Last Thoughts: Disappearing Editors & Unwelcome Newcomers

Based on a Mar. 16th lecture by Gearóid Ó Súilleabháin

A late 2009 article in the Guardian, Wikipedia falling victim to a war of words, claims that Wikipedia is losing volunteers, with unhappy editors deserting for a number of reasons: an increasingly cumbersome editing process; squabbling with established editors; and claims of all-controlling power cliques.

Wikipedia Cartoon


A more recent 2014 piece echoes some of those concerns noting that active editors dropped by a third since the 50,000 plus number of 2007.

An article in January of 2015, Wikipedia votes to ban some editors from gender-related articles, while primarily addressing a specific controversy (GamerGate), notes that “byzantine internal processes of Wikipedia are incomprehensible” to many contributors and that an “unwelcoming atmosphere for new editors has long been blamed for an overwhelmingly masculine make-up”. It notes that just one in ten editors are believed to be female and quotes from Wikipedia’s own article on systemic bias which suggests that the “gender gap has a detrimental effect on content coverage”.
An October 2013 feature, The Decline of Wikipedia, in the MIT Technology Review, provides a detailed critique of the problems besetting the encyclopedia. As others have, the author notes the decline in the volunteer workforce, the lack of diversity in Wikipedia’s predominately male makeup, the abrasive atmosphere, and the increase in



bureaucratic processes and rules – intended to combat bad editing and vandalism – which has deterred newcomers. A referenced study reinforces the notion of bureaucracy – including increased manual and automated deletion of newcomer contributions – as primary culprit. The author does allow considerable space to the viewpoints of a Wikipedia executive – who talks about what is being done to make editing easier and the environment more welcoming – and an active administrator. However the word “labyrinthine” is used in relation to Wikipedia’s rules and guidelines – the core Neutral Point Of View (NPOV) policy is noted as now being almost 5,000 words long – and a top administrator, an Irishman, states that “policy creep” is the real issue.

Wikipedia Redux: Finkelstein & Carr

Based on a Mar. 16th lecture by Gearóid Ó Súilleabháin

In reading a particularly scathing September 2008 article, Wikipedia isn’t about human potential, whatever Wales says, by Seth Finkelstein in the Guardian, I was struck by the invoking of Ayn Rand, and the line which concluded that the “hype may be about the fulfillment of human potential, but the reality is the exploitation of digital sharecropping.”
Finkelstein has written a number of articles mildly or sharply critical of Wales, Wikipedia and the for-profit Wikia venture, such as:

The term “digital sharecropping” comes from Nicholas Carr who noted that “one of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few.”

Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr

In a 2005 blog post titled The amorality of Web 2.0 Carr pours cold water on Tim O’Reilly’s and Kevin Kelly’s enthusiasm for Wikipedia arguing that it is unreliable and poorly written with scant evidence of the heralded collective intelligence. His choice of paragraph title, “The Cult of the Amateur”, points to sympathies with Andrew Keen which is made clear by his statement that if forced to choose he would take the professional over the amateur. He says that Web 2.0 promoters “venerate the amateur and distrust the professional” and notes their “unalloyed praise of Wikipedia”. In discussing how the Internet is altering creative economics, Carr states that “Wikipedia might be a pale shadow of the Britannica, but because it’s created by amateurs rather than professionals, it’s free. And free trumps quality all the time.” In a May 2007 Guardian article, he sets forth the notion that the Internet “is being carved up into information plantations” with Wikipedia being returned at or near the top of every set of Google search results.
In an August blog post in the same year, Rise of the wikicrats, Carr, in discussing the difficulty encountered by a long-time Wikipedia contributor when adding a new entry, notes that the Wikipedia bureaucracy boasts a very intricate hierarchy and a significant level of complexity in its rules. He notes the ascendancy of the “deletionist” ethic over the “inclusionist”, philosophies he addressed in some detail in a prior post.

Criticisms of Wikipedia are multitudinous. Ironically a good jumping off point in reviewing the censure leveled is Wikipedia itself which has a well-referenced criticisms page, divided essentially between content and community. I hope to return to some of the contrarians – Jaron Lanier and the notion of the “hive mind” in particular – in a future post. Wikipedia also has a replies page devoted to answering the more common attacks.

Hoax, Jest & False Biography

Based on a Mar. 16th lecture by Gearóid Ó Súilleabháin

In a 2014 Guardian article, Go ahead: waste a day on Wikipedia, Dan Gillmor (who does disclose that he is a friend of Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales), is primarily positive about Wikipedia, noting that it “remains the most visible of the collective-intelligence projects” and “gets better every day”. To be fair he does clearly state, as many have, that Wikipedia is a great place to start learning about a topic but not the place to stop. He acknowledges that some deliberately corrupt information for various reasons, but goes on to claim that the minor hoaxes and bogus entries can be endured because, despite its imperfections, Wikipedia creates real value.

Amelia Bedelia Source: The Daily Dot

Amelia Bedelia
Source: The Daily Dot

On minor hoaxes and jests I tend to agree in large part. One hoax, which Dan alludes to, is described in detail by EJ Dickson in a 2014 Daily Dot piece, How I accidentally started a Wikipedia hoax about Amelia Bedelia. As diverting as the story about the insertion of a falsehood about a children’s book series character is, I find the fact that it had persisted for over five years, and that it had subsequently been cited numerous times in a myriad other publications, more revealing. Despite the admonition not to use Wikipedia as a primary or sole source it would appear that many do. A Wikipedia editor offered Dickson multiple reasons why the fabrication had not been spotted.
Equally amusing was Wikipedia’s banning of US Congress access after certain edits, presumably made in jest, were spotted by a Twitter bot. They were on subjects as odd as lizard people controlling government, Cubans faking the moon landing, and Donald Rumsfeld being an alien wizard. The article also mentions tracking of Wikipedia edits from inside the House of Commons.

John Seigenthaler

John Seigenthaler
Source: PBS

Considerably more serious was the “character assassination” (his words) perpetrated on the late John Seigenthaler, a well-known journalist, writer, and one-time administrative assistant to Robert F. Kennedy. The false Wikipedia entry suggesting Seigenthaler “was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby”. Seigenthaler’s frustrating attempts to find out who had posted the information, through Wikipedia and BellSouth Internet, was detailed in a USA TODAY op-ed. Seigenthaler contended that Federal law with respect to defamation in cyberspace had enabled and protected “volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects”. The author of the falsehood was ultimately identified and did apologize; Wikipedia did make some rule changes as a result.

Second Thoughts: In the Weeds with Wales

When I watched the Jimmy Wales TED Talk on the birth of Wikipedia,

I came away thinking Wales was part showman and part salesman, but also wanting to understand a little more about the governance of the Wikipedia he described.

The best place to start is, naturally, with Wikipedia itself, which defines its policies and guidelines in minute detail. There is no way I could adequately summarize either here. The procedural policies, which include an explanation of the Arbitration Committee – Wikipedia’s “Supreme Court” – and how it operates, are complex. The behavioral, content and editing guidelines I scanned are positively byzantine. However Wikipedia summarizes its principles in what it calls its five “pillars”:

  • Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia
  • All content on Wikipedia has to be written from a neutral point of view (NPOV)
  • Wikipedia is free content that anyone can use, edit, and distribute
  • Editors should treat each other with consideration and respect
  • Wikipedia has no firm rules a.k.a. ignore all rules

Put in such straightforward terms it almost sounds like a collective Utopia. But further reading reveals some cracks in the foundation. I will return to some of the criticisms of Wikipedia in a follow-up post. But I did want to point here to a Guardian piece about the deletion of a Wikipedia entry on a Sunday Times journalist by Jimmy Wales himself, which shows that even he is not above breaking the rules. As the author notes, “Wikipedia, it seems, has a god, and occasionally he deletes stuff.”

From Stallman to Lessig to Keen

Based on a Mar. 9th lecture by Gearóid Ó Súilleabháin

Another Richard Poynder interview that jumped out at me was the 2006 conversation with Lawrence Lessig, leader of the Free Culture Movement and co-founder of Creative Commons, who was mentioned in less than glowing terms by Richard Stallman.

Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig
Source: Wikipedia

Lessig is generous in citing Stallman and the Free Software Movement as key influences on his book “Free Culture”. Stallman is less so, noting in the Poynder interview problems he has with some Creative Commons licensing, and expressing the view that Lessig’s book shows him to be “less ethically firm”. The disagreement appears to reduce to Stallman’s insistence that people have a fundamental right to copy creative works while Lessig argues for a more nuanced position.

The Cult of the Amateur

Source: Wikipedia

It is therefore perhaps a little odd, given Stallman’s overt disappointment in Lessig’s failure to be absolutist, to read Andrew Keen’s criticisms of Lessig in “The Cult of the Amateur”. “A fronte praecipitium a tergo lupi” Lessig might have been thinking in reading that he and “cyberpunk William Gibson laud the appropriation of intellectual property.” But Lessig is a law professor and more able than most to defend himself, which he does quite comprehensively in a May 2007 post on his own site. Lessig suggests the Keen book can only have been intended as masterful “self-parody” and is “riddled with falsity”, errors he subsequently proceeds to parse in detail.

That said, I must confess to still preferring Keen’s take on amateurs.

Master of the Recursive Acronym

Based on a Mar. 9th lecture by Gearóid Ó Súilleabháin

Richard Stallman, progenitor of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), founder and lead architect of the GNU project (GNU’s Not Unix, hence the title of this post), and author of the widely-used GNU General Purpose License dubbed “copyleft”, does not, on further reading, appear much fond of compromise.

Richard Stallman Source:

Richard Stallman

A 2002 article, Code free or die, reviewing a biography of Stallman, celebrates his stubbornness in stating that “his single-minded commitment and brutal honesty are refreshing in a world of spin-meisters and multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns”. Linus Torvalds, author of the Linux kernel (I will not address the GNU/Linux naming controversy here), indicates in a blog post that he is not a fan of Stallman because he doesn’t like “single-issue people” and he doesn’t think “that people who turn the world into black and white are very nice or ultimately very useful.”
Eric S. Raymond, co-founder of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), in a piece titled Shut Up And Show Them The Code, rejects Stallman’s rhetoric, claiming that OSI’s tactics work while FSF’s don’t, and that the excellence of open source software is a “more persuasive argument for openness and freedom than any amount of highfalutin appeal to abstract principles”.
But then Stallman too has plenty to say on what he sees as clear distinctions between free and open source software, noting on the site that “Free software is a political movement; open source is a development model.”

Richard Poynder

Richard Poynder

Journalist Richard Poynder’s superb interview with Richard Stallman is one of several of his Basement Interviews available online. The 2006 interview provides insight into Stallman’s combative nature and throws up gems such as “I don’t want to answer that question. I don’t like being handed a quotation and asked to utter it.” I strongly recommend that you download and read the interview in its entirety (available as a PDF from Poynder’s site or in text form here) as it contains Poynder’s detailed background and explanatory notes which are an education in themselves.

Stallman’s TEDxGeneva 2014 talk “Free software, free society” is worth a watch:

and early on includes a simple explanation of his four software freedoms:

  • 0: to run a program for any purpose.
  • 1: to study how a program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (requires the source code).
  • 2: to redistribute copies.
  • 3: to improve a program, and release your improvements (requires the source code).

I love the zero-based numbering.