Now, let’s bury the myth

Now that we have (haven’t we?) come to accept the death of the True Wikipedia – even if the True Wikipedia only ever existed in our fantasies – maybe we can move on to bury, once and for all, the great Wikipedia myth.

The myth begins with the idea of radical openness, the idea that Wikipedia is a creation of the great mass of humanity in all its hairy glory. It’s a myth encapsulated in Wikipedia’s description of itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” As we now know, that’s never been precisely true. According to cofounder Jimmy Wales, there have always been filtering mechanisms to restrict certain people’s ability to edit certain articles. Those mechanisms have been expanded and tightened over time. In Wikipedia’s early days, the encyclopedia asked contributors to maintain a “neutral point of view,” but, as the official history of Wikipedia notes, “There were otherwise few rules initially.” Since then, rules have proliferated, as the encyclopedia has adopted a de facto bureaucratic structure.

But the myth of Wikipedia’s radical openness has continued to flourish, with myriad print and online articles replaying the blanket statement that anyone can edit anything on Wikipedia at any time. Today it’s commonly believed that Wikipedia is truly an encyclopedia that “anyone can edit,” without restriction. Wales himself has helped, perhaps inadvertantly, to promulgate this myth by glossing over Wikipedia’s controls in some of his public comments. In an interview with CIO Insight last June, for instance, he said, “The wiki leaves everything completely open-ended for the users to determine. People don’t have to get permission to do something useful … We let everyone in the general public edit Wikipedia.” If you do a search for “openness” on Google, you’ll find the first result is the Wikipedia entry for the term, an entry that concludes self-referentially: “Wikipedia and its related sites are examples of openness in the web environment.”

Many distinguished commentators have picked up on this theme, further inflating and spreading the myth of “complete openness.” In a 2005 article, MIT’s Technology Review offered a typical description of Wikipedia when it stated that “anyone can publish or edit any article instantly.” Mitch Kapor, one of Wikipedia’s most eloquent advocates, has spoken often, in glowing terms, of Wikipedia’s supposedly unfettered openness. At a talk at Berkeley last November, for example, he said, “Anyone can edit any article at any time. Not only is this approximately true, it is literally true, which is one of the most striking things.” Stewart Brand, in describing a speech by Jimmy Wales on April 14, 2006, praised Wikipedia’s “total openness to participants, especially new ones,” saying that “problems are dealt with completely post facto.” Note the rhetoric here, which is telling: “completely open-ended,” “literally true,” “total openness,” “completely post facto.” And note, too, that none of it is accurate.

I bought into the myth myself, I’m ashamed to say. In composing my requiem for Wikipedia yesterday, I originally wrote, “There was a time when, indeed, anyone could edit anything on Wikipedia.” No, it turns out, there was never such a time. It was a myth from the very start.

But “openness” is only the very tip of the mythical iceberg that Wikipedia has become. The bigger myth is that Wikipedia is an emanation of collective intelligence or, in the popular phrase, the “wisdom of the crowd.” In this view, Wikipedia has a compeletely flat, non-hierarchical structure. It is a purely egalitarian collective without any bureaucracy or even any management. There’s no authority. Here’s how Kapor puts it:

What people assume is someone has to be in charge if it’s going to be any good. And I love talking to people about the Wikipedia who don’t know about it because it helps people find their deep-seated unexamined belief that authority is a necessary component of all working social systems. Having grown up in the Sixties and kind of having problems with authority, I love this because it’s a great counter-example. It’s no longer theoretical. In a conventional sense, nobody is in charge.

This myth made the leap into the very center of the mainstream press a couple of weeks ago when Time magazine named Jimmy Wales one of the “hundred people who shape our world.” The profile of Wales ended with a flight of fancy:

Today Wales is celebrated as a champion of Internet-enabled egalitarianism … Everyone predicted that [Wikipedia's] mob rule would lead to chaos. Instead it has led to what may prove to be the most powerful industrial model of the 21st century: peer production. Wikipedia is proof that it works, and Jimmy Wales is its prophet.

The reason Wikipedia’s “mob rule” did not lead to chaos is because there is no “mob rule” at Wikipedia. Wikipedia has laws, written down in good bureaucratese, and it has a hierarchy of administrators and what Wales calls “good editors” to “police” the site. Here is how Daniel Pink, in a 2003 Wired article, described Wikipedia’s very un-mob-like “power pyramid”:

At the bottom are anonymous contributors, people who make a few edits and are identified only by their IP addresses. On the next level stand Wikipedia’s myriad registered users around the globe … Some of the most dedicated users try to reach the next level – administrator. Wikipedia’s 400 administrators … can delete articles, protect pages, and block IP addresses. Above this group are bureaucrats, who can crown administrators. The most privileged bureaucrats are stewards. And above stewards are developers, 57 superelites who can make direct changes to the Wikipedia software and database. There’s also an arbitration committee that hears disputes and can ban bad users. At the very top, with powers that range far beyond those of any mere Wikipedian mortal, is Wales.

As I’ve said in the past, Wikipedia is an amazing achievement, with considerable strengths and considerable weaknesses. But it has become wrapped in a cloak of myth that many people, for whatever reason, seem intent on perpetuating. Wikipedia is not an egalitarian collective. It is not an example of mob rule. It is not an expression of collective intelligence. It is not an emergent system. What might in fact be most interesting about Wikipedia as an organization is the way it has evolved, as it has pursued its goal of matching the quality of Encyclopedia Britannica, toward a more traditional editorial, and even corporate, structure. We need to bury the Wikipedia myth if we’re to see what Wikipedia is and what it isn’t – and what it portends for the organization and economics of content creation in the years ahead.

22 Comments

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22 Responses to Now, let’s bury the myth

  1. So glad that you’re finally attacking the myth, which deserves to be destroyed. I doubt if anyone who actually edits the Wikipedia sees it as the technotopia the zealots who hype it see it as.

    Here is some proof that critical thinking exists within the Wikipedia, though we should probably do a better job of giving it visibility.

  2. Thank you Nick. I’ve been saying this for years, and have always been shouted down by the true believers, many of whom I admire and respect in other contexts, but for some reason take a leave of their senses when it comes to this topic.

    Wales is the worst of the hypesters. When asked to discuss this rationally, he starts the personal attacks almost immediately. He once accused me of editing my own bio (I haven’t, I think it’s unethical to do so). This was part of a discussion where he claimed they had a really good handle on who was doing the editing.

    As with you, he’s demanded apologies of me. Ridiculous. All I want is the hype to match the reality. There are topics that are mob-edited Nick. We need to know which those are, so we can make sure that other channels develop, and where they already exist, are preserved.

  3. Enkrates

    You can actually go even further with your critique of Wikipedia’s openness. When WP says it is the encyclopedia that “anyone” can edit, surely they’re ignoring the millions/billions of people on earth without internet access. Isn’t it also racist to claim “anyone” can edit Wikipedia when all those millions/billions of people can’t and most of those people are also black/brown and the Wikipedia ruling class is mostly white?

    Aren’t these criticisms as reasonable as yours? Or am I just a tiresome troll? Or, maybe, are you?

  4. Enkrates, I don’t know whether you’re a tiresome troll or not, but I do think you could use a remedial reading class. Nick

  5. As I’ve said before, I wish more attention would be paid to how Wikipedia seems to be a loss-leader for selling businesses on useless fads.

    http://www.americanventuremagazine.com/news.php?newsid=941

    “2006-03-30 10:29:07

    Wikia wins $4 million series A venture capital

    Bessemer Venture Partners, Omidyar Network led round

    ST. PETERSBURG, FL.-Wikia, Inc., formerly known as Wikicities, has raised a $4 million Series A round from Bessemer Venture Partners, Omidyar Network and its angel investors, including Marc Andreessen, Dan Gillmor, Reid Hoffman, Josh Kopelman, Joichi Ito, and Mitch Kapor.

    Wikia is an advertising-supported platform for developing and hosting community-based wikis. Specifically, Wikia enables groups to share information, news, stories, media and opinions that fall outside the scope of an encyclopedia. Jimmy Wales and Angela Beesley launched Wikia in 2004 to provide community-based wikis inspired by the model of Wikipedia–the free, open source encyclopedia founded by Jimmy Wales and operated by the Wikimedia Foundation, where Wales and Beesley serve as board members.”

  6. entheos

    Yet another article where an aimless academic does what his kind does best: splits hairs…yawn. Does Nick Carr matter?

  7. JG

    Split hairs? The rhetoric and ideology and hype used by “wisdom of crowds” folks are more than just hairs.

  8. Tim Swan

    Wow, Nick, I wasn’t aware that you’d been promoted from tech pundit to “aimless academic”. Congratulations.

  9. As someone who has been banned by Mr. Wales, I hope you realize that I am no mindless cheerleader. Of course Wikipedia has corruption, hype, myths and a hierarchical structure. So do nearly all of the constructs of the real world, but we don’t get rid of system until we have something more useful to replace it with. As a useful system adapts to become more despotic, humanity adapts to offset the despotism. Should a system successfully control its constituents, of course it would die, but Wikipedia is far from that. There are an endless number of ways to get your point across at Wikipedia and have it incorporated in an article. Diversion is only one of them. Survival of the fittest is alive and well at Wikipedia and will continue until there is a less brutal method of reaching consensus.

  10. Ron

    My first introduction to the wilder side of the net was lurking on the alt.religion.scientology usenet group in the early 90s. The similarities in content and tone between today’s wikipedians and yesterday’s Scientologists are striking.

  11. Lots of philosophy, organizational theory, sociology snippets; what of Wikipedia’s usefulness? As a simple user – and not as phenomenon dissector – I enjoy being able to find out what a word, or expression, or name, means. It’s a starting point. Isn’t *that* the yardstick by which Wikipedia’s finality can be assessed? Wikipedia is not a sociology or organizational theory laboratory – it’s just something useful. On that plane, I find that it beats the alternatives – bookshelf dictionary, paying online services, answers.com, etc… I mean, come on, what percentage of users do you think are asking themselves existential questions when finding answers and moving on to whatever they were doing before querying Wikipedia?

  12. Anthony Cowley

    I truly hope that the majority of the response to your recent posts isn’t simply reaction to the somewhat inflammatory “dead” remarks. Instead, I think you’ve pointed out something very important that everyone just needs to accept: there is no revolution. Once we’re past that, I think we can begin to appreciate how the simple, arguably elegant mechanics of a wiki can lend themselves to things like a better encyclopedia.

    I like to imagine how things would have gone if Britannica had debuted a new website that made reader contributions possible. Not directly, but under the supervision of a team of editors. I don’t think anyone would have heralded such a development as the dawn of a new age of societal wisdom; no, I think we could have skipped the koolaid and just gotten to the point that it’s another small step in using the web as an efficient communication medium.

  13. If Britannica had done that, it would have been a failure. Mr. Wales may not comprehend everything he’s started, but he understands that people will not work for free. Wikipedia attracts the best editors to the extent that it recognizes control as compensation for responsibility.

    As Fidelis noted, usefulness is the yardstick by which a resource must ultimately be measured. The Wiki engine does not have any tools for measuring usefulness. A hundred times as many readers may have found an older version more useful than the current one, but unless they are willing to subject themselves to the might-makes-right editing environment of Wikipedia, their voice will never be heard. Even with this and other fundamental limitations, Google searches show that Wikipedia is still more useful than any other resource in hundreds of categories. Thus, the Wiki engine succeeded in showing proof of concept, but can definitely be improved upon.

  14. Rob Jones

    Surely Wikipedia is just an example of an open source approach to solving a problem? Commonly, open source projects establish a bureaucracy to control changes to the product; Wikipedia is proving to be no different. It’s just division of labour folks, and there is nothing new in that.

    The hype cast Wikipedia as the new internet utopia, and as Nick has pointed out, it’s not. Humans do not work well in large groups, and the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ is an illusion, just smoke and mirrors. The stupidity of the crowd always wins out in open source projects on the scale of Wikipedia, which mean they all tend toward enforcing a hierarchical structure. It is that or descend into anarchy.

  15. Sentient

    First, it’s “The death of Wikipedia,” and “Wikipedia is dead”; Now, it’s “the death of the True Wikipedia”.

    The foundational message of your article shifts meaning–in good Orwellian fashion–as stealthily as you describe WP’s shift to bureaucracy. I especially love the line where you state: “It (Wikipedia) is not an expression of collective intelligence”.

    What?

    Rhetorical voodoo incantations from disgruntled journalists that reject WP as collective intelligence do not manifest or embody truth–for the same reason one can not will the sky to change color to neon pink.

  16. scalefree

    Wikipedia’s problem isn’t that it has heirarchy. Any community needs to impose structure upon itself as it grows past a certain size. The problem with Wikipedia is the nature of its heirarchy. Wikipedia is a monarchy, with Jimmy Wales in the role of king & his various levels of administrators & editors as a royal class of dukes, knights & lords, all promoted by the monarch & with their authority derived from & answerable only to him. The solution to the problem should be obvious – turn the monarchy into a representative democracy, with the various administrative & editorial roles elected from the population of citizen users. What form of elections would work best in this case, I have no idea. And it’s a solution not without its pitfalls, from deciding how to define citizenship to all the problems that come with politics (which Wikipedia honestly already has, so it’s not as much of a loss as it might be). But if Wikipedia wants to survive & grow, this is the path it’ll have to take.

  17. First; apologies for the formating of this messsage; I do not understand the markup language you use.

    I come here not to bury Wikipedia, but to praise it.

    Having been in the same, small select class as Zephram and Daniel Brandt:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Banned_Wikipedia_users

    and recently joined and then fairly quickly worn out my welcome at Wikipedia Review, I will say that Wikipedia is socially still unstable and that small missteps can leave you mired in conflict. I certainly have made a few posts in frustration that I regret, but these people are obsessed at holding one accountable to posts typed in anger months and years ago. This battle of wills with Wikipedia is tiresome.

    Even very experienced players in the game suddenly have it blow up in their faces as this nice young man “Linuxbeak” discovered the hard way in attempting to rehabilitate two of the people who run Wikipedia Review over the Memorial Day weekend:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Requests_for_comment/Linuxbeak

    They had a tremendous blow-out with highly-enfranchised admins declaring themselves to be victims and going into much displays of withholding their volunteerism to get their way.

    The main conflict seems to break down into three sets of users:

    1. People who “play the game” and follow “the rules” at all costs, thus producing little in terms of new article content but thriving in the beauracracy

    2. Members of various factions (gender, age, religion, politics) who use Wikipedia more as a virtual social club

    3. Some people who still want to build that encyclopedia, but are not willing to spend the time necessary to destroy the power bases of the first two groups

    Members of the first two groups have a very us/them relationship with the rest of the world

    On top of that, having a few users with over, say, 20,000 edits who have vast amounts of power to impose their will makes for a tremendous mess. For these high-edit-count admins, 1,000,000 article is still not large enough for themselves and a few users that are banned and that they hold grudges against.

    The average new user not fairly well versed in all of these nuances can easily be eaten alive as groups one and two, and the myriads of intellectual snobs all vying to compete with each other for authority and to curry Jimbo’s favor.

    If you needed to drive some faculty member (hypothetical, not you, Prof. Carr, of course) from some department, you could either load him up with undesirable undergraduate courses to teach or make him produce results on Wikipedia. Either could be equally frustrating.

    That being said, I was able to produce some results at Wikipedia last year, but this year has been almost pointless for me as Wikipedia’s press spokesman in the U.K., David Gerard and Jimbo himself seem to have declared me to be some kind of latter-day Sauron:

    http://www.nabble.com/Tracking-banned-user-Andrew-Morrow-t1129066.html

    for a impish teasing that I have sometimes done in responsse to these people’s posturing (really, these people are rather thin-skinned about their authority – I do toss in the occasional vulgarity, but not very often).

    Look at this Mr. Gerard’s aquisitiveness:

    “I’m also rolling back every edit from him I see (making the edit again by hand if it’s a good one).”

    and Mr. Wales himself declaring nothing short of a fatwah:

    “Block on sight, revert on sight.”

    And this for the encyclopedia that “anyone can edit”.

    That was a few months ago, and now Mr. Wales’ critics are, by his words, “quite simply, mental cases.”

    http://mail.wikipedia.org/pipermail/wikien-l/2006-May/047776.html

    Oh my! I must have misunderstood something. I thought: “We are here to build an encyclopedia.” Or are they trying to build an online Community? Either that, or an insane assylum.

  18. When the average U.S. citizen actually goes to Wikipedia to partake in the “Wikipedia Experience” and consider contributing, for articles about America on this July 4th like:

    You encounter pictues of padlocks informing you that Wikipedia has already evolved to the big time: it is now a spectator sport, with a bunch of British people doing much of the locking up. OK, OK, there are some Canadians doing that also. And we have the plagiarist David Gerard to thank for this, but he originally from Australia.

    Oh, hey, Nick: Get to know these folks at the Wikimania they will be having in your neck of the woods next month! You might want to bring your wife or girlfriend along: I hear that they do not tend to rough each other up if there are ladies present.

    Let freedom ring. Happy Indepence Day. Enjoy your freedoms and your access to free, quality information while it lasts!

  19. SAM

    Right on, but we should not be as surprised by the mythology as we are. In fact, Wikipedia is a rehashing of the countercultural experience, is a commune rediviva, with communion of the many and leadership of the few.

  20. Kevin Hall

    The herd mentality for intellectual projects is incredibly inefficient – it took more than 55,000 contributors to produce a simple web browser (Firefox). At this rate it will take greater than the sum of the Earth’s population for Wikipedia to be as extensive as Britannica.

  21. As to the person who complained about race earlier: give it up. Do you seriously think that people are concerned about your race? There are several admins who are younger than I (17), which is actually relevant to your editing abilities, yet they are given power because they have proven themselves competent. Why are some pages protected? Because of vandals; when people refuse to play by the rules, more rules must be instituted. It works the same way in government. There is a reason that there are no anarchist countries currently.

    @Kevin:

    See, but WP is broad. What it loses in depth it gains in having subject matter that the EB people have no knowledge of. Does EB have any information on the c64 music community? I doubt it. And updates are much slower.

    @nick:

    I believe you said something about how you cannot create any page. You can, but it will be speedily deleted if it is not encyclopedic content. After all, this is just one of many MediaWiki projects, and it is an encyclopedia. That’s the only reason we delete things.

  22. Lucky1

    Anyone who has tried to participate by editing on Wikipedia and had the hell beat out of them by teenagers who spend their entire waking moments in the Wikiworld can attest to completely ridiculous nature of the beast. Wikipedia is a great idea, but it is a group of teenagers guided by power hungry, and not necessarily the brightest set of minds, which serve as their mentors. Let’s hope that this isn’t the history makers of the new generation…