May 26, 2013

Wikipedia’s Emergency

Wikipedia is always about to collapse. Over the years, it’s shown remarkable resilience and has proved far more useful than many observers expected. This fortunate era may now be over.

First, the Filipacchi mess ends any real hope that Wikipedia could play a meaningful role in formalization of the semantic Web. Wikipedians love to make lists and categories, and this has long been the last best hope for people who believe in folksonomy and the wisdom of crowds. But giant categories are unwieldy, and “American authors” is a very large category: why not split it into a deeper taxonomy? “I know,” some bright bunny said, “let’s split out all the female authors! Then we’ll have more compact categories!”


But if you can’t get this right, you can’t get any of your folksonomy right. You just can’t expect a sound taxonomy to emerge magically from a site that’s increasingly dominated by cranks. After this, no one is ever again going to simply trust Wikipedia taxonomies as “good enough.”

Amanda Filipacchi pointed out the problem with this idiotic taxonomy in the New York Times. Wikipedians responded, as wikipedians will, by fouling up her own Wikipedia page.

One expert at using “Wikipedia policy” to throw out any hint of praise for the author and to add in any rumor of controversy or derision is a former Wikipedian named “Qworty,” who soon was making lots of deletions at Filipacchi’s page. His attentions went out to the author’s father, and the firm the father manages.

The fact is that this author has had four articles about her on Wikipedia for years, and all four of them have been primarily WP:PROMO WP:PEACOCK WP:ADVERT. Where are the admins who are eager to clean that up? Then she has the gall to complain about her articles, when Wikipedia has been providing free advertising for her for years, in violation of Wikipedia policies. She doesn't understand how Wikipedia works. But like a lot of people who've tried to use Wikipedia to promote themselves over the years, she is learning fast. Qworty (talk)

Unfortunately for Wikipedia, it turns out that Qworty is actually Robert Clark Young, a writer who has been wiki-warring for years — with over 6000 article-space edits — to wreak revenge on literary rivals. Young was identified when, after initially denying that he was Qworty to Salon writer Andrew Leonard , he started typing in the wrong chat window and accidentally sent revealing information to the journalist.

So, we now know one specific editor who has been abusing hundreds of Wikipedia articles for years to get revenge for old slights at workshops and writers’ conferences. He was a master of using wikipedia policy to get his way. Ultimately, the accident of his exposure got him banned. But even that was a close thing: here are some comments from that final discussion:

Oppose block and site-ban This is purely a punitive measure as Brad already left a comment saying Qworty would be on an indefinite BLP restriction if he continues editing, and Qworty has indicated that he would not.--The Devil's Advocate tlk. cntrb. 18:28, 18 May 2013 (UTC)

Oppose siteban. These are serious allegations, and Qworty's admitted that they're true, but why can't he edit other things instead? I'd say the best course of action is a ban from BLP editing with a guaranteed indef block for the first ban violation, but we should unblock him at the same time as we impose the BLP ban and the indef guarantee. Nyttend (talk) 21:18, 18 May 2013 (UTC)

Tentatively oppose as punitive. I really don't wanna see someone wiki-lynched out of mere spite, no matter how well-placed that spite may be. I don't know much about Qworty's editing history here (I've seen his name tons of times, but never formed anything of an opinion), so if someone can present evidence of abuse in areas other than biographies, I'd consider supporting. But the existing BLPBAN, perhaps along with a formal one-account limitation, enforced by periodic CheckUsers, seems sufficient at the moment. — PinkAmpers&(Je vous invite à me parler) 03:19, 19 May 2013 (UTC)

Meanwhile, there are thousands and thousands of damaged articles to review. If there’s any formal or informal plan to do this, I haven’t been able to find it. Is anyone responsible for the job? Who knows?

While Qworty has been banned, Wikipedia is filled with others like him and, for that matter, Robert Clark Young could change ISPs and start editing again tomorrow.

The number of active Wikipedia editors has been in decline for years. Many of the most active editors, like Qworty, work chiefly by deleting details, links, and entire pages. It can be fun, I suppose, to wipe your enemy’s page off Wikipedia with the judgment that they’re not notable enough to deserve a wikipedia page. But Aaron’s study showed that most of the intellectual work of Wikipedia is done not by the wikilawyer crowd but by specialized contributors, and I suspect those contributors are getting rarer, younger, and worse.

Studies of Wikipedia are declining, too. It looks like there wasn’t a single wiki paper at Hypertext ’13. There was hardly anything at Web Science. And it seems that Web Scientists seldom look at Wikipedia; here’s how the goals of Web Science are defined there:

Web science has a multidisciplinary base.[2] Being the largest human information construct in history, the Web can be seen as the brain of the man kinds. One can draw an analogy between Web Science and Technology (WebST) and Brain Science and Engineering (BSC) as they both tackle complex network structures at different levels of abstraction and deal with data/information/knowledge flows internally as well as in conjunction with the surroundings.

That’s been unchanged for two months.

Wikipedia has pretty much turned its back to the Web. Links to the Web from Wikipedia are relegated to footnotes, and even these are frequently wikilawyered out of the encyclopedia. Links within Wikipedia are encouraged (traffic! profit!) but used unimaginatively for random annotation. Landow’s 1987 paper on the rhetoric of arrival and departure would be revolutionary among wikipedians. I’ve been pointing for years to the fundamental rhetorical problem of wikis — that making the link target and the link label the same, as Ward’s Wiki did, moves all links to nouns and noun phrases with disastrous impact on the link structure. Wikipedia no longer uses WikiLinks, unfortunately, but almost every link remains anchored to a noun and almost no editors use links intelligently or creatively.

They’re too busy being dragged to AN/I and AN/3 and dozens of other Wikipedia noticeboards over interminably wrangles on “Wikipedia policy” brought by the legions of Qworty.

I think Wikipedia’s about over. To say, “some of this book’s footnotes are just links to Wikipedia articles” is universally understood to be withering. We don’t edit Wikipedia anymore. We don’t consult it for things that matter. It’s merely a good resource for finding odd facts no one cares much about. What was the name of Alexis Denisof’s character on Buffy? Was Pride and Prejudice 1812 or 1813? Is Jimmy Wales still paying attention?