February 23, 2007

Wikipedia Biography Deletion Explodes In Internal Controversy

The drama, the drama. A Wikipedia admin apparently took the precept "Be bold" a bit too far, and deleted the infamous biography page of Daniel Brandt.

Page was speedy deleted on 07:53, 23 February 2007 (UTC) by Yanksox ... with a deletion summary: "privacy concerns, more trouble than it is actually worth. Are you people even human?"

I will not attempt to summarize the circus which has ensued. Awe-inspiring for Wikipedia-watchers. And more importantly, in certain ways, instructive.

The Boss of Bosses (comment: "Yes Virginia, there is an 800 pound Gorilla and sometimes we need him.") spoke, handed out preliminary sentences (stripping of power) and sent everyone involved to "Wikipedia Court":

Daniel Brandt deletion wheel war

I am referring this case directly to the ArbCom to look at possible remedies for all parties involved up to and including desysopping, blocking, etc. I have absolutely no opinion on the actual content question (should we have an article about him? I don't care) but this log is a disgrace.

Different people played different roles. I do not have time to sort it all out today, so I am referring most of it to the ArbCom. I have instantly desysopped Yanksox, though, because he's basically begging for it. I have temporarily desysopped Geni and Freakofnurture pending the ArbCom thinking it through.

Here's the action count: [...]

I know how these things go. Some of the people involved were trying to calm things down. Others were merely trying to cause more disruption and fighting by engaging in inflammatory actions designed to outrage the other side. It is hard to sort it all out. This is why wheel warring is so bad.

At one level, I know it's futile, but I keep banging this drum:

There is somebody IN CHARGE of Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not innovative in social structure _per se_. It's merely a poorly-run bureaucracy without much accountability. Yes, I know, there's money to be made and conference attention to be had in blowing smoke about this, in hyping the New Era of revolutionary self-emergent citizen-lunchmeat phenomena.

Just look at the phrasing above: "I do not have time to sort it all out today ...". It's the standard plaint of the busy harried superior unhappy with conflict among subordinates, all of whom of course think what they are doing is the right exercise of their authority: I don't have time for this now, all of you involved are going to internal judicial system for it.

And it should be noted Yanksox was a stand-up guy, and made to the "court" the honorable statement of let-everyone-else-go-I'll-take-the-heat. I assume the eventual verdict will be merciful.

I keep having to restrain myself from adding to the whole circus something along the lines of:

My god folks, when does the madness stop? The only reasons you're keeping the Daniel Brandt article now are either: 1) revenge or 2) ideological self-protection. Neither reason is good at a human level.

And deeper, this is why I don't like Wikipedia. If there's no mechanism other than God-King divine fiat to override the segment of any population that likes to hurt people, that's an extremely bad statement about the organization. And if the organization has to keep hurting people because doing otherwise would undermine its fundamental driving force, that's absolutely horrible.

[Disclaimer: I don't agree with everything Daniel Brandt says or does, but I am very sympathetic to his concerns, and think they illuminate some profound problems. I've also had my own Wikipedia biography attacks. Pokemon characters are one thing, but real people are another matter.]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on February 23, 2007 11:59 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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Wikipedia isn't perfect. In the absence of perfection, yup, a static, even arbitrary hierarchy is the typical solution.

But, absolute egalitarianism isn't a solution either.

You need a reputation system that enables a dynamic and continuously adapting hierarchical system. Individuals can build up reputation (power & responsibility) through the merit of their actions (as measured by peers), and can fall from grace on the same basis.

All knowledge is consensus, which is to say that there is always disagreement, but on some things more people are agreed, or more reputable people are agreed (depending upon your perspective). If you want to know whether the world is flat you also have to choose your reputation system, e.g. orthodox vs secular.

I think there is a better technical solution to remove the need for an arbitrary root power structure from WikiPedia. However, you'd still have an 800lb Gorilla (or a similarly weighty cabal) at the top. It's just that the system would distribute such powers automatically according to the reputation system.

And yup, there'd probably still be forked versions.

Anyway, the fact that Wikipedia's power structure isn't yet automatically self-organising does not expose a fundamental flaw in public, collaborative production.

From a distance the power hierarchy may look flat, but that's simply the exponential power curve hiding the spike at the centre.

The innovation in Wikipedia's social structure is not that it has no hierarchy (it does), but that it is a public organisation - in the truest sense of the word (well, it's pretty close - and can get closer).

Posted by: Crosbie Fitch at February 25, 2007 07:12 AM

Crosbie Fitch is one of the most splendidly deluded characters I've ever regularly encountered on the intarwebs, but he is typical of the generic utopian mindset, which is very now. And he can be relied on to spring into action at a moment's notice.

"All knowledge is consensus"

No, Crosbie - you can't vote for the truth.

But if you believe you can, then you must be prepared to deal with the consequences.

Such consequences are amply illustrated by the history of the Wikipedia entry for pedophilia - which was written and maintained by members of the North American Boy Love Association.

That's great news for pedophiles - I'm not sure about the rest of us, however.

"The innovation in Wikipedia's social structure is ... that it is a public organisation - in the truest sense of the word "

A true public organisation finds a vote for every member of society, and ensures that each member votes just the once. It's on such principles that we emerged from a mobocracy into the modern world.

For all the grand talk of "continuously adapting systems" that we hear from the Crosbies of this world (such magnificent abstractions!), participation in Wikipedia is self-selecting, and domain expertise is not valued.

Which means "Knowledge" is ultimately defined by an arm-wrestling contest - an endurance competition that only the most fanatical can win.

Seth, I know we disagree on the damage a Wikpedia entry can cause.

But I've begun to use my own Wikipedia entry in the standard presentations I give about utopianism and "Web 2.0" , and the reaction is very positive.

I wish I'd done this before. I've found it helps gives people a far clearer insight into the cult than I could otherwise explain in a very short space of time. It's a beautiful illustration.

If they ever "repair" my entry, of course, I'll have to change my script. :)

Posted by: Andrew Orlowski at February 25, 2007 08:04 PM

Thanks Andrew. :-)

I'm sure you will find no shortage of members to swell your audience.

Posted by: Crosbie Fitch at February 26, 2007 05:26 AM

Has anyone coined a Godwin's Law for the introduction of child abusers to an argument?

Posted by: anon at February 26, 2007 09:57 PM

No, no one has corollarized Godwin in that manner. However, we do have a name for people who cite Godwin inappropriately: loser.

Posted by: taiwopanfob at February 27, 2007 09:37 AM

One of the ten million issues under discussion on that page is how to properly interpret an official policy with the title "Ignore all rules". Wow.

Posted by: Seth Gordon at February 27, 2007 10:24 AM

"IAR". Don't you love it? Isn't it marvelously recursive? Straight out of a book of logic puzzles. Russell's Paradox as policy.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at February 27, 2007 10:33 AM