May 23, 2013

Wikipedia Again

The Aaron Swartz page of Wikipedia is heating up again, alas.

One guy is determined that Wikipedia calls this an alleged suicide. Because who knows? Besides, all the secondary sources refer to primary sources, and we’re supposed to depend on secondary sources, so Wikipedia has to refer to the event as contingent or suspected.

Hint: the flaws of induction are not our fault. The sun also rises.

Another editor is determined about something. Very determined! But nobody can figure out what he or she is getting at. (He’s got two accounts, one of which must be addressed as “he” and the other as “she,” and no, I don’t know what that’s about either. Whoever they are, they seem to have great affection for the MIT Crime Club and they seem to detest Harvard, but even that’s hard to know for sure.)

This recalls the old mishaps at Dave Winer’s page. That page was contested for years over a host of issues and by a bunch of editors. But it turns out the whole controversy arose from a single editor, someone Winer had slighted once many years ago. That editor and his sock puppets kept the thing in turmoil for ages. When he was ultimately banned, everything immediately settled down.

Consensus rule requires good will and discipline. You can’t do without either. Wikipedia is a magnet for cranks and crackpots and the pajamas crowd.

When Wikipedia pages stay far from controversy, they can be useful. But I don’t see how you can keep any page safe from the crackpots forever while maintaining the Wiki Way.

Let’s face it: wikis are for coherent communities with shared values and possessing some mechanism, explicit or implicit, to sanction bad behavior. Wikipedia has tried to evolve its own community through Wikisym and WikiFest and its own sanctions through its disciplinary process, but neither is entire convincing and both require a huge expenditure of effort in which smart and talented people spend exorbitant amounts of time policing petulant children.