May 16, 2010

Semi-Debunking Wikimedia "In Chaos" and Jimmy Wales "Resignation"

[I wrote this for a mailing-list, to quickly semi-debunk the exaggerated story about Jimmy Wales "Resignation"]

I've been following this controversy in detail. Sadly, the reporting of it is turning into a game of journalistic "telephone".

Important, co-founder Jimmy Wales did not "resign" overall. He did voluntarily give up some special technical editing status he had (in the face of some very strong pressure to have that status stripped from him for using it in a pre-emptive way which garnered widespread disapproval). Basically, in Unix terms, he resigned his super-user/"root" bit on the servers. It's not clear if this is more than symbolic, if he can politically restore that status once the attention dies down. It is certainly embarrassing for him.

Since I'm often a critic of Wikipedia, I'll point to a public message by the former Chair of the Wikimedia Foundation:

"Jimmy [Wales]'s is behaving like a vandal and breaking the very notion of our "power in the hands of the community""

I'd say "chaos" is the wrong word - "intense factional infighting" would be more accurate (though when it comes to running Wikipedia, what else is new?). Although there are many interrelated topics, the gist of the dispute is how to handle some sexual material on Wikimedia Commons, a hosting resource (not Wikipedia _per se_), which is, let us put it, of less than obvious immediate educational value, in the face of _Fox News_ making an issue of it. Civil-libertarians will be familiar with such disputes.

The best single message I've found is this one, from a current Wikimedia Foundation board member:

"And I am firmly against reducing the content on Wikimedia to only that which is acceptable for children. The world's knowledge contains a lot of things that are shocking, divisive, offensive, or horrific, and people should be able to learn about them, and to educate others. Not including these things doesn't make them go away--it only makes it more difficult for interested people to learn from a source that tries to be neutral and educational. I don't think Wikipedia will ever be (or should ever be) "safe", for the same reason your public library will never be, either."

Disclaimer/plug - see the column I wrote for the _Guardian_ more than an year ago when a different Wikipedia pornography controversy was in the news:

"The combination of moral-panic-mongers willing to practice a politics of personal destruction and the ability to anonymously advocate for one's favorite fetish on one of the world's most widely read websites leads to constant low-intensity conflict. Wikipedia trades off quality control for greater production. That same design flaw is manifested in extremely weak and failure-prone mechanisms for determining the boundary between provocative and profane."

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on May 16, 2010 11:04 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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Apologies for the cross-posted comment from Tech Crunch, but I have to say it:

It is astounding to me how a #6 worldwide website (Wikipedia, et al) can be so misunderstood by reporters, bloggers, and mere readers of the site. Likewise, it is astounding to me how Tech Crunch reporters and commenters can be so easily gulled by the spin doctoring of the Wikimedia Foundation. It's as if it is impossible to understand the difference between "Founder" level system rights and "Administrator" level system rights; impossible to understand the difference between a Board "Chairman" and a phony "Chairman Emeritus" and (even more ridiculously) an "owner" of a website (David1984, please stop using the Internet); and impossible to understand the difference between YouPorn or RedTube and a 501-c-3 tax-exempt organization pushing a product into schools that contains smotherboxes, scrotum sacks bulging with saline solution, and blindfolded cum shots.

Despite Seth Finkelstein's best effort to iron this all out, I'm more convinced that the general public, the Wikimedia Foundation board and staff, and American journalism are all too stupid to understand any of this.

Posted by: Gregory Kohs at May 17, 2010 10:50 AM

I agree that "chaos" is probably too strong a term to characterize the lunatic political drama that frequently arises in Wikipedia and its sister projects.

Educational materials suitable for school children include both articles of an encyclopedic nature and stories. Often a well-crafted children's story works better than a classroom lecture.

The never-ending political dramas in Wikipedia may someday be boiled down to an allegorical educational story suitable for the participants embroiled in those recurring lunatic dramas.

My preference would be for it to be presented either as a musical comedy or as a comic opera.

Posted by: Barry Kort at May 17, 2010 01:53 PM