Overheard on the bus yesterday: “This coat has so much insulin, it’ll keep me good and warm.”
I am way old enough to remember life before Wikipedia, and it was often a bloody nuisance. Now, we simply go to our favourite online encyclopedia and make a search. If we are careful, we understand that interpretive material in Wikipedia articles are just that — someone’s interpretation of the facts. But we also know that basic stuff, the kind of stuff you might be looking up, like the birth date of Michelangelo, or the order of the Table of Elements, or Beatles’ Number one hits are likely to be right and reliable. And they are there instantly, no trouble, even though Wikipedia has “become a rancorous, sexist, elitist, stupidly bureaucratic mess.”
Those fine words are from David Auerbach’s entertaining look at the inside world of the Wikipedia editors and administrators, a world that is completely invisible to the casual consumer of the site. He describes Wikipedia, “unlike pretty much every other website of note,” as “an experiment in controlled anarchy, and its strengths and weaknesses stem largely from the fact that there is no central authority with its hand on the tiller.”
For those who want to edit pages on Wikipedia on a regular and serious basis, the barriers include “what one Wikipedia administrator terms ‘The Unblockables,’ a class of abrasive editors who can get away with murder because they have enough of a fan club within Wikipedia, so any complaint made against them would be met with hostility and opprobrium.” Auerbach goes on:
The current governance of Wikipedia is a legalistic anarchy, in which complicated rules, frequently invoked only through arcane acronyms like BLP, AGF, NOR, and even IAR (ignore all rules), are selectively deployed by experienced editors in order to prevail in debates. I am not exaggerating when I say it is the closest thing to Kafka’s The Trial I have ever witnessed, with editors and administrators giving conflicting and confusing advice, complaints getting “boomeranged” onto complainants who then face disciplinary action for complaining, and very little consistency in the standards applied …
[There are] “edit wars” in which groups of headstrong editors group into dueling factions that duke it out for supremacy of their version of the page—“consensus” achieved not through impartiality but through the greater endurance of one side of partisans.
Auerbach’s conclusion is full of concern:
Wikipedia remains a seminal, important project, precisely because it has tried—and in many ways accomplished—something that’s never been done before … The question is not whether the experiment is worthwhile—it is—but whether the collective population of Wikipedia will take the steps needed to propel it into the future or whether this particular experiment is coming to an end … We can learn a lot from Wikipedia about Internet governance and collective knowledge-building. It’s ultimately up to the site’s editors to choose to learn to temper their fortress mentality, get more outside eyes and ears, listen to the most moderate and reflective among them, and perhaps even entertain the idea that they might sometimes be wrong.
I agree, though I am more optimistic about the ability of people to pull through what I call the “warlords” phase of freedom. Wikipedia is, after all, only 14 years old, a tiny slice of time for a mature and consistent culture to pervade a group. I believe Wikipedia is the future for self-knowledge and cooperation, and it will weather these storms of infancy.