May 31, 2012

Wikipedia Is(n't?) For Porn - or, Being A Cult Leader Is Difficult

Wikipedia co-Founder Larry Sanger has generated some attention from a post What should we do about Wikipedia's porn problem?. Given that it's been echoed by a couple of A-listers (who have around three orders of magnitude more audience than me), plus mega-gatekeeper sites, I don't feel that I'm going to be doing any harm in adding a few of my squeaks from the bottom of power-law mountain.

Now, as I mentioned in my own post a while back about Wikimedia/Wikipedia Image Filter "referendum" results, "Between ankle-biting wikicultists on one side, and wiki-porn-porn-porn complainers waving bloody heads on the other", other writers can argue the censorship-related issues. I've been there, done that, and got the suffering for it. I'm intrigued by the way various pro and anti Wikipedia factions react (which is not something that's been argued endlessly).

Note there's many topics which get mixed in these discussion. There's legal sexual material but not appropriate for little children, material where let's say one should think very carefully about obscenity and child pornography law, and some extremely dark corners of Wikimedia-world that I remain amazed have not resulted in a major scandal (yet). All of it, however, is a public-relations problem. And that hits the Wikimedia Foundation (owner of Wikipedia and related sites) like nothing else.

In another post about Wikipedia's other co-founder Jimmy Wales's reaction, Sanger states "I found it implausible that the God King could do nothing". However, this is closer to truth than is apparent at first glance. There's no hucksters interested in hyping the following formulation, but being a cult leader is in fact pure democracy. Any follower can leave at any time, at least to as good an approximation as many other things which get called "democracy". If a large, vocal base, having some of the organization's most fanatical followers, wants to do something which is embarrassing to the Dear Leader, then Dear Leader has a problem. Getting into a costly battle with the base is bad politics, even for the most absolute of monarchs.

And the last time he did try to take on the base over this topic, they actually started revolting. It was very revealing as to the dynamics. When I talk about how Wikipedia is a cult, too many people seem to take that as if it were a cartoonish statement of zombies being ruled by a puppet-master. It's not like a bad genre story. A cult leader only remains in that position by fulfilling the emotional needs of the acolytes. Go against those feelings, and there's trouble. Alternatively, no king wants to massacre a bunch of farmers over bad PR, even content-farmers.

I have no idea how it's all going to shake out. I'll just end with what I've said before:

Have fun, Wikimedia Foundation folks. I don't envy you. Running a cult is not all PR puff-pieces and back-scratching among elites. Sometimes you have to actually deal with the uncomfortable fact that the "community" isn't completely dedicated to doing unpaid work exactly as you desire.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on May 31, 2012 11:59 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)