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) | Comments (2)