December 2005


Jimmy Wales recently posted this to the Air-l list as a follow-up to a long discussion about Wikipedia's recent troubles in several threads.

This by Jimmy:

"He [Seigenthaler] also said he doesn't support more regulations of the Internet, but he said that he fears "Wikipedia is inviting it by its
allowing irresponsible vandals to write anything they want about anybody."

*sigh* Facts about our policies on vandalism are not hard to come by. A statement like Seigenthaler's, a statement that is egregiously false, would not last long at all at Wikipedia.

This by Joseph Reagle:

Not trolling, just want to be clear: doesn't the WP architecture and policies allow "irresponsible vandals to write anything they want about anybody."? It's not condoned, counter to the norms, is eventually corrected — sometimes immediately. I'm not getting the distinction you are drawing.

And this fantastic and well reasoned response from Jimmy:

The distinction that I'm drawing can best be illustrated with my hopefully-someday-famous analogy between the design of software for social interactions and the design of restaurants.

Imagine that we are designing a restaurant. This restuarant will serve steak. Because we are going to be serving steak, we will have steak
knives for the customers. Because the customers will have steak knives, they might stab each other. Therefore, we conclude, we need to put each table into separate metal cages, to prevent the possibility of people stabbing each other.

What would such an approach do to our civil society? What does it do to human kindness, benevolence, and a positive sense of community?

When we reject this design for restaurants, and then when, inevitably, someone does get stabbed in a restaurant (it does happen), do we write long editorials to the papers complaining that "The steakhouse is inviting it by not only allowing irresponsible vandals to stab anyone they please, but by also providing the weapons"?

No, instead we acknowledge that the verb "to allow" does not apply in such a situation. A restaurant is not allowing something just because they haven't taken measures to forcibly prevent it a priori. It is surely against the rules of the restaurant, and of course against the laws of society. Just. Like. Libel. If someone starts doing bad things in a restuarant, they are forcibly kicked out and, if it's particularly bad, the law can be called. Just. Like. Wikipedia.

I do not accept the spin that Wikipedia "allows anyone to write anything" just because we do not metaphysically prevent it by putting
authors in cages.

–Jimbo

I think Jimmy hits it right on the head. Governance, in any sense, is about prioritizing. At Wikipedia, and I'd like to think in general, we prioritize the individual right to free speech, even if that speech may turn out to be harmful, over instituting such broad constraints against the possibility of harmful speech that we curtail free expression in general. It's a perfectly normal reaction, if you're someone like John Seigenthaler, to flip those priorities around because it's not just someone that might be harmed, but in fact it was you that actually was. Unfortunately, in these situations people like Jimmy are required to be diplomats and address all kinds of extreme reactions because of the media attention they garner. What Jimmy is saying, though, is that these incidents shouldn't change the basic priorities that Wikipedia lives (and dies) by.

I suck at knots. And I'm always startled by how often I need them. Enter iwillknot.com.
(via Lifehacker)

Let me begin with a small bit of editorializing: John Seigenthaler is a moron. He proved it during a segment with (the ever well-reasoned, balanced, and eloquent) Jimmy Wales on NPR's Talk of the Nation yesterday. He proved his total ignorance about the nature of the Web as a medium, and the rules that govern Wikipedia namely, very few. He should be more worried about defamation here on my blog, where he doesn't have a prayer (short of a lawsuit) of getting me to take back the following statement: Go back into your hole, John Seigenthaler. Stop exposing your attention-seeking idiocy to the world and ruining a good thing for everyone.

Whew. Glad I got that out of my system. Now I can think a little more clearly. What's so interesting about this whole Wikipedia brouhaha is how it exposes our conflicted ideals about authority and collaboration. It seems as though we would like to sign on to the idea that the Wikipedia model works, but it's so devoid of the traditional markers for quality and integrity that it makes us nervous. Trust is a thorny problem, something that people negotiate on a day-to-day basis. But one important way that we make it easier on ourselves is that we learn to vest our trust in certain entities and people. Trusting 'the commons' in a networked world is something that apparently makes us uncomfortable, perhaps because the commons (in the Wikipedia sense) is so much larger than it used to be. That's an interesting conflict in and of itself, because it's the size of that group gives Wikipedia both its power (many eyeballs makes quality information) and its Achilles heel, at least for now. Mitch Kapor put it brilliantly in a recent talk (audio here):

I became interested in it precisely because it did work despite the fact that something in me said that it shouldn't. [...] There's really a Zen koan aspect to it; when you're given a paradox to wrestle with you can either go down with it — because it's insoluble on its own terms — or you can transcend the paradox because you find out you've had some limiting assumptions that you didn't know you had and it's only an apparent paradox.

I've heard a lot of people suggest that the appropriate reaction, is to boycott Wikipedia and wait for the powers that be to do something about it. It's an understandable reaction, but it's not very Web 2.0. When Jimmy Wales came to speak at SIMS (audio here), he basically said that he's phasing himself out in favor of a collaborative, Democratic government for Wikipedia. He'd like for it to become a truly self-sustaining community, where conflicts are internally arbitrated and rules and regulations are freely debated. So our best options for changing Wikipedia isn't to wait for someone else to do it, it's to become contributors ourselves. Contributing to the process will mean not only providing content, but providing our attention and critique to the evolution of the service, both in a policy and a technical sense.

This CNet article discusses two recent high profile cases that have brought the issues around quality of information on Wikipedia to the forefront again. First, John Seigenthaler, complained in a USA Today op/ed piece that Wikipedia was fundimentally flawed because, for a time, it includes an article that accused him of involvement with the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. Second, Podcasting guru and former MTV VJ Adam Curry was accused of eliminating content attributed to other founders of the Podcasting genre in a Wikipedia article on that subject. There has also been a lively discussion on this issue going on the AOIR listserv. So, I want to take this opportunity to make a few points in no particular order (some copied from my posting to the list):

Wikipedia handles information quality with brute force. And to great effect: I don't see this as an inherent shortcoming. Wikipedia assumes, perhaps rightly, that many eyeballs make good information. Whether or not this is true in the end, the question is whether it is true at the moment that one might access the article. Has the quality of the information been recently compromised? And if so, has ample time passed for inaccuracies to be corrected?

Compounding the above point is the fact that Wikipedia's quality assurance mechanism only works on a macro-level. We have little information about whether individual articles have been properly vetted by many users at a specific point. We end up deciding in general whether we believe the mechanism works or not.
One common tool that people use to make decisions about information quality is authorship. But in the name of promoting the commons-authorship model, Wikipedia actually obscures the notion of the author at an individual level. If you wanted to find out who wrote an individual piece an article, there would be no reasonable way to do that. Though MediaWiki keeps detailed page histories, wading through them, especially for articles that have 1000s of edits, is overwhelming if not impossible.

The CNet article points out a few high profile cases that have made waves recently. But, despite the pressure that increased public attention brings, I think the Wikipedia community ought to stick to its guns. Yes, the issue of information quality on Wikipedia is contested – but isn't it contested on the Internet in general too? Neither Wikipedians nor Jimmy Wales are responsible for how Wikipedia is used. We do not create perceptions of information quality, and we cannot manufacture critical thinking about authorship and the reliability of sources. We can, however, promote these things through education and our interactions with the site, and perhaps with some tweaks to the current MediaWiki model that brings ideas about authorship and other common mechanisms for information quality to the fore.

Fundamentally, however, the responsibility is ours. Our instinct in cases where there are mistakes is to look for someone to blame – poor old John has been maligned and he's mad. He's choosing to condemn Wikipedia as a whole, but he's awfully narrow minded. If there is someone to blame for Wikipedia it is the community of people who read it, contribute to it, and talk about it. Suggesting either that Wikipedia ought to be banned as a source or otherwise regulated misses the point entirely. All Wikipedia does is set up a framework for commons production. If we don't like the mode of production, then it is up to us to change it. Anyone (including John Seigenthaler himself) could have fixed the error that so annoyed him. They didn't, apparently, because unlike almost any other article on Wikipedia, there were no links to his page from within the site. As a result there was no traffic. No eyeballs. But if no one saw it, then what's the big deal? Fix the error and quit your bitching! Likewise I think it makes dramatic news to say that Adam Curry did something underhanded and self-serving by removing references he thought were incorrect, but what did he do wrong? He accepted his duty to contribute to information quality by participating in the mode of production. It got him into trouble because there was a conflict of interest – but should that have prevented him from doing it? Another sticky issue, for sure. But at least Adam didn't sit around whining – he did something.