the social defectives like Tony Sidaway, MONGO, et al are held up on this dais of acceptable or enabled behavior, and everyone emulates that. It just cascades from there.

  3. There is a fair amount of literature about Communities of Interest, Communities of Practice, and Communities of Commitment that evolve into world class Centers of Excellence.

    One of the more reliable ways to create a community that reaches the pinnacle of excellence is to ground it with a well-crafted Social Contract. Several of the larger and more successful Linux Open Source Projects have adopted that model.

    Wikipedia lacks a functional social contract. Instead it has accumulated a haphazard hodgepodge of rules and guidelines which are confusing, ambiguous, inconsistent, contentious, and self-contradictory.

    When a pilot lands on an airfield, there are clear guidelines painted on every taxiway and gate area.

    Arriving at Wikipedia is like landing at an airport, looking out the cockpit window to find the guidelines, and finding a plate of spaghetti painted on the tarmack.

    No wonder people go around in circles there.

    The site operates more like an MMPORG, rife with conflict and drama as competing factions selectively cherry pick which rules and guidelines to flog their adversaries with.

  4. There's competition out there. I have my own encyclopedia wiki, and it wasn't all that difficult to set up. Other people are trying too. Somehow Wikipedia still dominates at Google no matter how good the content on other websites get. That's one of the mysteries here.

  5. One longstanding problem is that the rules are in effect written on a whiteboard, and erasers and pens are helpfully provided.

    Everyone's ability to rewrite the rules at whim has resulted in the spaghetti mess we have today.

    You have the people who want to make sure that what they're doing is within the rules. You have the people making sure the rules ban what their opponents are doing. You have the helpful people for whom the first response to any new situation is inventing a rule.

  6. Alex Roshuk a/k/a en:alex756Wed Dec 05, 04:24:00 PM CST

    For what it is worth I think the problem is that nobody followed up from 2003 on Wikipedia being a membership organization (which is what is stated in the IRS 501(c)(3) application signed by Jimmy). I spent a lot of time discussing this with Jimmy at the time he and I were trying to come up with bylaws (necessary to file the tax-exempt application) but I don't think he ever understood that by empowering people through membership that the social contract mentioned by moulton that would create a real community (outside the pseudo community created by editing various WP projects). I think he saw the bylaws as a legal formality, not as something that had real consequences because he and Tim Shell and Michael Davis never really implemented what they agreed to when they signed those bylaws in 2003-04.

    The were so-called "elections" which never were properly "noticed" to all the volunteer editors who were the members (I know you think there never were members Kelly because no one ever "paid" a membership fee, but I never thought that was the critical element of membership as you could also be a member just by being a contributor to a WP project) and then in 2006 we were told that there never was a membership because no one ever paid a membership fee? That seems very lax to me. There were members, that was the basis upon which WMF got its tax exemption.

    Since 2006 when talking about all the editors Jimbo and other people on the board now use the euphemism "community" (a world that commercial sites like eBay, myspace and Amazon use too). The problem is that without it every having been a membership organization the "members" or "volunteer editors" have no real sense of belonging and there is no organized place outside of the projects that many people who contribute to WP projects or to WMF can deal with disputes or discussions. Membership organizations have lots of activities that build community amonst the members and even though I put that in the original bylaws it was never really examined or implemented, I guess no one had the experience I did regarding what NPO membership organization do. Finally it was taken out by Brad Patrick (a corporate lawyer who said WMF was NOT A DEMOCRACY) when he gave WMF its "new and improved" bylaws by fiat.

    Most organizations that grow organically (and I have been actively involved in dozens over the past 30 years) have their infrastructure boosted by their being various committees and activities that individuals can participate in outside the general work of the organization, and I think WMF did not really know how to deal with that because none of the people in the administration or board level ever really ran or even participated in a community based NPO so they had no experience with the steps necessary to build a healthy support membership that feel empowered to make the organization their own. I think, and I have said this elsewhere, that people were "scared" of trolls or teenagers taking over WMF and what has happened is they the bad element is taking over various WP project and really there is no way to distinguish between good and bad, it is just a war and whomever has the most power will win, it has nothing to do with NPOV anymore because there is nothing neutral about eliminating articles you don't think are important (this is a point of view, no?).

    From my pov there was an attempt to create real community on the metawiki level when the organization was small, but when money needs became a big deal and the website became so high profile people became so obsessed with working on their project or promoting the role in starting WP they didn't realize that the work of creating a community that was different from just editing dispute discussions was needed. This, IMHO is why there is so much chaos at WMF and WP projects. I doubt at this point if it can be corrected; it is certainly not going to be corrected through some mailing list.

  7. Alex, I really appreciate your comments, and they deserve a broader response which I will endeavor to provide in the near future.

  8. So there is no room for people to want to edit the project because they believe in the betterment of human knowledge? It 100% has to come from want of money, want of power, or want of social status?

  9. A day after the article in the UK Register, Seth Finkelstein has publish a comparable opinion piece in the UK Guardian...

    Inside, Wikipedia is more like a sweatshop than Santa's workshop

    Here's a quote:

    "Wikipedia is frequently touted as a model of selfless human collaboration but it may be more instructive as a hotbed of social pathologies."

    The article then goes on to characterize the dysfunctionality of the Wikipedia model.

  10. swatjester, I think the fundamental issue is that with the Durova case, we've seen that those who merely want to contribute to the betterment of human knowledge can easily become casualties to the games of those who seek power for its own sake.

    The existence of abusive powermongers isn't a bad thing in and of itself in organizations, as long as they don't actually get the power they seek. The problem with the current situation is that these people do have the power, granted by Jimmy Wales, who is the real source of this issue, and the only one who can fix it.

  11. old news now really - but thought you might like to know that I got booted from the wiki-en mailing list just for mentioning / 'slashdotting' the Register article.
    Otherwise, I too am interested in alex's comments, which represent a back story and perspective I had been completely unaware of.

  12. "... Every city or house divided against itself shall not stand."

    Every so often, I stumble upon "the Wikipedia controversy." I am fascinated by this, as an encyclopaedic source of information freely available seems like "A Good Thing (TM)." Each time I feel my blood pressure rise, as I see people using a laudable effort for some non-altruistic or self-serving purpose. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, eh?

    To me, each controversy and some of the replies given to them by the WP editors seem to scream out, "Schizophrenia!". Hence my quotation.

    Isn't this the real problem? WP is not the utopian, democratic platform of knowledge it was sold as when founded. It is, in fact, nowhere near that -- it is a house divided against itself.

    Perhaps no human-run institution could live up to this type of goal. But half the people are trying to, and half are using it for personal gain of one form or another. This explains the schizophrenic-like symptoms, IMHO.

  13. Alex raises some interesting points regarding membership. Regardless of Brad Patrick's position, the bylaws originally stated that the WMF would be a membership organization. In fact, the original Board election notice http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Board_elections/2004) said as follows: "We are voting for two positions that of Contributing Active *Member* Representative and Volunteer *User* Representative. In order to vote for either of these positions you must have been with one of the Wikimedia projects for at least three months. In future elections only Contributing Active Members will be able to vote for the Contributing Active Member Representative post, but for this first election it will be open to all Wikimedia contributors."

    Florence ran for Contributing Active Member Representative (http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Board_elections/2004/Candidates#Anthere_.28Confirmed.29). How interesting then that she expressed her loyalty to the constituency that elected her by eliminating them as a group. Was it too much work? Who knows ... Most recently, instead of standing for election, she simply had the Board vote to extend her term. I guess responsibility to Members (and Users) entails too much responsibility for some board members.

  14. There is ultimately no such thing as failure; there are only successes and learning experiences.

    Wikipedia should be viewed as a learning experience.

    It is seductive, within our very limited individual understandings of the world, to believe that interesting and complex things can develop harmoniously. I sometimes think that if the world had had the misfortune of having me as its creator, the problem of distributing water would have been solved by having us all wake up covered with heavy dew every morning, reliably and repetitiously. Instead, we are lucky enough to have clouds and rain, storms and wind and droughts and snow.

    What went wrong with Wikipedia is that, in the face of the storm, it was decided that a reliable heavy covering of dew was preferable; that it was too dangerous to embrace the storm. And so a thousand possibilities were extinguished so that one damp, miserable reality might reliably come to be.

  15. What astonishes me about Wikipedia is not that it initially organized itself around a flawed and unsustainable model, but that it has steadfastly failed to reflect upon or learn from its growing dossier of misadventures.