Some days, I feel like I should have never written anything about Wikipedia, positive or negative. Like many cults, it has extreme members or well-meaning folks who do not understand what they are part of, and who take me on personally and then fall back into the ranks should I respond poorly. Some of them, should I respond within the confines of Wikipedia, point to the rules of discourse on Wikipedia and how I am breaking them.
Fine. It is not hard to post here and have people reference my ideas here; Wikipedia now sends hundreds of folks to my site on a regular basis, all wondering about looking at the strange fellow who does not love Wikipedia. I wave to you, from behind my glass.
But I am not really the “Anti-Wikipedia Guy”. I like to think I have more important things to do. Wikipedia will not live or die by my words, so I will not waste words easily aimed at the betterment of my own sites for the sake of proving my own thoughts to people who fundamentally disagree with me.
But I can spare a few words.
I was asked… well, demanded, really, to show an example of my general belief that “a low barrier leads to crap”, which has been misinterpreted a number of ways (and really, my entire essay has been misinterpreted, but that’s the way of life online). The tautology, which is flawed, is that if I can’t find an article on Wikipedia that is poorly written, my contentions are false. Well, that depends on what you think my contentions are.
Therefore, I will rest my case on a single entry: That of the Swastika.
Here, contained in one entry, is everything that I have issues with regarding the implementation of Wikipedia as it currently stands with its rules. A person could look at the first entry and then the last one, see how big and fluffy and full of photos the last entry is, and go “success!”.
But dig deeper under the surface of this entry, and then you start to see the cracks in this “success”.
With over 1,500 edits done to this entry over its 3 year lifespan, the process of becoming even slightly familiar with the editing pattern could be a full day’s work. I spent some time with it and my analysis is nowhere near complete, but here’s some interesting points along its journey.
The Swastika entry starts its life in March of 2002. By the end of 2002 it has gotten 11 edits, mostly minor nips and tucks trying to get a grip around what it exactly is a symbol of and what way to format the image.
In January of 2003, someone coming from an IP address makes a selection of changes over the course of a few days. His revision history shows someone who was big in 2002 and 2003 and then faded away (or they got an account, but it’s strange they would feel no need for an account for nearly half a year and then suddenly decide they need one). It also highlights one of my issues; without asking people to at least register in some way before making changes, it devalues all the other people willing to be tracked and cited when working on entries. It’s not like it costs money or that you can’t have a billion accounts… it just makes it that more disheartening when your stuff is changed by someone who you hope is on a static, non-shared IP address.
By July of 2003 there have now been roughly 30 edits to the Swastika entry, resulting in a bit of change but basically the same information.
And something happens in July of 2003. It gets over 50 edits during that month from roughly 15 different people. And then the troubles begin.
If you start going through the edits, one by one, and only a maniac would at this point, you see points raised, links created, statements made, and then slowly, over time, they’re removed.
A link between the Nazi Symbol and Socialism is put up, and later, someone called “Nlight” calls it “presumed nonsense” and removes it. Why? Who the heck is Nlight? Well, someone who couldn’t take it anymore, apparently. But if you go look back at his older entries about himself, you see he’s a computer geek from the northwest. Why did he remove the link between socialism and nazism? Because he felt like it. Because he “presumed” it was “nonsense”, according to the edit. So now the socialist guy has to become a content defender, pulling back his socialism link with a citation of it. But now here comes Rasmus_Faber, about 20 minutes later, to undo the socialist guy’s work and return it to the non-socialist link. What is called a “revert war” then occurs, with Socialist guy trying desperately to keep his entirely valid Socialist Party link about the Swastika alive while Rasmus Faber (who is, as his page says, a software engineer) repeatedly stops his changes from staying.
Throughout “The Battle of January 31”, the changes go back and forth between Socialist Guy, Rasmus Faber, Nlight, and Mrdice, who, as far as it can be surmised, simply jumps into the Melee to “help” Nlight’s valiant attempt to not link Socialism with the use of it by the Nazi Party. (Mrdice, by the way, gives up on editing Wikipedia in early 2004, leaving behind a legacy of zip-and-run edits where he accuses, demands, dictates and runs away, with none of that boring, time-wasting need to show any authority or reputation with his subject.)
And lo and behold, that little nugget of information is lost, the work of four people working at odds with each other over a battle, all of them located all over the world, fighting over what actually might be a real fact.
The story of the swastika’s entry continues after this, for over 1,200 edits. Dozens of people are involved, lots of facts are lost, many are gained… and you would be hard, hard-pressed to show why many of these folks should be editing the Swastika entry in the first place. Calling this “open source” and comparing it to programming projects is borderline insane: open-source programming projects have a core team with goals in mind that they state clearly, who then decide what gets in and what does not get in. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it does not, but people with anonymous IPs can’t just come in and fundamentally redo the graphics code on the program and then disappear, never to be seen again.
This is what I mean; you have a brick house that, from a distance, looks decently enough like a house that people say “see, community building works”. But what isn’t obvious on the surface is how many times those bricks have been pulled apart, reassembled, replaced, shifted, modified, and otherwise fiddled with for no good reason other than battling an endless army of righteous untrained bricklayers who decided to put a window there… no, there… wait, no window at all. If you declare the final brick house a “victory” while ignoring the astounding toll of human labor required to get it so, then you are not understanding why I consider Wikipedia a failure.
And all of this wouldn’t be important at all, if we didn’t start to see the Wikipedia definitions propogating throughout the internet, being something you get automatically on a lookup from Trillian or Yahoo using it as a way to get facts. That goes beyond scary.. it borders on negligent.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a documentary website to take care of. It’s waiting for me, and nothng gets done unless I work on it… which is just fine with me.
Categorised as: punditry
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