Wed 7 Dec 2005
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.