ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Five Years of Great Failure —

A little over five years ago, I wrote an essay and put it on my weblog, talking about Wikipedia. After that essay came a number of essays, including an example entry, a bunch of predictions, a for-dummies version, and the occasional comment on current events within the Wikipedia space.  I also gave presentations about my thoughts on Wikipedia, including this one, this one, this one (for which I was flown to London) and a couple at other places, including Google. Those were very fun and I thank my hosts for the opportunities.

For all that verbiage and presentation, it would be sad if this was all I did with my time, and obviously I believe I’ve done a lot more than that. But understandably, this got me billed as a Wikipedia Critic, and in some situations The Wikipedia Critic.

I have written so much, so many places, and made so many people miserable when they asked me to recount the reasons for my position, that I’m not inclined to drop much in this notation other than to say I’ve really, really not been convinced I wasn’t right, that I stand by what I said, and I’m pretty sure the problem will not repair itself.  But let me add some additional thoughts for perspective.

The Wikipedia of today is not the same entity it was 5 years ago – everything grows and changes.  They’ve had staff churn, moved locations, and gone through several dozen rounds of what I labelled “information fads”; changes in policy and outlook on information classification mean that there have been what could sensationally call pogroms but in fact are just slow paper-pushing of other peoples’ work to show you’re “improving” wikipedia. I’ve watched the entries of living people fossilize and the Wikimedia Foundation add what is essentially a hotline to complain about bad changes to them, and I’ve watched the locking down of entries increase dramatically, like all tools of control tend to. Through all of this, the project has survived, but the missing fact in all the lauding of Wikipedia is that when you turn collections of information into living things, those living things have an actual life cycle, and at the end of the life cycle is decay, irrelevancy, and destruction.

I still harbor little respect for Jimbo Wales, and don’t see that changing anytime soon. I don’t wish to waste your time with my big bad listing of why I think he’s a toad, but I didn’t want to lead you astray that I’ve gone soft or something. Wikipedia needed him for its success, since lying is part of the game and the slicker the liar the quicker the success, but that doesn’t mean I have to think much of him beyond that.  So I won’t.

Speaking of muckity-mucks. I met Erik Möller, you know. Chatted amicably for most of it and we only raised our voices at each other a couple times. Something that I think gets lost in all of these discussions and debates and things I’ve said and written is that I don’t consider any of the human parties particularly evil, or displaying malice. Some have shown to be petty, and controlling, and Wikipedia allows you to game the system both on the back and front ends to your own purposes, but these people are not, you know, subhuman villains or something.  I watched a couple, over the years, who were easily the worst offenders of abuse and power-madness, divest and leave the Wikipedia space and become critics in their own right. I think there’s something to be said for the philosophical idea that it’s sometimes not the person, but the role that causes the pain and despair. The person should be held accountable, but they’re not the sole motivating force; it literally is a case of if they weren’t there, Wikipedia’s structure would invent them. Erik is what the system needed, and I do respect someone leaving his homeland definitively and completely to travel halfway around the world for something that he believes in. I even got a hug off him.

I’ve been thanked and high-fived and smiled at for my criticism, and I’ve been threatened, insulted and lied about as well. It comes with being high-profile with something, and it’s something I’ve had to deal with in other subjects since. What I have not been, really, is corrected or given a situation where I thought I’ve been wrong. I’ve made predictions that have gone south, but usually because the prediction has become irrelevant, much like debates about classifying all BBSes as businesses became moot when ISPs took over.  I’ve watched things I said five years ago continue to be the case, and watched people innovate new ways to be fucks. I’ve watched a lot of people take Wikipedia entries and treat them as the end-case proof of something, but I’ve watched a lot of other people snort when someone cites Wikipedia.

As I write this, Wikipedia is going through another destructive information fad – tons of computer history articles are being deleted, and people are letting me know of them. Every one that’s been deleted, I could do a really nice page on. In some cases, the number of people voting/discussing the deletion of an article are as little as 3-4. This is fine for me, as I’ll just bring the information back better, more completely, and better researched. I’ve been given a mandate to do so, after all. After I finish my movie, that’s where I’m turning. The entries on Impulse Tracker, Fidonews, SDF BBS, and many others are gone, but I’ll give those subjects their due, I promise.

Some of the names of the deleters are in my memory of the years – others are not. Like I said, roles are at play. Deleting things should be a sorry, sad act, and one done carefully and with a way to pull them back if they’re improved or repaired. A few choices many years ago ensured this wouldn’t be the case. I’ve been sent more terrible recountings of Wikipedia horrors and internal politics that I think I’ve cared to see, and none of it tells me to follow the refrain so lauded, so pushed by anyone who is under Wikipedia’s spell: If you have issues with Wikipedia, join it. No, thank you. I have a lot of unique work being taken in no other quarters, and I think concentrating on that stuff betters the world a lot more than joining the endless Sisyphean experience of a Wikipedia member.

Do I still comment or occasionally roust some indignation on what goes on there? Oh, sure. Even in a machete war, you have to admire/notice the guy who gets three machetes in his head, or the person who carves particularly elaborate symbols in his victim’s chests. Even in the horror, there is, ultimately its own level of horror. And that’s kind of where it’ll always be.

One last, positive note: Through the years of listening to interviews and presentations on the subject of Wikis, one name has really consistently impressed me: Ward Cunningham, the credited creator of the Wiki concept. This is a brilliant, brilliant man, who has done a lot of good in the world, and who has maintained the perspective, intelligence and insight that befits someone of that pedigree. I have never heard anything that puts his voice to digitized form that didn’t make me think to myself, now here is a guy who I am lucky to share the planet with. Were there more like him, a lot of problems in the world would be merely bad possibilities and not reality. I wish him a very long life.

I wish everyone, in fact, a very long life. At the end of the day, we are discussing ideas, and the ideas, for all the efforts of people, will survive.

And that’s a comforting thought.

Categorised as: jason his own self | Speaking

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  1. l.m.orchard says:

    I seriously don’t understand why pages are deleted on Wikipedia. If they’re not obvious spam or vandalism, and have at least an earnest attempt at providing information… why delete? I guess I don’t actually understand the e-peen power structure over there.

    It’s not like the page was a particularly long one, though it was handy (from Google cache):

  2. They’re shaking out the rug and articles that have been there for years (and were written over the course of those years by many people) are vanishing. And why? Isn’t it the point of wikipedia to have an article on everything authored by everyone? Maybe they just need money so they can appeal for more money.

  3. Hi Jason,

    “The entries on Impulse Tracker, Fidonews, SDF BBS, and many others are gone” — Bad news. I looked at SDF BBS and saw that this decision was made out of ‘notability’.

    “Deleting things should be a sorry, sad act, and one done carefully and with a way to pull them back if they’re improved or repaired.”

    I definitely agree. To my mind, this is a key problem with the current deletion process. Another is that it’s difficult for novices (even experienced Wikipedia novices like myself) to understand.

    Before articles are deleted, consider adding the
    {{Rescue}} tag, to draw the attention of the Article Rescue Squadron. Rescue may be less ideal than fixing the process. But to my mind, it’s either fight deletionism or give up on Wikipedia. I’m not ready to do the latter; sorry you already have.

    For those who haven’t given up on Wikipedia:
    Many deletions can be restored to userspace by asking:

    This computer history wiki may be a good project:

  4. I’ve never been a fan of Wikipedia — it’s too big for its own good. People fight over having their version of history or whatever as the “official” Wikipedia page on some topic, as if Wikipedia were actually an authority.

    Why delete anything? Disk space is cheap. Let the reader decide whether something is “notable” or not.

    Perhaps mediawiki needs to be modified so that any article which is deleted automatically gets sent to Jason for historical preservation.

  5. For the remorselessly power-hungry there is the derogatory, “mall cop SYSOP.”

  6. sushi-k says:


    Imagine some little asshole child, who has had an email address all of ten years or something, taking it upon themselves to delete the article on SDF.

    You know, there’s something interesting about the idea that you cannot delete a wikipedia article unless _you yourself_ are notable enough to have a wikipedia page.

    That would solve a lot of the problems with the illiterate children…

  7. David Wood says:

    The problem with Wikipedia is, I suppose, something that anyone who works on encyclopedias or reference works goes through: They run out of space. They’re left trying to decide what to keep, what to trim down, and what to delete. As has been said, the middle one should be made with trepidation, the latter only as a last resort.

    That said, they’re distinguishing themselves as out-and-out bad archivists, not simply negligent but actively working against their stated purpose. Good archivists do not have the sense of history of an autistic mayfly. And no archive worth a single minute of perusal, much less a monetary contribution, should restrict itself to that narrow collection of facts that everybody already knows.

  8. V says:

    has someone saved the articles that are being deleted? I mean, they’re not *really* deleted, just made not visible, right? So somebody could still save them before they go away for real, right?


  9. Church says:

    I have a fuzzy memory (from right about the time I stopped contributing to WikiP) of Jimbo going to bat for a page on a BBQ place he liked. Ring any bells, anyone?

  10. David Wood says:

    V, as a wise man wrote (on a button): “The internet is the greatest library in the world, except that all the books are on the floor and some of them are burning.”

    Meanwhile, over at Wikipedia, the librarian is handing out books of matches and cans of gasoline trying to encourage people to make room for new information. They somehow don’t see a problem with this, and that speaks volumes.

    Pages can only be saved as quickly as people find out about them. Jason posted a little while ago that a reference to the Wikipedia documentary was deleted off Wikipedia. It’s like they’re eager to throw themselves down their own memory hole. It’s almost tempting to help them.

  11. Swizzle says:

    I love the general idea of Wikipedia, but it’s clearly not working as it is now. They seem to be destroying more than they are preserving since few people look for something beyond what is on Wikipedia.

    I don’t understand why perfectly good articles are deleted under the idea that they are not “notable.” Different articles will generate different amounts of traffic… there is nothing wrong with having articles on niche topics which generate a small amount of traffic.

    I would love to find a site where good material will stay. I do a lot of my own research on topics which interest me (80/90′s gaming, computer history) and unfortunately spend more time trying to figure out how to get that information/data easily available to the public than doing the actual research.

  12. DeepGeek says:

    I was going to chime in with a “Stankdawg and Binrev had an archive for dying wikipedia pages, but I don’t know it’s current status.” But it looks like there are several projects like this.

    I am not a great web programmer, but I do wonder, what would it take to write a system that would just take entries and make a one-time offline copy of them. What programming effort is involved?

    I currently backup my system with a combination or rsync and nilfs2, which gives me a monthly snapshot of my own system (and my offline copies of my websites, but not my virtual machine images.) What would it took to take the “feeds” feature of wikipedia, and generate something like this? Would it be like, impossible? Have there been attempts?


  13. damaged justice says:

    Wikipedia is a fantastic resource for facts that aren’t in dispute, like whether P=NP, or whether Han shot first.

  14. Have a great New Years. And be careful if you must drive. A cop may pull you over and have to issue you a [citation needed].

  15. Gordon Haff says:

    I understand that there has to be some pushback at Wikipedia against endless proliferation of articles, especially if the article in question is either someone’s vanity piece or it’s only a few sentences of information that could readily be folded into a broader topic.

    That said…

    In general, I really have a lot of trouble with the deletionist side in general. This, after all, is an encyclopedia that has long entries on individual TV episodes in shows that are obscure to all but some small group of Wikipedians. Ditto for comics, toys, etc. etc. All of which makes it very difficult for me to see how consistency allows the deletion of just about any article that meets a bare minimum standard of notability–even on a local basis–and quality.