The people with the answers


Larry Sanger, the controversial online encyclopedia’s cofounder and leading apostate, announced yesterday, at a conference in Berlin, that he is spearheading the launch of a competitor to Wikipedia called The Citizendium. Sanger describes it as “an experimental new wiki project that combines public participation with gentle expert guidance.”The Citizendium will begin as a “fork” of Wikipedia, taking all of Wikipedia’s current articles and then editing them under a new model that differs substantially from the model used by what Sanger calls the “arguably dysfunctional” Wikipedia community. “First,” says Sanger, in explaining the primary differences, “the project will invite experts to serve as editors, who will be able to make content decisions in their areas of specialization, but otherwise working shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary authors. Second, the project will require that contributors be logged in under their own real names, and work according to a community charter. Third, the project will halt and actually reverse some of the ‘feature creep’ that has developed in Wikipedia.”

I’ve been thinking about Wikipedia, and about what makes a bad Wikipedia article so bad, for some time – this March 2005 post took off from some earlier remarks by Larry Sanger. I’m not attempting to pass judgment on Wikipedia as a whole – there are plenty of good Wikipedia articles out there, and some of them are very good indeed. But some of them are bad. Picking on an old favourite of mine, here’s the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article on the Red Brigades, with my comments.

The Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse in Italian, often abbreviated as BR) are

The word is ‘were’. The BR dissolved in 1981; its last successor group gave up the ghost in 1988. There’s a small and highly violent group out there somewhere which calls itself “Nuove Brigate Rosse” – the New Red Brigades – but its continuity with the original BR is zero. This is a significant disagreement, to put it mildly.

a militant leftist group located in Italy. Formed in 1970, the Marxist Red Brigades

‘Marxist’ is a bizarre choice of epithet. Most of the Italian radical left was Marxist, and almost all of it declined to follow the BR’s lead. Come to that, the Italian Communist Party (one of the BR’s staunchest enemies) was Marxist. Terry Eagleton’s a Marxist; Jeremy Hardy’s a Marxist; I’m a Marxist myself, pretty much. The BR had a highly unusual set of political beliefs, somewhere between Maoism, old-school Stalinism and pro-Tupamaro insurrectionism. ‘Maoist’ would do for a one-word summary. ‘Marxist’ is both over-broad and misleading.

sought to create a revolutionary state through armed struggle

Well, yes. And no. I mean, I don’t think it’s possible to make any sense of the BR without acknowledging that, while they did have a famous slogan about portare l’attacco al cuore dello stato (‘attacking at the heart of the state’), their anti-state actions were only a fairly small element of what they did. To begin with they were a factory-based group, who took action against foremen and personnel managers; in their later years – which were also their peak years – the BR, like other armed groups, got drawn into what was effectively a vendetta with the police, prioritising revenge attacks over any kind of ‘revolutionary’ programme. You could say that the BR were a revolutionary organisation & consequently had a revolutionary programme throughout, even if their actions didn’t always match it – but how useful would this be?

and to separate Italy from the Western Alliance

Whoa. I don’t think the BR were particularly in favour of Italy’s NATO membership, but the idea that this was one of their key goals is absurd. If the BR had been a catspaw for the KGB, intent on fomenting subversion so as to destabilise Italy, then this probably would have been high on their list. But they weren’t, and it wasn’t.

In 1978, they kidnapped and killed former Prime Minister Aldo Moro under obscure circumstances.

Remarkably well-documented circumstances, I’d have said.

After 1984’s scission

This is just wrong – following growing and unresolvable factionalism, the BR formally dissolved in October 1981.

Red Brigades managed with difficulty to survive the official end of the Cold War in 1989

This is both confused and wrong. Given that there was a split, how would the BR have survived beyond 1981 (or 1984), let alone 1989? As for the BR’s successor groups, the last one to pack it in was last heard from in 1988.

even though it is now a fragile group with no original members.

Or rather, even though the name is now used by a small group about which very little is know, but which is not believed to have any connection to the original group (whose members are after all knocking on a bit by now).

Throughout the 1970’s the Red Brigades were credited with 14,000 acts of violence.

Good grief. Credited by whom? According to the sources I’ve seen, between 1970 and 1981 Italian armed struggle groups were responsible for a total of 3,258 actions, including 110 killings; the BR’s share of the total came to 472 actions, including 58 killings. (Most ‘actions’ consisted of criminal damage and did not involve personal violence.) I’d be the first to admit that the precision of these figures is almost certainly spurious, but even if we doubled that figure of 472 we’d be an awful long way short of 14,000.

I’m not even going to look at the body of the article.

I think there are two main problems here; the good news is that Larry’s proposals for the neo-Wikipedia (Nupedia? maybe not) would address both of them.

Firstly, first mover advantage. The structure of Wikipedia creates an odd imbalance between writers and editors. Writing a new article is easy: the writer can use whatever framework he or she chooses, in terms both of categories used to structure the entry and of the overall argument of the piece. Making minor edits to an article is easy: mutter 1984? no way, it was 1981!, log on, a bit of typing and it’s done. But making major edits is hard – you can see from the comments above just how much work would be needed to make that BR article acceptable, starting from what’s there now. It would literally be easier to write a new article. What’s more, making edits stick is hard; I deleted one particularly ignorant falsehood from the BR article myself a few months ago, only to find my edit reverted the next day. (Of course, I re-reverted it. So there!)

Larry’s suggestion of getting experts on board is very much to the point here. Slap my face and call me a credentialled academic, but I don’t believe that everyone is equally qualified to write an encyclopedia article about their favourite topic – and I do think it matters who gets the first go.

Secondly, gaming the system. Wikipedia is a community as well as an encyclopedia. I’ll pass over Larry’s suggestion that Wikipedia is dysfunctional as a community, but I do think it’s arguable that some behaviours which work well for Wikipedia-the-community are dysfunctional for Wikipedia-the-resource. It’s been suggested, for instance, that what really makes Wikipedia special is the ‘history’ pages, which take the lid off the debate behind the encyclopedia and let us see knowledge in the process of formation. It follows from this that to show the world a single, ‘definitive’ version of an article on a subject would actually be a step backwards: The discussion tab on Wikipedia is a great place to point to your favorite version … Does the world need a Wikipedia for stick-in-the-muds? W. A. Gerrard objects:

Of what value is publicly documenting the change history of an encyclopedia entry? How can something that purports to be authoritative allow the creation of alternative versions which readers can adopt as favorites?If an attempt to craft a wiki that strives for accuracy, even via a flawed model, is considered something for “stick-in-the-muds”, then it’s apparent that many of Wikipedia’s supporters value the dynamics of its community more than the credibility of the product they deliver.

I think this is exactly right: the history pages are worth much more to members of the Wikipedia community than to Wikipedia users. People like to form communities and communities like to chat – and edits and votes are the currency of Wikipedia chat. And gaming the system is fun (hence the word ‘game’). Aaron Swartz quotes comments about Wikipedia regulars who delete your newly[-]create[d] article without hesitation, or revert your changes and accuse you of vandalis[m] without even checking the changes you made, or who “edited” thousands of articles … [mostly] to remove material that they found unsuitable. This clearly suggest the emergence of behaviours which are driven more by social expectations than by a concern for Wikipedia. The second writer quoted above continues: Indeed, some of the people-history pages contained little “awards” that people gave each other — for removing content from Wikipedia.

Now, all systems can be gamed, and all communities chat. The question is whether the chatting and the gaming can be harnessed for the good of the encyclopedia – or, failing that, minimised. I’m not optimistic about the first possibility, and I suspect Larry Sanger isn’t either. Larry does, however, suggest a very simple hack which would help with the second: get everyone to use their real name. This would, among other things, make it obvious when a writer had authority in a given area. I don’t entirely agree with Aaron’s conclusion:

Larry Sanger famously suggested that Wikipedia must jettison its anti-elitism so that experts could feel more comfortable contributing. I think the real solution is the opposite: Wikipedians must jettison their elitism and welcome the newbie masses as genuine contributors to the project, as people to respect, not filter out.

This is half right: Wikipedia-the-community has produced an elite of ‘regulars’, whose influence over Wikipedia-the-resource derives from their standing in the community rather than from any kind of claim to expertise. I agree with Aaron that this is an unhealthy situation, but I think Larry was right as well. The artificial elitism of the Wikipedia community doesn’t only marginalise the ‘masses’ who contribute most of the original content; it also sidelines the subject-area experts who, within certain limited domains, have a genuine claim to be regarded as an elite.

I don’t know if the Citizendium is going to address these problems in practice; I don’t know if the Citizendium is going anywhere full stop. But I think Larry Sanger is asking the right questions. It’s increasingly clear that Wikipedia isn’t just facing in two directions at once, it’s actually two different things – and what’s good for Wikipedia-the-community isn’t necessarily good for Wikipedia-the-resource.



  1. Rob Jubb
    Posted 18 September 2006 at 22:00 | Permalink | Reply

    Predictably, I pretty much agree with you about this. I managed to fairly successfully assert my will over the page on Rawls’ Theory of Justice around last Christmas, although odds and ends of it have gone wrong again, but I got into this ridiculous spat over the Bernard Williams page fairly recently. On ‘Truth and Truthfulness’, it had a quote from a Guardian review which made it sound like a lengthy attack on those shifty continentals and their politically correct relativist nihilist undermining of our sacred bodily fluids. Someone else had already pointed out that this wasn’t particularly accurate, but when I removed said quote, and replaced it with bits from the book’s blurb, saying it was from the book’s blurb, which is freely available on the Princeton University Press, I got told off for removing reliable material and had it reverted. In the end I gave up trying to get it removed, and just outright said it was tripe in the edit. The fetishism of it was bizarre, and, predictably, orchestrated by someone who seems to have set themselves up as a kind of moderator of topics which they have any remotely passing acquaintance, and is cheered on for it by other similarly minded people (who have indeed given them little awards of sorts). Weird.

  2. Phil
    Posted 19 September 2006 at 09:24 | Permalink | Reply

    “But that’s your argument. We want someone else’s argument.” No further questions…

  3. Rob Jubb
    Posted 20 September 2006 at 21:02 | Permalink | Reply

    What’s so frustrating about it, and really antithetical to the idea of Wikipedia as well, is that if you’re only allowed to say things when they’re parroted from some pre-designated acceptable source, the whole wisdom of crowds breaks down anyway: all the crowd can do is repeat what whichever muppet the Guardian hired said.

  4. Simon
    Posted 20 September 2006 at 23:15 | Permalink | Reply

    The fetishism of it was bizarre, and, predictably, orchestrated by someone who seems to have set themselves up as a kind of moderator of topics which they have any remotely passing acquaintance, and is cheered on for it by other similarly minded people (who have indeed given them little awards of sorts). Weird.

    I’ve faced a similar struggle in trying to amend the Nick Cohen article to give some sense of his pre-Iraq political views and, indeed, his views on domestic policy (insofar as they are coherent). The soi-disant ‘moderator’ is, I think, American, and clearly has little interest in Cohen’s views except where they coincide with his/her own political interests.

  5. John
    Posted 4 October 2006 at 12:12 | Permalink | Reply

    Yes, but . . .

    these self-appointed experts, eh?


  6. Phil
    Posted 4 October 2006 at 13:01 | Permalink | Reply

    John – blimey. Not sure about the ‘but’ – you seem to be violently agreeing with me.

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