Wikipedia under siege!

hingo's picture

Wow, this is shocking...

Some time ago we had a discussion on the p2presearch mailing list about the deletionism movement that is rampant on Wikipedia. This led to Michel Bauwens spending a few hours finding out more about the topic. The results - posted on his blog - were shocking. (Also the comments to the article are good, some my own of course :-)

I've often read and shrugged off Wikipedia criticism in the past. They used to be by mainstream media journalists, who had just discovered Wikipedia and were taking some easy shots on how it is so unreliable, especially since this one time someones biography article had been vandalised. I thought, and still think, those journalists are just as enlightened as those in the ninetees who were sure that Open Source is for hobbyists. My first reaction to Michel was a bit like this too, I thought it was just a compilation of such criticism. Luckily I had some time to read some of the background links to his post. And I'm still saddened and shocked to have read what I read.

Read the article, but in short, the power in Wikipedia is currently held by a group of people who clearly are not competent enough to be trusted the governance of "the collected wisdom of the world" ranking top on almost any Google search today. As one commenter notes:

Wikipedia failed because in 2005-2006, when the site suddenly lurched into the public's consciousness, the founding fathers didn't take appropriate measures to ensure a responsible process to cope. People like Jimmy Wales, entrepreneurs who clearly weren't making enough money off it to be satisfied, ceased to care enough about the site itself. Opting for the glamour of “the myth” of “free collaboration” and parading around international conferences talking turkey.

Meanwhile, by mid 2006, with co-founder Larry Sanger disillusioned and seeing a grim future, the site had become infiltrated, then controlled by unaccountables who had identified Wikipedia's status at the top of google. These newcomers understood the power that provides. The bearded idealists and the dedicated encylopedists of the early days were gradually crowded out, or forced out by serious game-players.

As the site lurched from crisis to crisis (John Siegenthaler / Essjay etc) it became apparent just how irresponsible Wikipedia was prepared to be. From top to bottom. The latest COO scandal is another example of this.

Making the rest of ask: How can “the sum of human knowledge”, which now dominates the internet and has crept into education itself, be trusted to a community that so consistently fails to show due responsibility?

Sometimes disputes between to online identities can be hard to judge. So the case of WordBomb on AntiSocialMedia.net (also on The Register) for instance, who knows, maybe he was just a spammer who deserved to be banned, all I've got is his side of the story? Nevertheless, 2 facts that can be clearly established are alone grave enough:

  1. The chairwoman of Wikimedia Foundation (Florence Devouard) believes transparency is bad, because she thinks it will lessen the credibility of Wikipedia amidst all the media attention.
  2. The "Arbitration Committee" works as a secret group of insiders whose members have been caught on deliberating things on a secret mailing list instead of the official one. The Arbitration Committee has power to exclude users from Wikipedia and there is evidence some of the administrators are quite swift in banning people of differing opinions. Not to mention those that dare criticise the Wikipedia administration, of course! At best, enforcement of policies seems to be highly arbitrary.

It is horrible to read all this. The absolute poster child project of everything I believe in being so corrupt. This must be what it feels like to be an American who one day wakes up and realises there never were any "weapons of mass destruction" and that their president is torturing thousands of people for years in Guantanamo Bay. First you don't believe it. Then you get a little bit mad. Then - if you are like me - you want to do something about it.

The Open Source community has long had processes for governing it's projects, and the successful Open Source projects are also, well, successful in this aspect. Wikipedia seems to be in a situation where one of two ultimate solutions seems to be called for: 1) Radical reform and replacement of its administration or 2) "forking", ie creating a new Wikipedia based on the old one, but with a new leadership.

In fact, the second option has already been taken by some: Citizendium is in fact a project by one of the Wikipedia co-founders, Larry Sanger, arguably the one who did most of the work by the way. Reading his blog you realise that he foresaw and gave up on the Wikipedia crisis years ago and Citizendium is his take at doing it better the second time. Who would have thought that in all of his criticism, Larry was right?1

So what about Wikipedia? From what I've read, I'm not very optimistic that things are about to take a turn to the better any time soon. Yet I think Wikipedia is too important to simply fail. Maybe things will not get better, not for a very long long time. What is symptomatic about the situation is that the current Wikimedia chairwoman will be stepping down in 2008, so there might be a window of opportunity to reform things. Yet, it is unclear to me even how the new chairperson will be elected and who are eligible to vote. But I believe eventually Wikipedia will be salvaged, later if not sooner, and from its ruins, if not earlier.

Coincidentally, LWN.net is running a history piece on events in 1998-99, due to its ten year anniversary. One of the themes of 1998 was the problems of the Linux kernel project and its leader Linus being uncapable to handle the sudden growth and success of the project. Partly this was just that the project was suddenly making great leaps forward, and partly because Linus was busy touring on a lot of conferences. (And now go back and re-read the quoted text above... ... ok you're back, continue.) But once enough people complained, and some gave constructive ideas, eventually Linus and Linux adapted to the new requirements, survived and indeed went on to flourish like it had never before.

So if Linux could survive such a crisis, I'm hopeful Wikipedia might too. Indeed, Jimmy Wales has often been criticised for revising his opinions like a windmill. With Linus OTOH this is seen as a positive trait! So here's for hoping that Jimmy will really soon completely change his opinion on how and by whom Wikipedia should be governed.

Finally, at first I thought promoting a fork of Wikipedia would be kind of like admitting a failure. But I had forgotten a golden principle of how power works: Best way to avoid misuse of power is to take care that power doesn't get too concentrated in one place. 2 So I have now committed to start promoting the Citizendium much more. Not just because its governance processes might be better thought of, but also because it is good to have more than one Wikipedia around. (In fact it would probably be good to have more than two, but Citizendium at least is a good start!)

PS. In addition to Michels article, a blog post by Larry Sanger is a good and fairly credible criticism of Wikipedia too.

  1. 1. I always thought it was kinda funny that the person that started Wikipedia saw it as a failure. What did I know!
  2. 2. For instance, the mediaval Catholic church was at some point a disaster. On the other hand some Pentecostal churches may sometimes be lead by complete loonies too. But the good thing about the Pentecostals is that those loonies have much less power than the medieval popes, and hence they almost never kill and torture anyone.

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