When there is no outside

Nick Carr’s hyperbolically-titled The Death of Wikipedia has received a couple of endorsements and some fairly vigorous disagreement, unsurprisingly. I think it’s as much a question of tone as anything else. When Nick reads the line

certain pages with a history of vandalism and other problems may be semi-protected on a pre-emptive, continuous basis.

it clearly sets alarm bells ringing for him, as indeed it does for me (“Ideals always expire in clotted, bureaucratic prose”, Nick comments). Several of his commenters, on the other hand, sincerely fail to see what the big deal might be: it’s only a handful of pages, it’s only semi-protection, it’s not that onerous, it’s part of the continuing development of Wikipedia editing policies, Wikipedia never claimed to be a totally open wiki, there’s no such thing as a totally open wiki anyway…

I think the reactions are as instructive as the original post. No, what Nick’s pointing to isn’t really a qualitative change, let alone the death of anything. But yes, it’s a genuine problem, and a genuine embarrassment to anyone who takes the Wikipedian rhetoric seriously. Wikipedia (“the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”) routinely gets hailed for its openness and its authority, only not both at the same time – indeed, maximising one can always be used to justify limits on the other. As here. But there’s another level to this discussion, which is to do with Wikipedia’s resolution of the openness/authority balancing-act. What happens in practice is that the contributions of active Wikipedians take precedence over both random vandals and passing experts. In effect, both openness and authority are vested in the group.

In some areas this works well enough, but in others it’s a huge problem. I use Wikipedia myself, and occasionally drop in an edit if I see something that’s crying out for correction. Sometimes, though, I see a Wikipedia article that’s just wrong from top to bottom – or rather, an article where verifiable facts and sustainable assertions alternate with errors and misconceptions, or are set in an overall argument which is based on bad assumptions. In short, sometimes I see a Wikipedia article which doesn’t need the odd correction, it needs to be pulled and rewritten. I’m not alone in having this experience: here’s Tom Coates on ‘penis envy’ and Thomas Vander Wal (!) on ‘folksonomy’, as well as me on ‘anomie’.

It’s not just a problem with philosophical concepts, either – I had a similar reaction more recently to the Wikipedia page on the Red Brigades. On the basis of the reading I did for my doctorate, I could rewrite that page from start to finish, leaving in place only a few proper names and one or two of the dates. But writing this kind of thing is hard and time-consuming work – and I’ve got quite enough of that to do already. So it doesn’t get done.

I don’t think this is an insurmountable problem. A while ago I floated a cunning plan for fixing pages like this, using PledgeBank to mobilise external reserves of peer-pressure; it might work, and if only somebody else would actually get it rolling I might even sign up. But I do think it’s a problem, and one that’s inherent to the Wikipedia model.

To reiterate, both openness and authority are vested in the group. Openness: sure, Wikipedia is as open to me as any other registered editor d00d, but in practice the openness of Wikipedia is graduated according to the amount of time you can afford to spend on it. As for authority, I’m not one, but (like Debord) I have read several good books – better books, to be blunt, than those relied on by the author[s] of the current Red Brigades article. But what would that matter unless I was prepared to defend what I wrote against bulk edits by people who disagreed – such as, for example, the author[s] of the current article? On the other hand, if I was prepared to stick it out through the edit wars, what would it matter whether I knew my stuff or not? This isn’t just random bleating. When I first saw that Red Brigades article I couldn’t resist one edit, deleting the completely spurious assertion that the group Prima Linea was a Red Brigades offshoot. When I looked at the page again the next day, my edit had been reverted.

Ultimately Wikipedia isn’t about either openness or authority: it’s about the collective activity of editing Wikipedia and being a Wikipedian. From that, all else follows.

Update 2/6/06 (in response to David, in comments)

There are two obvious problems with the Wikipedia page on the Brigate Rosse, and one that’s larger but more diffuse. The first problem is that it’s written in the present tense; it’s extremely dubious that there’s any continuity between the historic Brigate Rosse and the gang who shot Biagi, let alone that they’re simply, unproblematically the same group. This alone calls for a major rewrite. Secondly, the article is written very much from a police/security-service/conspiracist stance, with a focus on question like whether the BR was assisted by the Czech security services or penetrated by NATO. But this tends to reinforce an image of the BR as a weird alien force which popped up out of nowhere, rather than an extreme but consistent expression of broader social movements (all of which has been documented).

The broader problem – which relates to both of the specific points – goes back to a problem with the amateur-encyclopedia format itself: Wikipedia implicitly asks what a given topic is, which prompts contributors to think of their topic as having a core, essential meaning (I wrote about this last year). The same problem can arise in a ‘proper’ encyclopedia, but there it’s generally mitigated by expertise: somebody who’s spent several years studying the broad Italian armed struggle scene is going to be motivated to relate the BR back to that scene, rather than presenting it as an utterly separate thing. The motivation will be still greater if the expert on the BR has also been asked to contribute articles on Prima Linea, the NAP, etc. This, again, is something that happens (and works, for all concerned) in the kind of restricted conversations that characterise academia, but isn’t incentivised by the Wikipedia conversation – because the Wikipedia conversation doesn’t go anywhere else. Doing Wikipedia is all about doing Wikipedia.



  1. David Wilson
    Posted 2 June 2006 at 09:41 | Permalink | Reply

    i’m curious about the wikipedia red brigades entry and your objections to it – what’s wrong with it? straight question

    i mention this because i was thinking about the comando vermelho in rio the other day, and followed the colour symmetry to red brigades, so i did have a look at the wikipedia entry and i didn’t see anything wrong with it, but i am certainly not an expert

  2. vanderwal
    Posted 2 June 2006 at 15:56 | Permalink | Reply

    Have you run across Jaron Lanier’s recent rant on wikipedia and the collective mind?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: