June 16, 2008
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WikiMystery 4: First Principles

Wikipedia isn't a typical wiki. Indeed, in WikiMystery 1 I asked whether MediaWiki, its software, still has WikiNature. But Wikipedia is a very big wiki, and so it naturally is sometimes the first to encounter problems of scale and governance that will eventually confront lots of wikis. It's a test case, in the way that Ward's Wiki was a test case for wikis back in the day.

A problem with Wikipedia as a test case is that some of its core principles are probably incoherent, but there seems no good way to fix them. The whole notion of the universal encylopedia is one example: Wikipedia bursts triumphantly on the scene just as everyone had pretty much abandoned hope for the memory of Mortimer Adler's grand project to revive the encyclopedia. Everyone compares it to Brittanica, but few people remember that Brittanica’s last hope was Adler’s fresh arrangement, the ill-fated 15th edition, which debuted in 1974 to no great acclaim.

Second, there's the whole question of NPOV, the Wikipedia rules about "neutral point of view." Obviously, without NPOV you'd fill Wikipedia with advertisements and polemics and propaganda; NPOV is a useful club with which to chase the cranks and the cooks. But the New Journalism is about to celebrate its fiftieth birthday, and I think it's been a full generation since people really believed that a neutral point of view was either possible or desirable.

Third, the tradition of anonymous editors means that a zealous high school student carries the same weight in any subject as the world's leading expert — and the world's leading experts, when they participate, must write everything — including their editorial memos, sources, and rationales — in terms the high school student will find convincing.

And then there's the doctrine of Notability.

If a topic has received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject, it is presumed to be notable.

The defenders of Notability are the legions of deletionists. They see themselves as defenders of wikipedia from vanity and advertising, and from children who want to add their little rock band to Wikipedia. But it's hard to distinguish things are are not notable from things that you simply know nothing about. Tim Bray points this out without mincing words:

Deletionists are knuckle-dragging droolers, walking vacant spaces, and as a side-effect generally, well, what’s the word I’m looking for? “Wrong.”

I think that the problem with deletionism is not that it’s wrong; in my experience, deletionism is often dishonest. Mildly controversial engineers and academics, and niche companies and products, get deleted in what is essentially a political contest — one that is notionally open and transparent, but that in reality is conducted by a cabal. In the case that roused Bray's ire, "Guest9999" apparently decided to delete the page of a well-known pseudonymous writer on the Ruby language, taking a moment away from editing pages on Harry Potter and on “The Rise and Fall of Darth Vader.”

A side effect of deletionism is that anything covered in celebrity magazines and dimestore tabloids — minor actors, retired Asian porn stars — winds up as notable because it's been covered in mainstream media. Important businessmen? Prominent scholars, engineers, scientists? It can be a dice roll.

On the whole, this has been a rough year for Wikipedia governance, beset with flaps and minor scandals. I suppose Wikimania is the place to address the problen (good luck with that); the broader WikiSym conference includes lots of wikis that have tractable management strategies: a corporate blog, for example, can decide whether a page’s value exceeds its storage cost.

But the underlying issue remains: to the extent that wikis reduce the role and diffuse the responsibility of authorship, what principles should regulate relations between writers? The Wikipedia principles attempt this, but can we believe them? And if we don’t believe them, are they more than the law of force, cloaked in rhetoric?