Friday, December 29, 2006

Wikifiddling while the 'pedia burns

Wikipedia. Looked at from one angle, a wonderfully ambitious project to create a free information resource. Looked at from another, a big bulging bag of bullshit, perpetually being polished by the dumber monkeys in the zoo.

Occasionally, to pass the time, I'll do some work on Wikipedia. (Quiet at the back, that naughty child who claims I am there just to wind up insufferable pricks. I have written tons of articles and made an enormous contribution, much greater than most of the people who have wasted their time trying to insult me by calling me a troll.) I tend to the big bulging bag of bullshit school of thought, because a great vision -- a tremendous resource, created communally, that could be shared free with the whole world -- has been soured by its being created largely by people you wouldn't have round for tea and a collection of numbnuts whose aim is to write "dick" in places people can't find. The former think the latter are the problem, and do not see their own part in Wikipedia's downfall. (Many don't think it is downfallen, but I think this is more a product of their having personally invested a great deal in the project than in any objective view of its achievements. Wikipedia's biggest problem is that its articles are largely shit. Some think the problem is that there are too many; others that there are too few. But the truth is, quality lacks. And time is not improving it, as the Wikinerds hope. Why not? Well, the idea is that an original article is written by some clown and then a bunch of clever sods turns up and fixes it. The problem is, the fixers are as clownish as the original guy. Sadly, the ambience scares off most nonclowns. Sometimes I amuse myself by talking reasonably -- my favourite kind of trolling -- at the clowns but that just serves to enrage them. They much prefer unreason.)

Anyway, I'm posting a few of the things I have written about Wikipedia (because I can't be arsed writing fresh posts and I was looking through the site these appeared on and thought they might amuse, well, me, but maybe someone like Sal too. You can read others if you want to by looking through the history of my user page.

Notability is the primary reason Wikipedians use to delete and destroy content. You'll often see deletion "discussions" begun by a poster who writes "NN, D". This bare statement means "Not notable, delete". Yes, there are nerds sad enough to think talking like this is cool.

What does "notable" mean? Well, clearly it means different things to different people. The entire field of manga is not notable for me. All I know about manga is that there once was a cartoon with the words "neon" and "evangelion" in it. I can't even remember the rest of the title. And I know it's Japanese. That's it. So far as I'm concerned, manga is not notable. A world without manga would be no poorer from my POV.

So let's delete manga, right?

Wait a minute! Some sorry geeks think manga is the only thing worth living for. For them, there can never be too much manga. If there were a million articles on everything else in this world and a million on manga, they'd consider the encyclopaedia to have too much worldcruft and not enough stuff on evangelions.
Some of the geeks like to rely on google for their research. I know nothing about Bulgarian weightlifters, says geek. So he googles Enoch Abolokov. "Only 70 hits," cries geek, "NN, D."

People who spend too much time on the interwebnet fall foul of a fallacy that we might call W=W. They believe the Web covers the same territory as the World, that it maps onto it. So if the Web isn't talking about you, you don't exist. People google their own names and when they turn up only a couple of hits, they assume that they have no importance. But here's the thing. You might live in a town of 10,000 people. Say you are a teacher at the town's high school. Each of those 10,000 people might know you, respect you, love you even. To them, you are highly notable, a person who would be missed were you to disappear. Yet your name garners only a couple of google hits. No one ever talks about you online. Most people in your town have lives that don't permit setting up websites to talk about people on. Some other guy might write a blog (or draw mangas). He never goes outside his bedroom, so no one who lives in his suburb knows who he is. No one except his mother loves him and she has her moments of doubt. The blogger or manga artist has a small following of, say, 5000 people. But those 5000 people are mostly youngsters with no attachments (and perhaps no jobs), who can spend a lot of time online. They spend some of that time in forums discussing manga or in the comment sections of blogs. This person has 3000 google hits.

Which is more notable? How are we judging it? One has been noted by more people, the other by fewer people who make more noise about it. One has been noted on a limited geographical scale but has a huge impact on that scale, the other on a broader scale (although in points, it should be noted) but with much less impact. (Who'd miss a minor manga artist or a blogger?)

The question that rarely gets answered is "why care if things you don't think are 'notable' are covered in the encyclopaedia?" or, more concisely, "what's it to you?" The answer is often couched in terms of quality: an encyclopaedia with more "cruft" is of lower quality. The discussion goes right to the heart of what Wikipedia is for. For some, it is aiming at the lofty heights of being a work that contains "the sum of all human knowledge". For others, it is aiming at being a decent encyclopaedia written by nerds. (Others, of course, don't care. They're only there for the powertripping and fighting.) Because the former is actually the stated aim of Wikipedia, the "pro-quality" nerds end up arguing that minor manga characters are not part of "all human knowledge". There is probably an interesting discussion to be had on what actually is part of human knowledge, but you won't have it on Wikipedia. Those who adhere to the "quality" perspective think "all human knowledge" includes only what they themselves would be interested in knowing and only grudgingly allow things they find exotic to remain in their encyclopaedia.

The "minority view"
One of the major problems with NPOV is that on the face of it, it would allow all voices to be heard. Wikipedia cannot have that because it would destroy its rationalist, Americocentric, Western liberal orthodox bias. In particular, it would mean that science articles would have to consider all points of view fairly. Luckily, the policy demands that minority views are "fairly represented". It's only a hop, skip and jump from "fairly represented" to "derided".

This isn't a terrible outcome. Scientific articles would be impossible to read, and nearly useless, if they actually did give airtime to every point of view neutrally and fairly. A scientific point of view (SPOV; a POV that takes the Western scientific method as its gold standard, and heavily weights science's output, in the form of peer-reviewed material, as sources) is not a bad idea for science. For pseudoscience, it's a poor choice. The articles on pseudoscience are not written sympathetically, but are heavily biased to the SPOV.

NPOV's outcome is all too often unwieldy, unreadable articles in which viewpoints war and find an unsteady balance. If a leftist politician has an achievement that you might want to note, a rightist editor will find a way of downplaying it; if that same politician has done something evil, the leftist editor will find a way of making it sound no worse than cuddling kittens. Editors will dispute even well-known facts, if their inclusion will tip the balance of the article.

In many controversial areas, the outcome is an article that pleases no one, which no one would have written. But try rewriting one!

Adminship is an important position on Wikipedia. Admins are empowered editors. To become an admin, an editor needs to meet a range of criteria that fluctuate from time to time, set by the relatively few active users who frequent the Request for Administration page.

Ordinary editors are relatively powerless. They can change the content of articles but they cannot prevent others from changing that content to bullshit; they can be frozen out of editing by article protection; and they can see their work simply disappear when someone deletes it.

On becoming an admin, an editor suddenly acquires a range of powers that allow them to damage the encyclopaedia quite badly: in particular, they can delete content permanently, and if they are determined enough, can keep the content deleted. They are also empowered with tools to block other editors from editing, with little or no oversight and with criteria for doing so that vary from case to case, admin to admin.
All they have to do to gain these powers is to pass what is effectively a beauty contest. There's no way of removing the powers if they abuse them; an outcome of two things: the assumption that admin actions are de facto correct because admins are trusted (even though many, because of their actions, are not); and that the power structure involves power devolved from one source -- top down -- and not derived from the bottom up. If admins were like MPs or congresspeople, would they risk pissing off people by doing destructive or unilateral actions? It doesn't help either that the functions of policing the wiki -- which you could consider executing the policies -- setting the policies and administering justice are not only not separated but reside in precisely the same people.

Legal action
Legal action is what keeps Jimbo Wales awake at night (that and Wikipedophilia). But it must be carefully distinguished from legal threats.

Legal action is what you ring up Jimbo and threaten if you don't like what Wikipedia says about you. Don't worry about whether it's true; he'll cut your article down to the bone at the mere hint of a lawsuit.

Legal threats are something else altogether. Occasionally, a sensitive editor, battered by the robust play that some editors indulge in, or stymied by incomprehensible policies that someone wrote on a page somewhere but didn't bring to anyone's attention, will take offence at something defamatory, and suggest that they might be consulting their lawyers over it. It's a silly thing to say and in the real world, you'd invite the sensitive person to cool down a bit.

Not on the wiki though. When you hurt someone's feelings on Wikipedia, it's important to stick the knife in. If someone issues a "legal threat", and you're an admin, block them. If you're feeling in need of self-esteem, block the poor sod indefinitely.

WP:V. The criterion for inclusion in Wikipedia is, this policy boldly states, verifiability not truth. However, the criterion for not losing a libel case is truth not verifiability. Hilarity ensues.

POV. A disease everyone else has but you'll never catch. "That's POV" is Wikinerd code for "I don't agree with that."


At 2:56 am, Blogger Don said...

I use Wiki for quick lookups on technology, modern music and actors. Never do I require accuracy. I just want a first approximation. It's good for that, because it's usually timely.

I edited one article: added a porn star to my high school's list of amumni. No, I was serious. We've emailed. She's very friendly.

Anyway, it sucks, doesn't it, how many good ideas get mucked up by the participation of too many people. Democracy, for example. :)

I like your Wiki username.


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