ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

A Criticism of Wikipedia Now Exceeding a Scream —

Quite a ball has begun rolling in other quarters regarding Wikipedia and various criticisms from various quarters. As it is, I enjoy all the verbiage flying around, and reading the varying complaints and defenses that are going on. I have tried some social experiments with Wikipedia in the last month on and off (the Documentary takes precedence over everything of course), and intend to eventually report on those observations and findings in a future time, when I am not trying to get a major production out the door.

But I did want to step in and lance some of the growing redundant arguments going on in all the commenting I’m seeing posted, since I’m now seeing my essay used for these arguments pro and con and that’s not entirely what I intended.

First of all, Wikipedia has, basically, forked. People have been running copies of Wikipedia that are following different rules for inclusion and exclusion. The problem is what a lot of projects encounter when they fork, which is brand recognition and brand dilution. Right now, Trillian has it set up that you can use Wikipedia to look up terms. That’s a lot of weight placed into Wikipedia, to the detriment of other approaches that are not getting such attention. Until another project achieves critical mass or a big following that gets such high-profile regard, it’s really a one-horse race, and so people are fighting over control of the horse. I think eventually we’ll see a Coke-Pepsi situation, where the now-battling factions that are tearing apart Wikipedia on the inside will spit off into two major approaches with different goals, and that’ll be that. It will be quite ugly, as, really, a lot of Wikipedia’s internal political structures are.

People are defending Wikipedia by downplaying its importance. I am seeing an awful lot of arguments by people responding to criticism about Wikipedia by going “well, duh, it’s just wikipedia”, or “don’t put so much weight on Wikipedia, it is what it is”. I call this an “auto-straw man argument” or a “decoy self-ad hominem attack”, although of course I’m sure the debate world has a more efficient term. Basically, you respond to criticism about your project by demeaning and debasing it yourself, before anyone else could get a chance to, and then stand there with your arms crossed at your swift hari-kiri in a swordfight. It’s a pretty vacuous tactic; obviously Wikipedia is an important project, or so much effort would not be expended on it. And if it’s important enough that people are literally pouring weeks and months of their lives into it, it’s important enough to question basic tenets of how it is functioning. Look around for this argument by fervent Wikipedians. It’s scarily everywhere and should be dismissed.

My primary disagreement with Wikipedia’s approach is not about expertise, accuracy or quality; it is about procedure energy dispersal. The arguments about Wikipedia are being hijacked left and right by indicating this is a battle by the Old Guard against the New Better Way, or that this is a hue and cry by ivory-tower academia trying to prevent a pretender to the Throne of All That Is Good Intellectually. This makes someone who spends a lot of time on Wikipedia feel good about themselves (I’m fighting the Power) but my issues as stated in my previous essay were not about whether Wikipedia was in competition with other reference sources, but how minor procedural decisions have essentially doomed it on its own.

As an off-the-cuff example, Wikipedia has a login system, wherein for free and with no effort, you become a “Person”, an entity with a name and a history and even your nice little page that you can use to build a fun little world of pictures and information about your work on Wikipedia. It is essentially effortless, and it is pretty easy to create a mass of user accounts and foment your opinions in votes and other situations. (This situation is called “sockpuppetry” by active Wikipedians and is a frequent call-out in votes; people who agree with someone they don’t like can be accused of being a “sock puppet” and a meta-battle ensues). But this level of unaccountability isn’t an adequate situation in the current Wikipedia political structure; instead, they allow totally anonymous full-content editing by random users. In other words, no accounting at all. People don’t even have to submit to a rubber-stamp login process to begin screwing with entries that someone may have just spent hours getting just right. How could that second person possibly want to continue to be a part of the process?

This is what I am talking about; pure procedural defects that I think are fatal to Wikipedia’s continued usefulness as a reference material, or even as a repository of information. It is why I will be making no further contributions to it beyond meta-interaction. (My social experimentation has had some neat responses and things I can report on, but I’ve not really been editing anything significant or worthwhile.) Indicating that my essay is about expertise or committes or the rest is kind of missing the point.

What’s the point? A quick list:

There is no barrier to entry to cause wide-spread changes to Wikipedia and this is bad.

Wikipedia allows Votes for Deletion and will, upon one of these votes, erase information that may represent a lot of work and effort, based on shifting and arbitrary standards, and this is bad.

Wikipedia has a large contingency of users who play the Wikipedia Rules of Etiquette and Procedure like they were Role Playing Games and function within them causing havok and personal gratification at the expense of moving the project forward.

Academic review, experts vs. non-experts, use of Wikipedia as a replacement encyclopedia, and other such high-level concerns are way down the road and not my concern; my concern, and ultimately the reason why I have stopped contributing to the project (and why many others have, too) rests in aspects much closer to Wikipedia’s core.

Categorised as: Uncategorized

Comments are disabled on this post


  1. Elias Ross says:

    The Wiki folk seem to think the lower barrier of entry makes for better content than a higher barrier. I wonder if it is merely an ideological belief or one founded in reality?

    There must be some threshold in which a high barrier creates a worse Wikipedia rather than a better one, and immediately below this level the barrier is optimal. I don’t know if this can be done experimentally. In any case, the Wiki folk need accept the possibility that the threshold is too low. If they are unwilling to consider optimizing the threshold, then they must at least accept many people are going to fork or move their project.

    I suggest they seriously consider a list of policies and tools and weigh each possible positive result against a list of negative results. They should be willing to publish this list and use it to defend (or attack) suggested policies or policy changes.

  2. p4r says:

    In the beginning, wikipedia was running a simple usemod wiki. There were no such things as user pages or authentification. That’s were it comes from. With the adding of some process & code, it gave us the current wikipedia, which a lot of people call ‘not bad’. As long as the wikipedians see themselves as successful, arguing for big bad control — you seem to argue for stricter control than most internet forums — is useless.

  3. Jason Scott says:

    Media criticism and commentary is only useless if nobody ever hears it, p4r. Better to discuss the tenets of a medium and question them and get a dialogue going than never to have a discussion at all. My essays indicate that, as time goes on, Wikipedia will be less and less “successful” and will ultimately divest itself of the energy it needs to succeed.

    Wikipedia, a collaborative medium with thousands of folks working in the same space to make coherent informative entires with some level of accuracy and usefulness, should, perhaps, have a bit more control than a web forum… don’t you think?

  4. p4r says:

    Why? Currently, it works. Yeah, the process is tedious, there’s a big learning curve that makes it hard on newcomers — most of my first edits (starting new articles) got VfD’ed. However, I don’t currently see a need to add a big barrier to entry. And, most important, I don’t see HOW you could build such a barrier.

    There have been discussions on about making a more formal thing, and it finally seems to get some steam ( — that stuff has been discussed since early 2002, and at some point Wales thought we’d reach 1.0 somewhere in 2003. Give it time, I say.