Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Great Failure of Wikipedia ( audio | text | pdf ) is a funny and compelling speech, even if I disagree with most of it (short, smart counter that I didn't write). It makes several audacious points, and backs up some of them.

Scott starts on a conciliatory note ("I do not dispute that wikipedia, for a person who is playing the part of a tourist, a web browser, is a beautiful success"). Then the critique starts. Criticisms I found interesting (if not uniformly convincing) :

(Note: Jason responds in the comments.)

1. Wikipedia presents itself as the sum of human knowledge, and therefore deserves criticism if it doesn't live up to that ideal. Its utopian framework is collapsing under the strain of human nature. 'Wikipedia holds up the dark mirror of what humanity is to itself.'

(This strikes me a silly argument: Wikipedia was founded as a tongue-in-cheek side project, not a grand utopia. Its success caught everone, including Wales and Sanger, by surprise -- and the "success" I'm talking about was reaching, say, 1000 articles. Wikipedia's current incarnation was completely undreampt of.)

2. Because of the constant back-and-forth between vandals and users, Wikipedia is a breeding ground for "supervandalism" in the same way that hospitals are breeding grounds for superviruses.

3. 'Wikipedia represents the first wave of a coming information war'. (Not enough detail in this allegation to rebut it.)

4. '"Not notable" is the cancer of wikipedia' -- users get frustrated when their hard work is nominated for deletion, not by an expert in anything, but by some random guy.

4 and a half. Votes (including votes for deletion) are badly run.

'"Concensus" essentially means, "when the administrator shows up, he makes a decision" ... In wikipedia, you will have 75 to 45 votes in which the 45 win. Simply becuase of the quality, or because of the number of neutrals, you have this enormous amount of weight that can be pushed around by an administrator.'
(See the Checkerboard Nightmare debacle.)

5. There are many administrators working to destroy wikipedia from within. (He doesn't provide evidence.)

5 and a half. These include people who enjoy messing with wikipedia's social and beaurocratic structure as in end in itself: they don't care about the encyclopedia's content in the same way that software crackers don't care about playing computer games or running photoshop.
'...people who have been working for two years from the inside of wikipedia to slowly ruin it. They have been able to change rules, they have been able to make administrators get deleted, they have been able to modify how rules are run in some places.'

6. There might be a coup to overthrow Jimbo.
''Administrators...who previously should have made more firm rules, finding themselves instead having to make in-the-dark, nontransparent people are in the dark, they're angry, they don't understand what's going on...enough that, I do know, some of the higher point of administrators have been talking about deposing Jimbo. Jimbo doesn't know that. Now he does.'

Again, frustratingly unsourced. But as pure rumor, it's jucy.

1 comment:

Jason Scott said...

Ben, I'm responding to your post because of the dozens I've read, I think it's the one that's impressed me the most in summarizing what I'm trying to say. I'll just dash off some quick clarifications/reactions.

1. Regardless of if it caught Jimbo by surprise (and I've had my share of prank or fun projects that exploded into world-wide awareness), he has continued, to the present day, to aggrandize and pronounce Wikipedia to be a world-changing presence, an organization of good and light working to literately change the face of the Internet and of the availability of human knowledge. He does this repeatedly in interviews, and has done so even past when it was obvious this thing was taking off (2003). So while I would agree that holding him to what Sanger and Wales were joshing around in 2001-2002 would be silly, I don't think it's silly to note he continues to do it. So no pass for Jimbo. Change the slogan on the front or critics will keep pointing to it.

2. I get nailed by a lot of people for calling advanced bacteria "Superviruses". Total mistake, but the metaphor is real. I appreciate your link to to actual meaning... even if it's on Wikipedia. :)

3. I am simply saying that as life goes more and more online and we continue to connect and interrelate systems with striking speed, we will see more and more of the techniques being learned in Wikipedia used in more intense and life-affecting ways. Kind of the central thesis of the talk, really. As a result, Wikipedia can serve a function to learn some of the techniques/pitfalls used by agenda pushers in collaborative networks.

4. Dude, I am so right on this one.

5. Well, here we have a problem. If I provide evidence, the Administrators who had been contacting me since I wrote an essay in 2004, and who have been feeding me incredible insight and ideas, would all be betrayed. Wikipedia administration is not 100% convinced that what I speak of exists... that works for these guys! All I can say is, yes, they exist. And they are scary.

6. I consider this one semi-shaky, because it's not 100% clear they were joking when they were discussing it, but if they are serious, they're going to corner Jimbo at Wikimania 2006. We'll see!

Again, good stuff, thanks for such a great summary. So many people just get what I said... wrong.