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The Six Rotten Pillars of Wikipedia

MyWikiBiz, Author Your Legacy — Monday September 25, 2017
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WHY WIKIPEDIA IS DOOMED: THE SIX ROTTEN PILLARS OF WIKIPEDIA[1]

It is becoming clear to even the most fervent wiki-apologists that something is really wrong with the current state of Wikipedia. A number of Wikipedia users have complained that editor conflicts have definitely been on the rise since 2004, and that the last two years on Wikipedia have been particularly bad. This is cited as an ever growing distraction from “building the encyclopedia”. In fact, edit wars over particular articles and other editor conflicts do appear to be growing at an ever increasing rate. In the early days of Wikipedia:Administrators’ noticeboard/Incidents (“WP:ANI”, Wikipedia’s drama center, founded in December, 2004), it usually took around one week to fill an archive. Now archives are filled about every two days.

So why all the drama? There are a number of reasons, all of which have been discussed here before at Wikipedia Review, and at some length. The most basic causes I identify as


THE SIX ROTTEN PILLARS OF WIKIPEDIA


INSTANT EDITING OF ARTICLES

Instant editing at Wikipedia may be the single greatest factor causing its decline and it will probably cause its eventual destruction. This feature ensures that both the improvement and the marring of articles are impermanent, and that the battles against internet trolls, polemicists (in wikispeak, “POV pushers”), spammers, vandals, and ignorant interlopers will be everlasting (at least while Wikipedia still exists). It is this single feature of Wikipedia, more than any other, that gives rise to the MMORPG character of Wikipedia and makes ridiculous its claim of being an “encyclopedia”.

If the Wikipedia experience has proved nothing else, it has that there is a good reason that previously established print encyclopedias (wikispeak: “paper encyclopedias”) use editorial boards to vet suggested changes to content: they are needed. A number of members have suggested as a reform that all article pages (wikispeak: “articlespace”) on Wikipedia be “locked down”, editable only by an editorial board, qualified by knowledge and/or expertise in a particular subject area. Wikipedia could still retain its user pages and discussion pages, which in this case would be refocused upon users making suggested changes to an article, or suggesting new articles, for the editorial board to act on. The ability of knowledgeable amateurs to suggest changes, and the transparency of the process, would still distinguish Wikipedia from other encyclopedias.

What is chance of such a salubrious reform being enacted? Absolute zero. The reason for this simple enough: the “sole founder” and “God-King” of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, says so. His 2001 pharaonic fiat reads in pertinent part:

"You can edit this page right now" is a core guiding check on everything that we do. We must respect this principle as sacred.

Later, this “sacred” principle was made into the Third Pillar of The Five Pillars of Wikipedia, which “define the character of the project”. In other words, instant editing is sacred; it is off the table for discussion; and any suggestion of such a reform of Wikipedia is wiki-heresy for which the offender shall be banned and consigned to “off-wiki” hell. Never mind that the central administrative junta that largely runs Wikipedia (“The Cabal”) makes exceptions as to who constitutes the “anyone” that may edit Wikipedia (after all, certain individuals and IP ranges are unmutual and must be suppressed for the good of the wiki); the basic principle remains inviolable.

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“So let it be written! So let it be done!”

“NEUTRALITY” (“NPOV”) OF ARTICLES

According to Wales, the most sacred of all the sacred principles of Wikipedia is “NPOV”, i.e., “Neutral Point of View”, of articles for “the preservation of our shared vision” and “for a culture of thoughtful diplomatic honesty” (whatever the hell that means). While on first read this may seem to make a fair amount of good sense, on close examination, it is about the most confusing and drama-inducing formulation imaginable.

“Neutral” in regular English (as opposed to English wikispeak) usually denotes nonalignment; taking none of any of the contending viewpoints as to a subject. But on Wikipedia, as with so many other common words, “neutral” has a rather different meaning. The official policy starts off the definition of “NPOV” as follows:

The neutral point of view is a means of dealing with conflicting verifiable perspectives on a topic as evidenced by reliable sources. The policy requires that where multiple or conflicting perspectives exist within a topic each should be presented fairly. None of the views should be given undue weight or asserted as being judged as "the truth", in order that the various significant published viewpoints are made accessible to the reader, not just the most popular one.

So far, so good. Then comes the kicker:

As the name suggests, the neutral point of view is a point of view, not the absence or elimination of viewpoints. The neutral point of view policy is often misunderstood. The acronym NPOV does not mean "no points of view". The elimination of article content cannot be justified under this policy by simply labeling it "POV". The neutral point of view is neither sympathetic nor in opposition to its subject: it neither endorses nor discourages viewpoints. (My bolding).

So it would appear that the central policy of Wikipedia requires Wikipedia editors to construct a “neutral” viewpoint that somehow through some wiki-magic absorbs bits from the various contending viewpoints, giving no “undue weight” to any of the contending views, but still manages to be a viewpoint all its own. This way madness lies.

Keep in mind that NPOV is a mandatory policy which applies to all Wikipedia articles. How, pray, is one expected to manufacture a “NPOV” for a non-controversial subject using this formula? And what of controversial subjects which actually involve taboos, i.e., where one of the contending viewpoints is overwhelmingly accepted, and the other nearly universally rejected due violations of social taboos and/or criminal statutes? Can one really be “neutral” about genocide or childhood sexual abuse and still be a human being? It is mind boggling. It is little wonder that a basic standard that is so illogical and unachievable is the cause of so many content disputes. How could it be otherwise? NPOV creates so many opportunities for polemicists to argue that their position is more “neutral” than those of others by simply divorcing that word from its normal definition in a dictionary (wikispeak: “dictdef”).

A far more rational approach would have been to construct a policy requiring that contending viewpoints (where they exist) to be given a fair, accurate and balanced description. In other words, describe the position and arguments in support, but don’t make the argument. Frankly, I cannot imagine why a policy which requires editors to manufacture some artificial “neutral” viewpoint was ever deemed a good idea for an encyclopedia, much less the core policy. Is this some weird tenet of Randianism? Perhaps someone more familiar with the writings of Ayn Rand and her “objectivist” philosophy, of which Wales claims to be a devotee, could explain this.

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“Words mean what I say they mean! Neither more nor less!”

ANONYMOUS EDITING– THE CULT OF IRRESPONSIBILITY

Anonymous commentary, particularly involving political criticism or satire, has a long and celebrated tradition in English-speaking nations. Contrast this with the encyclopedist tradition in 18th Century Britain and France, taking in contributions from well known and credited experts in their respective fields to produce the first western general knowledge encyclopedias in the modern era. In constructing its online “encyclopedia”, however, Wikipedia draws upon a far more recent tradition dating from the 1980s– Usenet message boards populated mostly by anonymous users.

Anonymous editing is the most sacred cow on Wikipedia, other than “NPOV” and instant editing. Per official policy, the “outing” of personal information about a Wikipedia user (defined as “legal name, date of birth, social security number, home or workplace address, telephone number, email address, or other contact information, regardless of whether or not the information is actually correct”) is absolutely verboten and a blockable offense. There is also no exception for posting such information when the user themself has publicly posted the information elsewhere. The hyperbolic justification given is that “outing” “is an unjustifiable and uninvited invasion of privacy and may place that editor at risk of harm in ‘the real world’.” The “harm” that is being anticipated here are those “actions which deliberately expose other Wikipedia editors to political, religious or other persecution by government, their employer or any others.” This, then, is the rationale of abandoning the centuries old practice of crediting contributors using their real names, and instead allowing the anonymous contribution practices of the Usenet.

By the time Wikipedia came along in 2001, the flamewars of the Usenet had already passed into legend. Also by that time, the fact that anonymous posting on the internet has the power to turn some ordinarily well behaved and seemingly sensible people into raving sociopaths was well documented. It would seem, then, that whenever presented with a choice between little or no drama and lots of drama, Wikipedia can be reliably expected to choose the path of “moar dramahz”. That would fit, of course, with the MMORPG character of Wikipedia. But Wikipedia is more than just a MMORPG; it is also a libel platform containing thousands of “BLPs” (biographies of living persons). Anonymous editing, accordingly, is convenient for avoiding responsibility for publishing libels about celebrities, bosses, colleagues, competitors, or others that piss you off. But the advantages of anonymity don’t stop there. Polemicists can avoid disclosing their personal interests (wikispeak: “COI”) while advancing their agendas. Spammers and shills can hide the fact that they are spamming and shilling, as long as they aren’t being too obvious about it. Politicians and their staffs can enhance C.V.s and legislative records, and de-emphasize or eliminate scandals, without disclosing their “COI”. If you enjoy engaging in trolling, you don’t really want your real name associated that seventh grade level prose, even if you are still in the seventh grade. And as for the advantages for fetishists, that’s obvious.

Thus, it is not hard to see the attraction of anonymity. Fulfilling one’s desire for revenge, personal and political interests, lusts, avarice, and desire to cause mayhem without consequence is pretty seductive. And even if one is caught “out”, you can simply start over again with a new account. This has happened on Wikipedia many, many times. Given the penchant that the more zealous Wikipedia users (a/k/a “wikipediots”) have for playing at martyrs, it is hard to know if this mad “outing” policy was really born of an overwrought persecution complex on the part of the policy authors, or whether it was a cynical ploy to increase participation (and drama) on Wikipedia. It could have even been some mixture of the two. In any event, it is clear that Wikipedia has effectively created a cult of irresponsibility; it has become an attractive nuisance to children and to adults who prefer to act irresponsibly.

I am not unmindful that although the “outing” policy is absolute by its own terms, it is by no means absolute in its enforcement. A number of users deemed unmutual by The Cabal, or by one of the various sub-cabals (“wiki projects”), have been “outed” as punishment for their real or imagined “wiki-crimes”. That would be a good subject for another thread.

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“On second thought, let’s not go to Wikipedia. It is a silly place.”

HOSTILITY TO EXPERTS– THE CULT OF THE IGNORANT AMATEUR

Wikipedia’s hostility toward experts editing “the encyclopedia”, and its inability to retain expert users, are problems well documented here at Wikipedia Review. While hostility to experts does have a lot to do with the “anyone can edit” policy of Wikipedia, in my view it has even more to do with how “consensus” is reached to determine the content of articles.

Wikipedia does not have any explicit policy to discourage expert participation, but it might as well have. In terms of determining content, Wikipedia focuses not so much on the actual merits of factual claims or contentions, but rather upon process and user behavior. Central to this view is Wikipedia’s official policy on consensus, which is founded directly upon The Jimbo’s peculiar definition of that word:

Consensus is a partnership between interested parties working positively for a common goal.

Note that the emphasis is on process, not the normal definition of “consensus”, which is a general agreement between a group as a whole. “Consensus” is deemed to be “Wikipedia's fundamental model for editorial decision-making”, and is also a chief part of the “Fourth Pillar” of Wikipedia. The clear emphasis on process is also shown by the flow chart which appears on the policy page.

The process to determine “consensus”, and in turn content, is but vaguely defined in the policy. There is an expression that “a limited group of editors” cannot determine “consensus”, but no explanation of how to determine what constitutes “a representative group”, which is empowered to decide “consensus” “on behalf of the community as a whole.” Mostly, the policy is a mish-mash of several wiki-mutuality concepts (like “neutrality”, “good faith”, and “civility”) that are expected through some wiki-magic to work together to provide the process that in turn provides the content. This policy was famously satirized in 2006 by the comedian and author Stephen Colbert, who dubbed it “wikiality”, the process by which “truthiness” is determined. This soon thereafter led to the famous Tripling Elephants Incident, which in turn led to Colbert being “indefblocked” from Wikipedia by Jimbo for his crimes of unmutuality.

So how does this affect experts? Note that the emphasis in the policy is not only upon process, but specifically upon “on-wiki” process. Note also that although there are a few special exceptions specified, none involve experts. Accordingly, by official policy, the opinions of experts carry no special weight on Wikipedia, nor do any “off-wiki” processes for determining accuracy or reliability of information carry any especial weight. This would appear to be in conflict with the “No Original Research” policy, which ostensibly seeks to preserve Wikipedia as a “tertiary source”. It is little wonder that so many experts have been disillusioned and even angered by their Wikipedia experience. What Wikipedia appears to offer with one hand, it takes away with another. Their subject matter knowledge and expertise frequently finds itself trumped by the gamesmanship and knowledge of “on-wiki” processes of otherwise ignorant amateurs, who are most often teens and twenty-somethings. Being a recognized expert in your field means little to nothing to a Teenaged Mutant Wiki-AdminTM. It’s all about process and user behavior; more specifically, about catching your opponent “out” and eliminating them from the game.

When it comes to process, it also should be noted that Wikipedia lacks any mandatory process to resolve content disputes. Ultimately, only voluntary mediation is available. The dispute resolution jurisdiction of ArbCom (Wikipedia’s “supreme court”) extends only issues of user behavior. So what does this mean? On Wikipedia what it most often means is that if a user belongs to a rather determined group (often a “wiki-project”) that is devoted to promoting certain views and holding tough against outsiders with other views, they will usually prevail by wearing down their opponents, or driving them off, through gaming the system. Ultimately, it is not about what you know, but how you play the game.

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Official Teenage Mutant Wiki-Admin™ T-shirt

EXPLOITATION OF THE ADDICTED AND MENTALLY ILL

Of all of the unseemly aspects that there are of Wikipedia, the most unattractive and morally repugnant of them all is the way that those with addictive personalities and/or mental illness are used to generate content and to police the website. One can readily see the addictive qualities of editing Wikipedia by clicking on the “contributions” link for any number of Wikipedia admins and other “power users”. The 24+ hour editing sprees and other signs of obsessive and compulsive editing are well known to the regulars here at Wikipedia Review. So too are many of their usernames, although there is no need in naming any here.

The culture on Wikipedia is such that obsessive and overblown devotion to the website is cause for signal praise, rather than cause for alarm. That is, as long as the user is deemed “constructive” and is also subservient to (or at least acquiescent to) the will of the applicable cabal that controls the matter or “articlespace” where they edit. Users award one another virtual “barnstars”, “ribbons”, and “medals”, along with other “awards” for their “service to the wiki”. It appears that Wikipedia has developed even more awards than the old Soviet Union to honor its most politically correct devotees.

There is never any thought of flood control for a “constructive editor”, no matter how clearly obsessive they become. Not unless or until that editor has become unmutual, or simply too great an embarrassment, because of violations of policy (be they written or unwritten), in which case they are blocked or banned. Generally, one can either edit in an unlimited fashion (until they drop), or not all. Of course, has to be noted here that those editors who are better known, who have been deemed “constructive” and “productive” in the past, and who are admins or a friend of an admin (i.e., “power users”), are likely to be judged far more leniently as compared to less well known and less obsessive editors who have no friends in the Wikipedia power structure. To those “power users” with personality disorders or addictive personalities, this merely serves as an invitation to delve more deeply into pathological behavior; an invitation rarely, if ever, declined.

The exploitation of the addiction or mental illness of certain users has bad effects other than the deepening psychological harm to the afflicted user. It also has the effect of harming the reputation of Wikipedia, by giving the increasingly common impression that “the lunatics have taken over the asylum”. This in turn has prompted a number of actually constructive users to leave Wikipedia in disgust as they see the favoritism extended toward certain users who are clearly disturbed, and who also are clearly pushing an agenda, or have little idea what they are talking about. And when the afflicted user also happens to be an admin, the potential for abusive use of admin powers is very often realized. In essence, such admins are both victims and victimizers.

However, merely having an internet addiction or mental illness alone does not give a user an “inside track” to becoming a “power user”. If one is afflicted, but also expresses politically incorrect opinions or fails to show a proper eagerness to play the game, that user can quickly find themself isolated, if not blocked or banned. Also, I would never suggest as a reform that Wikipedia start to offer some sort counseling program to troubled users. The very thought of a psychological counseling program at Wikipedia is only very slightly less horrifying than wiki-surgery.

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“Good Lord, dear! Bethlehem Hospital? I thought this was WMF Headquarters!”

BAD GOVERNANCE– THE REIGN OF THE LORDS OF MISRULE

This Sixth Rotten Pillar of Wikipedia has probably attracted more attention here on the pages of Wikipedia Review than have the five others. The names and exploits of certain abusive admins, the policies they choose to selectively enforce and why, the follies of the Arbitration Committee (“ArbCom”), and the battles between individual users, or gangs of users, are the subjects of frequent commentary here. Wikipedia has been called an anarchy, or alternatively, an absolutist dictatorship on a fascist or Stalinist model. While neither view is entirely correct, neither is entirely wrong either. Wikipedia has in fact managed in its own dysfunctional way to combine many of the worst elements of both anarchy and absolute dictatorship for its governance model.

Just what that governance model was meant to be is more than a little confusing. In April, 2002, The Jimbo issued a vaguely worded essay entitled “Wikipedia Governance”. The essay makes clear that Jimbo intended to retain a super-veto power as to policy issues; but as to other matters, all he seems to specify is that NPOV is absolutely central to Wikipedia governance, and that those who disagree should leave Wikipedia and “set up [their] own project”. A more recent page entitled “Power structure” is more detailed, but also more diffuse and confusing. There it is claimed that “Wikipedia's present power structure is a mix of anarchic, despotic, democratic, republican, meritocratic, plutocratic, technocratic, and bureaucratic elements.” Add a few diced carrots and some paprika and you’ve got goulash.

One is given to wonder if all of this confusion is largely or wholly intended. Perhaps so, but more often when one finds a large organization with such a diffuse and ill-defined governance model, the people running the organization are essentially making it up as they go along. Given Wikipedia’s sheer size and its largely open and instant editing policy, there is no way that Wikipedia’s admin corps of 1,600 has any hope of effectively policing the entire site. It depends greatly upon ordinary users to do grub-work like reverting vandalism, “recent changes patrol”, correcting grammar and punctuation in articles outside of the user’s areas of interest, etc. There are a number of users willing to do this, but they tend to burn out after a time, and then limit their activity to their subjects of interest, or give up on “the wiki” altogether. A great deal of Wikipedia is a constantly roiling mass, agitated by thousands of pot-stirrers. In terms of any meaningful quality control, Wikipedia is anarchy. While Wikipedia’s much vaunted “self-corrective process” does indeed exist, it is hardly any match for the pace of constant change, and has not been for quite some time.

Still, Wikipedia is not a perfect anarchy; it does indeed have some of the elements of an absolute dictatorship, but not a terribly efficient one. As noted above, core policies of Wikipedia, like “NPOV” and determining “consensus”, are vaguely worded or contain essentially illogical or unworkable formulas. This, in addition to the anarchy that otherwise prevails on Wikipedia, serves as a powerful incentive for admins to act in arbitrary fashion to suppress perceived “enemies of the wiki”, which not a few succumb to.

To some degree, Wikipedia governance does bears a resemblance to the government of Nazi Germany. A popular misconception about Nazi government is that it was ruthlessly efficient. Ruthless, to be sure, but efficient it was not. The Nazi bureaucracy was an absolute rabbit warren of numerous agencies with overlapping jurisdictions and responsibilities. Bureaucratic infighting was thus ensured and was rather common. This was not the result of inadvertence or incompetence, but rather the result of Hitler’s intended design. With this bureaucratic chaos and the sweeping powers granted him under the Enabling Act, Hitler essentially made himself the German state constitution and the ultimate arbiter of disputes. All was designed to enhance his personal power and worked very much as intended. Where the analogy to Nazi government really falls apart, however, is right at the top. While it would appear that Jimbo always intended to retain some ill-defined special role in Wikipedia governance, there is no evidence that Jimbo ever intended for himself a role as central in Wikipedia as Hitler intended for himself in Germany. Indeed, Jimbo created ArbCom and other parts of the Wikipedia bureaucratic structure in order to take over responsibilities that he had previously exercised himself. In the last analysis, Jimbo is simply too much of a dilettante to be an effective absolute dictator.

If one wants to cast about for a historical analogy here, the Middle Ages in Europe or the Warlord Era of early 20th Century China provides a better fit. As so often happens in the wider world, anarchy is followed by feudalism, and this is what happened on Wikipedia. Note that the word “feudal” does not appear in the Wikipedia governmental goulash list above. I would suggest that that is no accident. Feudal systems by their nature arise from, and are sustained by, conflict; and by decree of The Jimbo, “Wikipedia culture is strongly opposed to Usenet-style flame wars”. But as a matter of ever increasing fact, Wikipedia is dominated by Usenet-style flame wars, and to extent it has any effective governance at all, it is exercised through a number of cabals (also supposedly verboten, according to The Jimbo). This has been documented time and again on the pages of Wikipedia Review. The cabals are truly the “sausage factories” of Wikipedia where “consensus” gets manufactured. Were it not for arbitrary misrule of these cabals, there would be no rule at all.

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“Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All those having business before the Arbitration Committee draw near and demonstrate your fealty!”

THE END GAME

When and how will Wikipedia’s death spiral play out? This is difficult to say with any certainty. The only thing one can say with confidence is that The Six Rotten Pillars will continue to act together to erode confidence in Wikipedia, eventually leading to a sustained decrease in donations of both money and labor to the website. As both a charity and a volunteer project, such donations are Wikipedia’s lifeblood. It cannot survive without them.

Wikipedia’s demise is desirable for various reasons. The most commonly cited reasons are the harm it does to the cause of spreading human knowledge and the harm it does to individual human beings. These are weighty and worthy reasons, as Wikipedia acts as a platform for libel, revenge, disinformation and the exploitation of the addicted and mentally ill. But there is another reason: due to its huge popularity and sheer size, Wikipedia syphons off much time, effort and resources that might well otherwise go to more worthy projects and pursuits.

Add to this that it will likely take Wikipedia’s demise to get the scales to fall from the eyes of many of its apologists in order for them to realize its design was fatally flawed from the start. It is certain, however, that there are a few bitter-enders for whom even Wikipedia’s utter destruction as a website will not be sufficient. They will always blame the trolls, the vandals, the “POV pushers”, the spammers, media “enemies”, and the “haters at WR” for Wikipedia’s fall. In other words, practically everyone except themselves. They will never come to realize that they contained within themselves a fatal mindset that there was never really that much wrong with “the wiki”; that all that is required is a few blocks, a few desysoppings and a few policy tweaks to make Wikipedia better than ever. I call this a “fatal” mindset because it is truly fatal for Wikipedia. It is a mentality shared not only among the cabalistas, but also by many other dedicated Wikipedia users, and it very effectively stands in way of there ever being any meaningful reform to save Wikipedia from itself. One could even call it “The Seventh Rotten Pillar of Wikipedia”.

Despite all the strong criticism made here, there is no doubt that a free, online and reliable general use encyclopedia is a worthy goal, and we should look forward to the day there will be one. But that encyclopedia will never be Wikipedia, sadly. The conditions needed for the reform of Wikipedia do not exist, nor does it appear they ever will. The media and public will not remain forever blind to the deep flaws of Wikipedia. Wikipedia is simply too big and its dysfunction too deep to hide or obscure forever. Perhaps one day a group of former wikipedians, left sadder but far wiser by the decline and fall of Wikipedia, will band together and get to work on a true encyclopedia that is deserving of our efforts. This writer, for one, would like that. It is comforting to think that something good and worthy can eventually arise from the pit of agony and dysfunction that is Wikipedia.


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Notes

  1. ^ Originally appeared in Wikipedia Review, in this thread by the anonymous contributor Cedric the cat. It has been modified somewhat to reflect the context