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March 29, 2009

Today's Sunday Times features an interesting essay on Wikipedia by Noam Cohen, Rough Type's Journalist of the Week (my last post was inspired by his article on ghosttwittering). Cohen draws an elaborate parallel between Wikipedia and a city:

With its millions of visitors and hundreds of thousands of volunteers, its ever-expanding total of articles and languages spoken, Wikipedia may be the closest thing to a metropolis yet seen online ... The search for information resembles a walk through an overbuilt quarter of an ancient capital. You circle around topics on a path that appears to be shifting ... Wikipedia encourages contributors to mimic the basic civility, trust, cultural acceptance and self-organizing qualities familiar to any city dweller. Why don’t people attack each other on the way home? Why do they stay in line at the bank? ... The police may be an obvious answer. But this misses the compact among city dwellers. Since their creation, cities have had to be accepting of strangers — no judgments — and residents learn to be subtly accommodating, outward looking.

It's a nice conceit, and not unilluminating.

But Cohen gets carried away by his metaphor. There's more than a hint of the Potemkin Village in his idealized portrait of Wikipedia:

It is [the site's] sidewalk-like transparency and collective responsibility that makes Wikipedia as accurate as it is. The greater the foot traffic, the safer the neighborhood. Thus, oddly enough, the more popular, even controversial, an article is, the more likely it is to be accurate and free of vandalism.

Except, well, that's not entirely true. One of the main reasons that the most popular and most controversial Wikipedia articles have come to be more "accurate and free of vandalism" than they used to be has nothing to do with "sidewalk-like transparency and collective responsibility." It's the fact that Wikipedia has imposed editorial controls on those articles, restricting who can edit them. Wikipedia has, to play with Cohen's metaphor, erected a lot of police barricades, cordoning off large areas of the site and requiring would-be editors to show their government-issued ID cards before passing through.

If, as a stranger, you visit a relatively unpopular and noncontroversial Wikipedia article - like, say, "Toothpick" - you'll find a welcoming tab at the top that encourages you to "edit this page":


But if you go to a popular and controversial article, you'll almost certainly find that the "edit this page" tab is nowhere to be seen (in its place is an arcane "view source" tab). The welcome mat has been removed and replaced by a barricade. Here, for instance, is the page for "George W. Bush":


And here's the page for "Barack Obama":


And here's the page for "Islam":


And here's the page for "Jimmy Wales":


And here's the page for "Britney Spears":


And here's the page for "Sex":


You get the picture.

All these pages are what Wikipedia calls "protected," which means that only certain users are allowed to edit them. The editing of "semi-protected" pages is restricted to "autoconfirmed users" - that is, users who have formally registered on the site and who "pass certain thresholds for age and editcount" - and the editing of "fully protected" pages is limited to official Wikipedia administrators. (Another set of "page titles" are under "creation protection" to prevent them from being created in the first place.) Many of Wikipedia's most-visited pages are currently under some form of protection, usually semi-protection.

The reason for instituting such controls is, according to Wikipedia, "to prevent vandalism to popular pages." Accuracy, in other words, requires top-down controls as well as bottom-up collective action. So when Cohen declares that "sidewalk-like transparency and collective responsibility" are what "makes Wikipedia as accurate as it is," he's not telling us the whole story. He's giving us the official Chamber of Commerce view.

Now, for the great majority of people who consult Wikipedia, such distinctions don't matter. They're not interested in how the sausage is made. As long as the information is accurate enough and informative enough for their purposes, they're content. But, as Cohen notes toward the end of his article, arguments about how Wikipedia works involve "a true clash of ideas." In Wikipedia and other online communities we see both the possibilities and the limitations of "collective responsibility." And so, when someone raises a Potemkin facade, it's important to peek behind it.

The shame of it is that Cohen's metaphor, and article, would have become even richer had he given us the full story of how order is maintained on the crowded streets of Wiki City.


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