Wed 3 Jun 2009
A little old now in Internet time (May 29th!), but The Register is covering the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee's decision to ban edits from all IP addresses that are known to be associated with Scientology. Apparently there were systematic efforts by those nutty Scientologists to propagandize Wikipedia pages, paper over criticism, etc.
Now, I'm no fan of Scientology, though I admit I think the whole thing is more laughable than anything else. But for Wikipedia this is a bad decision that leads down a bad road. There's two big issues here.
First, if Wikipedia starts to ban whole organizations rather than policing malicious individuals (who Register writer Cade Metz calls "Wikifiddlers" – love it!), how does it draw a reasonable line between protecting Wikipedia and social engineering? Wikipedia is already a horribly slanted body of knowledge, mostly as a function of the types of knowledge that its user communities value highly – natural sciences, computer science, engineering, popular culture. Picking and choosing organizations to ban will make this bias worse. Does Wikipedia only ban organizations that are easy to hate – Scientologists, neo-nazis, etc.? If this is about the policy, and an attempt to thwart coordinated propaganda, then shouldn't we also be banning IP ranges for, say, baseball teams, celebrities, and Congressmen, all of whom engage in organized propaganda attacks to gussy up their Wikipedia pages?
There's also a more fundamental problem with this – it breaks the model of "Wisdom of the Crowds." The whole point of WotC in the Smith / Surowiecki sense, is that a person is dumb but people are smart. When people are diverse, their biases cancel each other out. Picking the number of jelly beans in a jar isn't that different from making Wikipedia. We need all manner of biases. We need people to be wrong in all ways, and to coordinate propaganda in all ways. That doesn't mean we should allow all kinds of malicious activity – going after individual Wikifiddlers makes sense to me. But banning whole groups is a slippery slope that could hurt Wikipedia's reputation and quality in the long term.