July 31, 2006
Wikipedia's an amazing achievement, the kind of thing a lot of us use as a case study of what can go right on the web. But it's an effort that involves a large number of people, touches on politically sensitive issues and gets into topics like culture and authority over information. So it's inevitable there would be a certain number of naysayers, conscientious objectors, bitter ex-contributors, or legitimately frustrated users.
Recently, I've been kind of interested in this subculture of Wikipedians, those who've either quit or are advocating that others do so. Now, I'm not saying anything against Wikipedia, or being an advocate for it. I just think this topic is fascinating.
Probably the most prominent critic of Wikipedia policy is Jason Scott, whom you know from his work on Textfiles.com and his BBS Documentary. I think of him as a Waxy macropatron, collecting a lot of the raw materials of geekdom that make analysis possible. Jason's long been skeptical of many Wikipedia policies, inspiring posts about the Great Failure of Wikipedia, the Godwin-taunting Swastikipedia, five Wikipedia predictions, and the Great Success of the Great Failure.
Those last two items are the most cogent, culminating in Jason's (thus-far definitive) critique of Wikipedia, The Great Failure of Wikipedia. (That transcript is, appropriately, a text file. You can get the original audio at the Internet Archive.) What's great about this recording is that it's hosted by the largest digital archive on the web, features a performance/polemic by the individual who's created the largest solo information archive on the web, and is critiquing the largest collaborative information archive on the web. In short, the Internet Archive doesn't disciriminate: It collects everything. Jason Scott collects items with himself as gateway and curator, and criticizes Jimbo Wales for Wikipedia, which aspires to a libertarian information free-for-all but imperfectly implements democracy.
Jason sums up his argument best himself:
A lot of people thought I was going to attack Wikipedia as being "wrong" and something that should be "stopped", which is a useless argument/approach to take, especially if you're into freedom of expression. My main thesis is that Wikipedia's initial design and architecture, which is now changing constantly, failed to take the reality of humanity and the way people interact with information into account, and in doing so, has wasted a nearly-incalculable amount of energy and has betrayed, to some extent, it's promises, credo and goals. You know, minor stuff.
An excellent counterpoint is the mostly-positive New Yorker piece by Stacy Schiff from last week. Schiff's closing is the strongest part of the article:
As was the Encyclopédie, Wikipedia is a combination of manifesto and reference work. Peer review, the mainstream media, and government agencies have landed us in a ditch. Not only are we impatient with the authorities but we are in a mood to talk back. Wikipedia offers endless opportunities for self-expression. It is the love child of reading groups and chat rooms, a second home for anyone who has written an Amazon review. This is not the first time that encyclopedia-makers have snatched control from an élite, or cast a harsh light on certitude. Jimmy Wales may or may not be the new Henry Ford, yet he has sent us tooling down the interstate, with but a squint back at the railroad. We're on the open road now, without conductors and timetables. We're free to chart our own course, also free to get gloriously, recklessly lost.
There are many more Wikipedia critics, of course, but the ones that fascinate me are the people who used to be contributors but now have sworn off the site. All of these contributors volunteered for their roles before they stopped wanting to participate, but I find it interesting how much they sound like spurned lovers. WindyCityMike posted a request on Ask MetaFilter for information on removing Wikipedia from his entire web experience. (It's worth noting that this is actually difficult to do.) Just as interesting, he's got a complete guide to leaving Wikipedia, which is clearly effective, judging by his user page.
That request wasn't the first time someone had asked to remove Wikipedia from their web experience; Another Ask MetaFilter thread details some techniques for filtering Wikipedia results from your Google searches.
But these complaints aren't (merely) motivated by the technology or pervasiveness of Wikipedia. The real issue is that Wikipedia is a not-so-small community of people, facing the same challenges of governance, accountability, and policing that any community this size would face. I can't help but think that most of these issues arise because Wikipedia essentially runs with the equivalent of a Declaration of Independence but no Constitution. That lack of policy, or the overly vague wording of policy, seems to be the crux of the most convincing critiques. Take user Ikkyu's lengthy discussion of what's wrong with Wikipedia. It's impassioned and articulate, and seems like a reasonable starting point for making this great resource even better. His conclusion is damning in its resignation and apparent frustration:
I still like the Wikipedia, but not as an encyclopedia. It's just an enjoyable, relaxing way to fool around and waste some time; enjoyable for its own sake, but not useful as a finished product. I would never recommend it to my patients nor to anyone else as a source of reliable information.
Indeed, the harshest criticism of Wikipedia doesn't seem to be "It sucks!" but rather, "It could be great!" The negativity of all these legitimate criticisms masks the fact that Wikipedia is still an amazing creation. Because those making these criticisms are credible and articulate, I do believe that there's a real chance at making Wikipedia even better. To be honest, I'm not sure how they'll get there, but I do think it'll happen.
Finally, as someone who's constantly pleading for people online to have a more intelligent, reasonable discourse, it's really pleasing to see a debate that's being carried out in a (mostly) civil manner. I hope what comes out of it is not an attempt to tear down Wikipedia but a chance to fix what's wrong with it. In the meantime, we can enjoy watching a community re-imagine itself.