ASCII by Jason Scott

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Five Wikipedia Predictions (A Valentine) —

My talk in April at Notacon on Wikipedia is coming up, and should be either fun or interesting (or maybe even both). As part of that I’ve been both observing and in contact with people embedded in Wikipedia, and I figured it was time to make some predictions. Make of these what you will. I’m focusing on the “negative” predictions since everyone else is in the business of the “positive” predictions. Some of these might sound obvious, some might not; that’s the way of “predictions”.

Note again, this is about Wikipedia, not the general concept of the Wiki. In all of these cases, I am predicting all of these things to happen before the end of 2006, although I suspect some will happen by the summer.

Wikipedia will no longer allow anonymous edits of any kind.

One of the core aspects of Wikipedia from its beginning was the ability of anyone to edit anything at any time. While nice in theory, this approach fails under critical mass. The work of the programmers of Wikipedia’s software and the increase in tools to track edits has cut down on pure unchecked destruction, but the fatigue of an ever-growing army of people who actually want to do minor edits and little else is wearing out on people who wish to control the encyclopedia’s direction.

A flurry of press implied that this is already the case; in fact, anonymous editors cannot create completely new articles, but they can edit existing ones. Currently, if you edit an article and do not have an edit history, your edit is often undone until you “prove” yourself. This trend will continue, in my opinion, and I expect they will move to some level of registration and reduced user account creation, walling the garden from the point of view of the editing active user.

Wikipedia will have to split off “user space” from “Encyclopedia space”.

Right now, you, as a Wikipedian with an account, can have a page about yourself, the stuff you’re into, what Wikipedia work you’re doing, and so on. It is absolutely tearing Wikipedia apart.

Why it’s tearing Wikipedia apart is part of my talk at Notacon, but the short form is that these user pages, once simple waves from behind the screen to talk about what you’re up to, have become pulpits of controversy and hatred that are linked (even if not completely) as if they’re just more articles under Wikipedia.

The solution is simple: a “user.wikipedia.org” or “wikiusers.org”, a separate area allowing this sort of self-expression to continue.

I see absolutely no fault in this happening; it should have been done from the beginning. In the beginning there weren’t really “user accounts” at all on Wikipedia, so it kind of grew organically from the natural urge of people to go “look at me, look at the work I’ve done, here I am, making my place”. But this is causing huge, huge distress on both the infrastructure, and the “anyone can edit” approach. The whole point of a user space is that you control it, and having others come in and either “fix” your work or tell you you’re not “allowed” to have things in your user space is causing wasteful friction even by Wikipedia’s standards.

Either this will happen soon, or more people will leave/pull back from being treated like they joined the world’s largest homeowner association.

Jimbo Wales will be either ousted or have his power curtailed relative to Wikipedia.

Without a doubt, Jimbo is a vital part of Wikipedia’s success. His funding, initial guidance, and approach to the site are what helped bring in the critical mass of editors. Unfortunately (for him), he has also created an entity whose entire point of existence is an overriding anal-retentive attention to “policy” and “the rules”, all reached by a variety of methods, each with their own set of “policy” and “the rules”. And so on, and so on, like a hall of mirrors.

The newspaper articles about Wikipedia in the last six months have focused on two major “events”: An article in the journal “Nature” that compared a whopping 42 articles (out of 972,000) to decide all of Wikipedia had only 20 percent less errors than the Encyclopedia Britannica, and errored information in an entry about a man named John Seigenthaler with the attendant hand-wringing about “what is truth” and “what position does Wikipedia and The Internet hold in the nature of accuracy”.

What has not gotten any focus are moves by Jimbo Wales that skirt and avoid “policy” or “consensus” or any of the other buzzwords that users who edit Wikipedia live by. He has appointed administrators without following Wikipedia’s own “rules” on how that is done. He has had articles not just removed, but their entire editing history removed as well (this violates their own license). He has blanked out and locked down (prevented editing) on articles about people who have threatened him with a lawsuit. And in cases where he has encountered activities he doesn’t approve of and appears concerned of looking bad (editing his own biography was a minor offense), he has taken on the approach of mentioning idly what he’d like to see done, and an army of folks will do his bidding, out of a natural urge to follow the “leader”.

This dichotomy cannot continue; Wales makes appearances on television shows and in newspaper articles speaking in a tone as if he majorly or solely guides the direction of Wikipedia, while at the same time promotes an environment where people are led to believe that a consensus guides Wikipedia. Something has to give.

(Of all my predictions, I am weakest on this one, because power is pernicious in its effect on sense, and few things are more steely-gripped than a person holding onto power.)

Wikipedia will make it almost impossible to edit entries on living people (or any entity that can sue).

I’m vaguely cheating with this prediction, since this is already becoming the case. If you don’t like an article about yourself in Wikipedia and you wish to ensure that the entry on you contains no information you don’t like, threaten to sue Jimbo Wales. Threaten to sue the Wikimedia Foundation. There are notable cases where entire swaths of information have been pulled down for shaky reasoning, simply to get legally-concerning items out of Wikipedia.

This is the bucket of cold water that will affect the love-fest of editing on Wikipedia more than anything else. There are facts that are, by any measure, accurate and real (dirty deeds listed in public records, criminal histories, and so on), that are simply not ‘allowed’ to be on Wikipedia. They are blanked out (again, not put into a “document editing history”, but all trace of them removed) and in a few cases the articles have been locked so that no work can be done on them.

This is working for the moment, but it can only increase in frequency, so it is likely that a rule will be put in place, phrased in relatively neutral language, that will prevent living entities from getting too detailed a background in anything but the most basic of facts about them. And it is because of lawsuit threats.

Subpoenas are the ultimate edit.

Wikipedia will add advertising (banner ads, text ads, or pop-ups).

What’s the sound of a million people going “Well, Duh”.

I only make this prediction because there are a number of myths that people who do editing work on Wikipedia and who pour weeks of life into the production operate under. One of them is the idea that the Wikipedia will always be open and free and sans the grubby hands of capitalism fingerprinting their work with urges to buy, buy, buy. Apparently the story of CDDB has not had an effect on them. That’s fine.

A lot of people are offering Wikipedia a lot of money to put advertising into their pages. One day, they will win. I just happen to think this is the year.

Check back in 2007 for how many I got right or wrong.


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19 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    ahahahahahahahaha

    hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

    *gasp*

    hahaaaaaaaahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaaaahahahahaha.

  2. Anonymous Wikipedia Admin says:

    #1 … already on course for this

    #2 … it sorta already is… do you mean a seperate server? or more something like what WikiCities is doing?

    #3 … wont happen too many people drink the kool-aid

    #4 … already on course for this. Jimbo himself blanks articles that might get him sued.

    #5 … has already had a pre-emptive backlash from editors, wont happen. see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_No_ads

  3. Anonymous says:

    #1 … if not by summer, then early winter
    #2 … now with “Miscellany for deletion” I wouldn’t be surprised if a third party offers uncensored userspace to Wikipedians, in exchange for advertisements
    #3 … would be a wise decision, but I don’t see it happening any time soon, not by the close of 2006 atleast
    #4 … already happening, hardly a prediction
    #5 … will happen, hopefully in the least intrusive manner possible (ala Google)

  4. Another Anonymous Wikipedia Admin Who Likes Dating Sims says:

    #1… this is up to Jimbo or your theoretical board of god-kings
    #2… I actually don’t think this is necessary, because userspace isn’t as much of a deal as user pages seeping into other spaces such as Template space. It’s precluded by OpenID (global login) anyway.
    #3… no comment
    #4… This will continue to be on a case-by-case basis throughout 2006. Your prediction is too early.
    #5… This would create a user backlash, so it depends on whether Wikimedia wants to overrule its users.

  5. IC says:

    Maximum sock puppet count reached. :P

  6. Mungojelly says:

    I’m fascinated by the overall picture, where Wikipedia is just one of many sites which have expanded to be as large as the entire internet was back when it was getting famous. In another decade I predict that this cycle of expansion will repeat itself, with the internet containing a multitude of projects each of which is as large as today’s entire internet.

    One such future project I can imagine is a post-wikipedia knowledge base, where facts are not just rigidly included or excluded but rather always included, but in complex webs of dependency, hanging on bits of evidence and alliances of trusted sources. You could say any crazy thing, and the system would just effortlessly throw that in a dusty corner as “once, someone said this crazy thing about this.” All data is good data, with full context.

    <3

  7. Zorglub says:

    Well… I don’t think your predictions will actually happen anytime soon (except for #2, which already happens now. User pages are not on a different server, but they are clearly in a different space). but we’ll see.

    However, there is one thing that you seem to miss completely in #1: you are mixing up the concepts of “anonymous” and “unregistered”. You say that “anonymous editors cannot create completely new article”; well, looking right now at the list of new pages on Wikipedia, the user names of the creators are “Pete51″, “Rt66lt”, “Gamahucheur”, etc. If these people are *not* anonymous, they should sue their parents for having given them such silly names…

    Actually, most of Wikipedia users are anonymous, except for those who have chosen their real name as user name. A registered user is more anonymous that someone who broadcasts his IP address (maybe static broadband address ?) to everyone who wants to read it; and (AFAIK) there is no restriction on registration, so I don’t really see the point of your prediction #1…

    Zorglub

  8. Jason Scott says:

    Zorglub:

    I sense you don’t know how the inside of Wikipedia currently works.

    For the sake of the prediction, I will clarify: By “anonymous”, I mean “without having to go through e-mail verification”. Obviously, with appropriate effort, people can keep a subterfuge as to their actual identities for some time.

  9. Zorglub says:

    Jason: there is no email verification when you register a new user (I just did it). You don’t even have to enter an email address, except if you want to have the “Email this user” function activated, or (probably, I haven’t tested it) if you are worried about forgetting your password.

    Please tell me if your experience is different, but I have really never seen or heard anything about email verification.

    Zorglub

  10. Jason Scott says:

    This is a simple misunderstanding. I am not saying that there is email verification now. I am saying that when I mean “no anonymous editing”, I don’t mean a weasel-word version of “it is difficult to tell who jimmy69 is”, but I mean e-mail verification.

    I am predicting e-mail verification as a pre-requisite of being able to edit Wikipedia before the beginning of 2007, with a set of grandfathered accounts.

  11. Zorglub says:

    Ok, I understand, thanks for the clarification. Without any indication of what “non-anonymous” meant in the original prediction, it was hard to see what you really meant.

    Cheers,

    Zorglub.

  12. anon says:

    Wasn’t freedb.org created because of cddb’s move (exact action I can’t remember, but something about apropriation of user-submitted data)?
    In the end, as all wikipedia content is licensed with the GFDL, we may see a fork of it if wikipedia becomes crap.
    It still is the best encyclopedia in the world as far as presenting different opinion and views on political and other non-consensual matters. It also links to more information on the web, books, etc., usually the most pertinent on the matter, so if the previous fails, interested people can continue their search by themselves, and find out the truth.
    Which can’t be said for traditional encyclopedias, i.e. the more alternative or far from the oficial sanctioned view an opinion is, the less chance it will get good or any coverage at all.

    What I dislike is, in fact, it’s policy of neutral point of view, but it does contribute to what I wrote.

  13. Dr Z says:

    Pretty much on the money, Jason. 3 is the interesting one, because all power flows from Jimbo’s power. I think a fork is possible if 3 doesn’t happen.

  14. Disgusted says:

    Wikipedia has now become the whitewashed encyclopedia that not everyone can edit.

  15. Gamahucheur says:

    D_mn. Stranger be dissin’ my name.

  16. Bobak says:

    Maybe this criticism is a little overboard? Who cares if people are wasting their energy (or the system isn’t a well-oiled machine) as long as the content gets the info across eventually (which, when you’re talking about a free mass-particpated experiment is as best you can ask for). While I agree with the problem you’ve identified here and in previous articles, I don’t agree that it’s going to reach some crecendo that will tear the very fabric of the universe or what you seem to be implying. If it’s just wasted energy that concerns you, then don’t waste your own (it’s a fair concern, and one that I’m sure many also consider, myself included). Sorry for the rambling comment, but I did find your articles interesting (but ultimately alarmist). I noticed your own articles on this “failure” started in 2004. I joined Wikipedia in July 2005 and so far have found it to be enjoyable, albeit frustrating at times –but no more frustrating than the iron-fisted control that I bear on my own internet video game forum where I need to worry about the hundreds of people online at any given time. I think for ever minor quibble you get on a hot topic there’s about 100-200 articles with no problems, many of which are actually pretty solid mini-articles for reference. I look forward to seeing how your criticism develops.

  17. Jason Scott says:

    Well, considering this is just a list of predictions, nothing beyond what you might see before a good sports game, that’s not really overboard criticism. But I assume you mean the series of articles I’ve written on this subject.

    The “it’s just Wikipedia” argument doesn’t hold water because the wikipedia articles, unlike your forum or my website or many others, are in many case the defacto answer on thousands of proper nouns, non-proper nouns, and general phrases. If you go to google and want to know who Bob Denver, John Denver, or Anton Lavey are, Wikipedia is either the first or one of the first hits. And it calls itself Wikipedia, which a lot of people misinterpret as it having encyclopedic discipline, which it doesn’t. Couple this with the amount of sites now using Wikipedia as a primary source, and the arbitrariness of it, and that’s where my criticisms come in.

    The speech I gave at Notacon lays out my concerns better than most of these essays.

  18. Heel says:

    A fantastic site, and brilliant effort. A great piece of work.

  19. Gongadze says:

    Well, it’s 2007, and none of those predictions were right…