The death of Wikipedia

This is part one of a two-part post. Part two, “Now let’s bury the myth,” is here.

Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that “anyone can edit,” was a nice experiment in the “democratization” of publishing, but it didn’t quite work out. Wikipedia is dead. It died the way the pure products of idealism always do, slowly and quietly and largely in secret, through the corrosive process of compromise.

There was a time when, indeed, pretty much anyone could edit pretty much anything on Wikipedia. But, as eWeek’s Steven Vaughan-Nichols recently observed, “Wikipedia hasn’t been a real ‘wiki’ where anyone can write and edit for quite a while now.” A few months ago, in the wake of controversies about the quality and reliability of the free encyclopedia’s content, the Wikipedian powers-that-be – its “administrators” – abandoned the work’s founding ideal of being the “ULTIMATE ‘open’ format” and tightened the restrictions on editing. In addition to banning some contributors from the site, the administrators adopted an “official policy” of what they called, in good Orwellian fashion, “semi-protection” to prevent “vandals” (also known as people) from messing with their open encyclopedia. Here’s how they explained the policy:

Semi-protection of a page prevents unregistered editors and editors with very new accounts from editing that page. “Very new” is currently defined as four days. A page can be temporarily semi-protected by an administrator in response to vandalism, or to stop banned users with dynamic IPs from editing pages.

Semi-protection should normally not be used as a purely pre-emptive measure against the threat or probability of vandalism before any such vandalism occurs, such as when certain pages suddenly become high profile due to current events or being linked from a high-traffic website. In the case of one or two static IP vandals hitting a page, blocking the vandals may be a better option than semi-protection. It is also not an appropriate solution to regular content disputes since it may restrict some editors and not others. However, certain pages with a history of vandalism and other problems may be semi-protected on a pre-emptive, continuous basis.

Ideals always expire in clotted, bureaucratic prose. It distances the killer from the killing.

The end came last Friday. That’s when Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, proposed “that we eliminate the requirement that semi-protected articles have to announce themselves as such to the general public.” The “general public,” you see, is now an entity separate and distinct from those who actually control the creation of Wikipedia. As Vaughan-Nichols says, “And the difference between Wikipedia and a conventionally edited publication is what exactly?”

Given that Wikipedia has been, and continues to be, the poster child for the brave new world of democratic, “citizen” media, where quality naturally “emerges” from the myriad contributions of a crowd, it’s worth quoting Wales’s epitaph for Wikipedia at length:

Semi-protection seems to be a great success in many cases. I think that it should be extended, but carefully, in a couple of key ways.

1. It seems that some very high profile articles like [[George W. Bush]] are destined to be semi-protected all the time or nearly all the time. I support continued occassional experimention by anyone who wants to take the responsibility of guarding it, but it seems likely to me that we will keep such articles semi-protected almost continuously. If that is true, then the template at the time is misleading and scary and distracting to readers. I propose that we eliminate the requirement that semi-protected articles have to announce themselves as such to the general public. They can be categorized as necessary, of course, so that editors who take an interest in making sure things are not excessively semi-protected can do so, but there seems to me to be little benefit in announcing it to the entire world in such a confusing fashion.

2. A great many minor bios of slightly well known but controversial individuals are subject to POV [point-of-view] pushing trolling, including vandalism, and it seems likely that in such cases, not enough people have these on their personal watchlists to police them as well as we would like. Semi-protection would at least eliminate the drive-by nonsense that we see so often.

The basic concept here is that semi-protection has proven to be a valuable tool, with very broad community support, which gives good editors more time to deal with serious issues because there is less random vandalism. Because the threshold to editing is still quite low for anyone who seriously wants to join the dialogue in an adult, NPOV [neutral point of view], responsible manner, I do not find any reason to hold back on some extended use of it.

Where once we had a commitment to open democracy, we now have a commitment to “making sure things are not excessively semi-protected.” Where once we had a commune, we now have a gated community, “policed” by “good editors.” So let’s pause and shed a tear for the old Wikipedia, the true Wikipedia. Rest in peace, dear child. You are now beyond the reach of vandals.

CORRECTION: Jimmy Wales informs me that in fact there was never a time when “anyone could edit anything on Wikipedia,” as I originally wrote. “There have always been restrictions on editing,” he says. I guess I made the mistake, as others may have as well, of taking literally Wikipedia’s slogan that it is “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” I apologize for my error. I have revised two sentences in the second paragraph to correct it.

95 thoughts on “The death of Wikipedia

  1. ElectricRay

    It’s a big mistake to think that Wikipedia’s success as an internet phenomenon has anything to do with the specific intentions of either (a) the people who own or “admininstrate” it, or (b) the people who edit it. Wikipedia, like the rest of the internet, is an ecological system. It will thrive as long as internet users find a use for it, whether that be as a conventional encyclopaedia, a place to post and publicise their own outrageous, conspiracy theory laden philosophies on life in the guise of real established knowledge, or a glorified chat room and online social community for geeks. In practice, Wikipedia fulfils all these functions (and many more) and Jimmy Wales, his stooges, or the good common borgeousie editors’ aspirations on the subject don’t matter a damn.

    The real effect of page protection, semi page protection, or whatever, can’t be independently parsed and identified. Their effect on Wikipedia’s success can only ever be a theory.

    Postmodern, hey?

  2. ableape

    There has been a tremendous amount of content developed by the public for Wikipedia for free.

    If they do eventually mutate into a normal publication with editorial controls, etc… Then what of all the poor saps who gave their intellectual contributions for nothing? Or worse, they were working on their Wikipedia contributions while at work (on someone else’s dime)? Having an article on Wikipedia would then be just a booby prize?

    This article does raise some interesting points.

    Able Ape

  3. Scott Grayban

    Anyone can edit wikipedia….. as long as you game the game.. If you don’t you are banned/blocked.

    If you make any mention that you will go after anyone for slandering you, you get a ban. No defense, no jury and the ofensive comments usually stay.

    Jimmy is right, its not a democracy its a dictatorship ruled by admin with multiple mentality.

    Multiple Mentality:

    There are two sides to every issue — black and white — but there’s an awful lot of gray in between.

  4. Giusepepe

    As a user of Wiki I am pretty well aware of its mani weakness – bad contents, and its worst specie, vandalised contents. Also, as a user, it is easy to know that the semi-protection policy doesn’t quiet change a damn thing about the thing : it improves on the contrary the quality of contents.

    About the idealism issue, your comment is pretty cynical, and there is no other media other than Wiki, as far as I know, where such an extensive range of knowledge is easily accessible for free. Especially after the 90’s, where most publishing groups went through the fusion-acquisition process.

    There is the same difference between sarcasm and irony than between a sigh and a burp : your sarcastic tone towards Wikipedia let me think that you felt personnaly threatened by the very idea people may write for free. It is a common trend among many journalists.

    Time to move on, dude !

  5. kochikvp

    That was a provocative piece and sure enough, it has provoked lots of heated comment. Let me share my view: I would have been the first skeptic to scoff at the notion of an encyclopedia – which by definition is supposed to be the epitome of accuracy, authority, and accountability – that was created in such an apparently loose, disorganized and open manner, allowing anyone with an internet connection to update it. However, amazing as it may seem, we must accept that the Wikipedia has come to be a truly reliable and authoritative source of knowledge – anyone who goes thru it in any degree of detail will be able to attest to that.

    Thus, proclamations of its death, if any, must be done based on establishing that it no longer serves the purpose of providing a reliable reference source, or at least that it has abandoned the spirit of what constitutes a ‘wiki’. Proclaiming its death based on a change in the administrative procedure that makes it somewhat less ‘open’ is, apart from being unnecessarily alarmist, completely unjustified, given that it continues to be as reliable as ever, and continues to be a wiki in spirit.

    IN addition, the change in administrative procedure is not surprising or unfamiliar to anyone who has created such a repository that depends on submissions from a large number of contributors: in the initial stages, the focus is on getting a large volume of content, and so you allow a very high degree of openness. As the volume of content builds up, the focus steadily shifts toward quality, and so you tighten the contribution mechanism. And that is what seems to be happening at the greatest Wiki of

    ’em all.

  6. Maggie

    There are many articles on Wikikpedia that are guarded with dobermans and automatic weapons. One of them is the Democratic Party (United States). Another is the Socialism article. The ones that are generally gurarded are the ones that spit out propaganda for the extreme left and right wings of the dominating countries of the world. The socialistic and communistic left are the ones mainly calling the shots on Wikipdedia. AmeriKKKa lovers are also protected as long as they are pro-fascist Republicans.

  7. Andrew Morrow

    Well, I do not know if Wikipedia is dead, but I am afraid that the career Foundation’s uber-inclusionist and co-founder, Angela Beasley ia on the wane. She resigned . It seems that she goes the way of Larry Sanger.

    Quote: The only trustee to oppose the resolution to hire an interim executive director, she did indicate some concern about deterioration in “the collaborative consensus-based nature Wikimedia had before the start of this year”.

    That interim executive director would be Brad Patrick . Here is Jimbo’s version of that story. No hard feelings, I am sure.

    Hey, Daniel Brandt is keeping this nice list of Jimbo’s other buddies.

    • Danny Wool is the the wielder of the WP:OFFICE template, which black holes any page related to ongoing contacts that the Foundation has with the, shall we say, “litigation community.”
    • Michael Davis is, well, I reserve judgement on him. He was convicted of some securities fraud crime in March 28 2006 Dowling v. Chicago Options Associates, Inc. . Jimbo was working for him then, making his millions. I am sure that he is a swell guy.
    • Gil Penchina – He’s new and I do not know much about him yet. here is some info about him.

    They look like a bunch of cuddly, fun-loving 40-year-old well-off white American guys on Jimbo’s payroll and leading us into a bright and shining future… with their permission, of course. Oh, and do not forget the transvestite plagiarist, David Gerard! He can always liven up an otherwise dull yet productive “collaboration.” He seems to be able to shove the Scientology (either side) mentality into almost any disucssion. Sweet! Cone on, Nick. Wikipedia is not dead. I expect it to continue to be rather, uh, lively, if nothing else.

  8. Andrew Morrow

    Hey! Wikipedia made the news again! Congrats, Jimbo!

    Ken Lay’s death prompts confusion on Wikipedia

    At 10:06 a.m., Wikipedia’s entry for Lay said he died “of an apparent suicide.”

    Uh huh. Nunh-huh.

    My analysis: Wikipedia is still in its “Scooby Doo” phase. They sexy young teenagers and 20-somethings, week after week, send the middle-ages and evil person off to prison and perdition and likely suicide. Only, Jimbo, this is real life. Come Jimmy, Wikipedia still has a fighting chance it you drop the paranoia about the “evil, banned users” and get serious about producing that encyclopedia that will actually benefit that child in Africa.

    My recommendations:

    • Dump your teen-aged admins. Period. Sure, let them contribute. Adults-only, please.
    • Divest yourself of all fiction and Entertainment content. Just dump it all off at Wikia and ban it from Wikipedia. That will get rid of a lot of TV-obsessed troublemakers right there. That means no more Main Page articles about science fiction. Darn.
    • Drop the slogan the “anybody can edit” Wikipedia.
    • Just dump all your admins who are just nibblers and who express an us/them mentality with the rest of the world. Divest them of their admins bits, demand that they produce quality content or just get out.
    • Make a hard and fast rule: after one year, 12 months, 365 days, all information about those awful, banned users is completely expunged and forgotten. (I know it will be tough to drop old hatreds, Jimmy, but you are big boy now.
    • Set up some journalistic standards rather than this mindless, soulless NPOV concept.
    • Grow up and get serious “Featured Article” quality material.
    • See if you can get a few more Americans to cover these American stories and tell the Brits and Britain’s other former colonies to mostly just stick to their own countries (I hope you enjoyed your 4th of July weekend, which, of course, none of those other countries celebrate).

    Yeah, it will not be as exciting as an episode of Scooby Doo, but it might give you a fighting chance against Baidupedia (which already has a quarter of a million artilces and seems destined to surpass your article count early next year – except that their articles are not crapppy because they REVIEW their articles before publishing them).

    Jimbo: Until you get serious about your online content and stress productivity of FA-quality articles over your junky collection of one million articles, you are going to be thought of as “the encyclopedia written by teen-agers” and, probably, continue to be the laughing stock of the news-reporting world.

  9. Andrew Morrow

    Having slept on this Ken Lay debacle, I have reconsidered the nature of the problem. The problem is Jimbo. He says that Wikipedia is not a newspaper but he has that “In the news” section on Wikipedia’s Main Page. Jimbo: That is why the Washington Post takes you to task. The problem is you, Jimbo:

    • You got your admins in a Fort Apache mentality with your Recent change patrol , drunk on power to “save the world” by sitting there and moment-to-moment obsessing on changes and knee-jerk reactions to anything they do not like. I find the pride that the people who say that vandalism is reverted within a minute or two sickening: what a waste of human potential. Your volunteers should be creating new content rather than wasting their time acting as the world Thought Police.
    • You got admins going through all kinds of drama going after banned users (most of whom amount are long-gone and amount to little more than imaginary ghoats now – but you keep on chasing them).
    • You keep on ranting about your pie-in-the-sky “Community” that is going to save the world. Just gather around yourself volunteers who can create Featured-Article quality material. If they occasionally get into a spat, then, tell ’em to work it out and then come back the next day and forget about yesterday’s emotional crap.

    Jimbo: all you have is Scooby Doo all over again. Jimbo: Slow it down. Put up a simple rule, say, three days. No information goes into the encyclopedia until it is three days old. If Ken Lay’s biography does not get updated with his death date until it is three days old and that upsets some of these children who were weaning on the glass teat of the Internet – with its instant gratification – then, tough. Shove ’em on over to Wikinews and tell them stay there. If they break the three-day rule, then block them from the encyclopedia for three days from the encyclopedia until they learn how to take their time about making changes. You have far too many people involved (even as admins) who do not even have the attention span of a television commerical. Some of your worst admins have the patience of a little girl: just gimme, gimme, gimme and let me hog the Wikipedia stage all for myself.

  10. Andrew Morrow

    Angela Beesley has chosen to have her own biography at Wikipedia removed. Well, good for her! There is a nice new video of her that we can all now enjoy.

    BTW: Her birthday is one day before the start of Wikimania. She will be 29 years old. Jimbo will be 40 years old “on or about” the last day of Wikimania 2006, right there on the campus of Harvard. But neighter will willingly acknowledge their Date of Birth when queried. What utter hypocrisy! Wikipedia maintained the biographies 100,000 living persons, birthdays and all and their executive leadership will neither allow their birthdays to be published, nor with they provide this information upon request. They have already blocked the biographies of their new executive director, Brad Patrick, and removed a biography of Michael E. Davis, Jimbo’s old boss at Chicago Options Associates (an article that Jimbo’s agents have also removed).

    That is why they are still not yet elevated above the quality of American daytime TV: Oprah, Jerry Springer and games shows. That is partially why their Alexa traffic ranking has plateaued and has been level flat for the past six months.

    It has also become clear that Kira Wales, Jimbo’s duaghter, having been born on December 26, 2000

    and the real inventor of Wikipedia, Larry Sanger, who independently concieved and publicly declared his idea on January 10, 2001 are related. Jimbo could have had undisputed priority in the matter, but he failed to publish in a timely fashion. Jeremy Rosenfeld TOLD Jimbo this same idea just before Christmas in secret but Jimbo was tied up with his daughter’s birth (and rightly so). Jimbo installed some wiki software on some machine in mid-January and left it to Sanger to build the encyclopedia. Sanger invented the term “Wikipedia”. And now Jimbo calls the idea of Sanger being “co-founder” of Wikipedia “preposterous”. Note: Jimbo is the sole founder of the Wikimedia Foundation, but Wikipedia and Wikimedia are two very different things. Jimbo would like also to be the sole founder of Wikipedia, but he is not and, much worse, cannot be brought to admin that. Preposterous.

    Go read Jimbo’s Wikipedia biography right now and see if you can figure that out based on the text as presented. Obfuscation to the max. Jimbo was raised as a mama’s boy, where regular English words simply did not apply to him. It is about time that he grew up. He realy should see a shrink and just talk about his childhood. Then he will see what we see and he will fix it. He will stop doing things like telling us that his net worth is between zero and one million dollars. (He put like, a half-mill into the Foundation , so now I know that he really cares about it). Brad must have had close to a heart attack when he realized that Jimbo had blurted this out. Look at Jimbo quibble on the talk page about if his father is retired or not. Unless he wants to make the arguement that the fact that his father was a grocery effected Jimbo’s mind in someway, then guess way: mention of your father should just get axed entirely from your biography. Your mother and grandmother have to stay because they let you read that World Book encyclopedia all day long as they did the equivalent of home-schooling you. Your feelings about Ayn Rand and David Kelley matter, a lot. Because it causes you to resort to weirdo vocabulary rather than plain English, because, you mama’s boy, you are so special that good pre-existing English words simply do not apply to you. You are so special. There are many fine shrinks in St. Petersburg. You are not at all crazy: you just have some bad habits. Jimmy: fix it.

  11. Andrew Morrow

    Oh, and one other thing: Get yourself a parttime MBA into your organization. Their only job should be to document your current organization clearly and concisely. The focus should be on people. The paid people and the important volunteers. The staff, the press contacts, anybody with elevated authority and I do not just mean all your sysops. Make your organization transparent and accountable. I do not just mean your MySQL database. I mean YOUR PEOPLE. that is what your organziation is made of and your have let your Mommy’s concern about privacy cause you do make your organization “shadowy”. Stop that. Just be a regular, old American non-profit org like the rest of them and a lot of your current problems with just start to take care of themselves because you will have something new and novel in your org: accountability.

  12. Andrew Morrow

    Here, so I do not have to take any flak about this, right on his Wikipedia biography talk page he plays cat-and-mouse about it. He has the birthdays of tens of thousands of living people on his web site displayed publicly as fact. But can this guy state his own. No. He does not have permission from his Mommy to do so. But he did say this:

    I do not have millions of dollars. I do not even have one million dollars.–Jimbo Wales 16:27, 11 July 2006 (UTC)

    And here is his pathetic excuse for a refutation about his DOB:

    My date of birth is not August 8, 1966. –Jimbo Wales 16:25, 11 July 2006 (UTC)

    OK, Jimmy. Now that we know that you are an idiot for not telling us what is true (your DOB) as opposed to what is not true, you pathetic squirmer, what are we going to have to do to get it out of you?!? Go to your location of birth and look it up in vital records?!? Spit it buddy. NNDB sez Born: 8-Aug-1966 Birthplace: Huntsville, AL

    Now, little Jimmy, tell the nice man here what your DOB is, like a nice little boy.

  13. Andrew Morrow

    Jimmy, I am not sure that I trust you anymore. Please scan your drivers license or birth certificate into a computer image and post that. I know that you are not crazy enough to post a forgery. You may obscure the license number if you wish. And Jimmy: I really like you, but if I do not trust you at this moment, who what other responsible person on God’s green Earth is going to? Oh sure, you got morons on your web site who work for you for free because you feed them their addiction for a small percent cut in the Alexa traffic ranking and they have a “This user trusts Jimbo” box on their userpage. But to a candid world, that does not count.

  14. Andrew Morrow

    Now, I have to retract myself, which is a waste of everybody’s time (as Wikipedia is become more and more of). This petulent man-child,

    Tony Sidaway eternal contrarian and naysayer, yanked Angela’s bio pre-emptively, with the pathetic excuse

    18:32, 14 July 2006 Tony Sidaway (Talk | contribs) deleted “Angela Beesley” (We don’t need this page. Subject doesn’t want it.)

    But ya see, Tony baby, that did not work for Daniel Brandt, now, did it? Not even after NINE AfD’s. Because some admin-punk always said to themselves “Oh! I can vex and bother this adult by keeping the info on him up! To hell with what he wants! Keep his biography, just out of spite!

    If you want to get to know Tony better, he often hides behind a female name,

    Daniel sez it is “Sherilyn Sidaway” and Wikitruth has a whole page on him .

    I am doing this to you, Tony, because you made me waste my time. Now shape up.

  15. Steely gal

    Its better to semi protect the website than have unreliable content. If the content cannot be trusted, it defeats the very purpose of an encyclopaedia. What the owners did was right and unavoidable. True its no longer free speech, but people couldnt be allowed to misuse their freedom.

  16. John_A

    Wikipedia is not a democratic experiment, it’s an expression of the political philosophy of anarchism, with its notion of collective leadership and the “wisdom of crowds”.

    Anyone who has spent any time at all studying history, especially in the 20th Century, knows that the “wisdom of crowds” does not exist.

    Wikipedia is not going away, but I have a much better idea for a free-to-use, general reference on-line encyclopedia. Anyone interested?

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