Thursday, March 06, 2008

An answer for Ben Yates

Ben Yates, on his blog, asks Danny two questions. I considered answering them in a comment on his blog, but decided instead to answer them here. I know I'm not Danny, but his questions are good ones for anyone engaged in the process of criticizing Wikipedia, and so I will comment nonetheless.

Ben's first question is "What's your ultimate goal?" My ultimate goal in this process is to reclaim Wikipedia from the rabble that has subverted it from its original mission, or, if that is not possible, to marginalize Wikipedia so that a competing project organized along different lines can take its place. I think if Wikipedia is to be reclaimed, a major step in that process will involve the removal of Jimmy Wales from any special role in the project. His failures of leadership are a large part of how Wikipedia got to the sad state it is in today, and his removal is a necessary step in jettisoning the failed framework that is creating so much trouble. This is largely orthogonal to his role in the Wikimedia Foundation. I think Jimmy should be removed from his relationship there as well, but as I also recommend that the Wikipedia community divorce itself from the Wikimedia Foundation and find new hosting digs elsewhere, what WMF does is of less significance. If Wikipedia withdraws from the WMF, the WMF will become a largely meaningless shell, and will rapidly wither and die. (It may well do so anyway; the impact on fundraising of the events of the past week are likely to be substantial.)

Jimmy Wales has not been the banner-carrier for Wikipedia for some time, and has never been an appropriate banner-carrier for the project, not even from the moment of the project's inception. Jimmy's purpose in founding Wikipedia was to make money for Jimmy. When it became obvious to Jimmy that he would not be able to make money from it directly (see also the unpleasantness regarding Enciclopedia Libre, which is, sadly, poorly documented anywhere that I am aware of), he first tried to siphon money off the Foundation sight unseen (leading to the incidents Danny reports) and, that failing him, founded Wikia, moving his aspirations of wealth to that vehicle. Jimmy has been a banner-carrier for Wikia ever since; he supports Wikipedia only insofar as doing so will increase the chances of Wikia making him rich (which it has failed to do and shows no signs of doing in the future) or will gain him access to the celebrity lifestyle he so obviously craves. Jimmy has never been committed to Wikipedia for any altruistic purpose, the way so many of us in the community are, but purely out of venal motives, and is therefore a terrible banner-carrier for the cause. Removing him will certainly be painful because it will take the recognition of these simple facts by a large enough faction of the community to overwhelm the cult of personality that has sprung up around him. Examples of this "cult" can be seen in even a brief examination of recent comments on the Wikien-L mailing list, which exhibits several recent instances of evident thoughtstopping behavior.

Ben's second question was "How do you feel about Wikipedia?" I think you can get some sense of how I feel about Wikipedia from the foregoing, but I'll be more explicit. I support the notion of an encyclopedia written by a broad community of people from all walks of life; that is, I strongly support the broader mission that Wikipedia seeks to complete. However, I think Wikipedia, the project, has made poor decisions in the past that now greatly hamper, and may well preclude, its attempts to fulfill that mission. I firmly believe that Wikipedia is too open and allows too many people to participate in the project with insufficient organizational structure and direction, leading to a whole host of ills. There is a fine line between being "too open" and "too closed"; too closed and you don't get critical mass and too open and you get overrun. It may be that there is no "happy medium" on this question and that you have to change your degree of openness over time to ensure the right mix of experience and freshness. Wikipedia has, however, adopted radical openness as a now-immutable core principle, and I think they are doomed for that. Radical change is needed to save Wikipedia; if radical change is not possible then Wikipedia needs to be swept to the side and a new project founded to grow from the ashes of what was Wikipedia, taking from Wikipedia what does work and reinventing what did not.

I think it's widely understood that there are many things wrong with Wikipedia. I would welcome a broader discussion of how to reinvent Wikipedia so as to be better, and once that discussion is complete, another discussion on how to get from where we are to that place. And I think before we can do either, we need to get past the petty politics that dominates the Wikipedia community today. And doing that entails, amongst other things, removing those from the community, and the discussion, whose commitment is not toward the encyclopedia project. And that, sadly, includes Jimmy Wales, as I have explained above.

I hope this answers your questions, Ben. Even if you didn't ask them of me.