ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Great Success of the Great Failure —

I did a lot of stuff at Notacon 3. I helped get a radio station up and running. I was in a game show. I moderated a panel on Hacker Media. And I did two presentations, one on a history of Podcasts and one called The Great Failure of Wikipedia, a sequel/elaboration on the weblog entry I put on here, so very long ago.

Today, I uploaded The Great Failure of Wikipedia to The Internet Archive. You can find a link to the presentation here: The Great Failure of Wikipedia (April 8, 2006). It’s in a bunch of formats, from WAV to OGG to FLAC to multiple forms of MP3. It can be downloaded and it can be streamed.

I’m very happy with this speech. Like others, it was done off a prepared-on-paper-then-memorized outline, with parts added and deleted as I went, depending on crowd reaction and final consideration. I hit all the major points I wanted to; if people agree or disagree, they’re doing so based on what I said, not what I forgot to say or didn’t mean to say.

People get a little emotional about Wikipedia and some attacks may come as a result of this, but oh well. I’m over it. I consider this one of the better presentations I’ve done out of the dozen or so I’ve given at conventions. And I don’t give the same speech twice, so this is it. I can live with it, especially considering how well this one came out.

A lot of people thought I was going to attack Wikipedia as being “wrong” and something that should be “stopped”, which is a useless argument/approach to take, especially if you’re into freedom of expression. My main thesis is that Wikipedia’s initial design and architecture, which is now changing constantly, failed to take the reality of humanity and the way people interact with information into account, and in doing so, has wasted a nearly-incalculable amount of energy and has betrayed, to some extent, it’s promises, credo and goals. You know, minor stuff.

Anyway, check out the speech and enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed presenting it.

Update: Someone was kind enough to transcribe it for me.
Another Update: And then “Judgmentalist” took it and made it a PDF. Thank you!

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  1. Grey says:

    Thanks for putting this up. I’ve listened to some of your other speaches, “100 years of digital art” and “digital preservation” and found them highly interesting. I look forward to this one and keep them coming : )

  2. James says:

    I have to admit, that because you were rather vague beforehand on what was in the speech, I was in the group who thought you were going to attack it as “wrong”. I am pleased to be proved wrong.

    Having listened to the speech it strikes me as a list of examples to learn from[1] for future creators of wiki encyclopedias and online communities in general. I know Debian formed a strong constitution that limited DPL’s power after a year of being run ragged by a very strong DPL.

    It also strikes me as a lot could be learnt from studying nomic[2] as it starts out with a simple rulebase and evolves towards a definition of winning the players themselves define.

    [1] ie, they’re mistakes that should be avoided.
    [2] as well as normal political theory of course.

  3. Jeff Atwood says:

    “Incredibly ugly color scheme”?

    Have you looked at your own site lately? Holy cow.

    I realize there is a religious aspect to the black-on-white vs. white-on-black decision, but.. the site that mirrors the look of printed pages in books, which we’ve been reading for the last thousand years or so, isn’t the odd man out here.

    I have some citations supporting this here:

    The general rule of thumb is, you want contrast, but not TOO much contrast. I get halation effects really badly from sites colored like yours.

  4. Jason Scott says:

    S’called a joke, Jeff.

    I appreciate the positive/insightful review on your site about Inclusionism/Deletionism; I should point out that those terms aren’t mine, although framing them as being a truly intractible battle was definitely my own independently-deduced idea. (I suspect others have noticed the same issue.)

  5. Derek Arnold says:

    Jeff: Monitors are not books, and additive color is different than subtractive. Less light hitting my eyes actually amounts to less strain after my hours-long surfing sessions.

    This speech summed up everything that people that I IRC with have been saying in more rough and profane terms for some time.

  6. Bryn Davies says:

    I often waste hours idly browsing on Wikipedia ( and similar timesinks such as e2 ), but had to acknowledge a long ago the stark weirdness about NPOV, notoriety, original research and the value of experts. I really enjoyed your speech, so thanks for putting it online where everyone can listen to it.

    ( Does it have a Wikipedia page yet? )

  7. Firas says:

    ( Does it have a Wikipedia page yet? )

    Not notable :p

    Jason, while I didn’t find the main thesis of your speech very intruiging (wikipedia’s claims vs. actuality and how that relates to creating collaborative information spaces), I think the most interesting observation you made was that the downside of having no authoritative administrative structure in the old days (in an effort to promote egalitarianism) means that when some contentious administrative decisions have to be made they happen in zipped-lip fashion, messing up people’s expectations. I wonder what a sociologist would make of it. As a political science student it makes me wonder about whether without a transparent ranking structure (x has power, deal with it, discuss) you get x exercising power in an unaccountable way (all of you are as worthy as x, but x has to make a decision on this, deal with it, don’t discuss).

  8. riscphree says:

    Jason, I absolutely LOVED your talk. I went into the room not expecting something that damn good, I came out freakin amazed.

  9. Cherie says:

    I was very thrilled to find your wikipedia speech from Notacon online. Do you remember me telling you that I would miss it?… sigh… anyway, late last night I sat and listened and made comments at the ceiling and at Chad about the many points that you had brought up. I have to say that I agree with you about Wikipedia becoming a major source of research since I have seen it within the classroom. The students do not understand how some of the Wiki is “unreliable;” they think of it is as concrete and the last word on most topics. Even now, as I scope out things from reddit or metafilter, I constantly see references from wiki as the ultimate source for info…not to mention, links from SunTimes and The New Yorker leading straight to Wiki for clarafication. Anyway, I just wanted to say sweet talk and I’m glad I got to grab it. Talk to ya soon.