Rise of the wikicrats

It’s over. The Deletionists won.

“It’s like I’m in some netherworld from the movie Brazil, being asked for my Form 27B(stroke)6,” writes the media scholar and long-time Wikipedian Andrew Lih. He’s describing what it’s like these days to contribute to Wikipedia, the “encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Lih recently noticed that Wikipedia lacked an article on Michael Getler, a reporter who now serves as ombudsman for the Public Broadcasting System. Lih added a brief entry – a “stub,” in Wikipedia parlance – assuming that other contributors would flesh it out in due course. Within minutes, though, one of the site’s myriad wikicops had swooped in and marked Lih’s entry as a candidate for “speedy deletion,” citing the site’s increasingly arcane legal code:

It is a very short article providing little or no context (CSD A1), contains no content whatsoever (CSD A3), consists only of links elsewhere (CSD A3) or a rephrasing of the title (CSD A3).

Lih’s reaction: “What the… what manner of… who the… how could any self-respecting Wikipedian imagine this could be deleted? I’ve been an editor since 2003, an admin with over 10,000 edits and I had never been this puzzled by a fellow Wikipedian.” After some more digging, he discovered that the rapid deletion of new articles has become rampant on the site. Deletionism has become Wikipedia’s reigning ethic. Writes Lih:

It’s incredible to me that the community in Wikipedia has come to this, that articles so obviously “keep” just a year ago, are being challenged and locked out. When I was active back on the mailing lists in 2004, I was a well known deletionist. “Wiki isn’t paper, but it isn’t an attic,” I would say. Selectivity matters for a quality encyclopedia.

But it’s a whole different mood in 2007. Today, I’d be labeled a wild eyed inclusionist. I suspect most veteran Wikipedians would be labeled a bleeding heart inclusionist too. How did we raise a new generation of folks who want to wipe out so much, who would shoot first, and not ask questions whatsoever? It’s as if there is a Soup Nazi culture now in Wikipedia. There are throngs of deletion happy users, like grumpy old gatekeepers, tossing out customers and articles if they don’t comply to some new prickly hard-nosed standard.

But, given human nature, is it really so “incredible” that Wikipedia has evolved as it has? Although writers like Yochai Benkler have presented Wikipedia as an example of how widescale, volunteer-based “social production” on the Internet can exist outside hierarchical management structures, the reality is very different. As Wikipedia has grown, it has developed a bureaucracy that is remarkable not only for the intricacies of its hierarchy but for the breadth and complexity of its rules. The reason Deletionism has triumphed so decisively over Inclusionism is pretty simple: It’s because Deletionism provides a path toward ever more elaborate schemes of rule-making – with no end – and that’s the path that people prefer, at least when they become members of a large group. The development of Wikipedia’s organization provides a benign case study in the political malignancy of crowds.

“Gone are the days of grassroots informality,” writes a saddened Lih in another post. “Has the golden age of Wikipedia passed?”

Maybe the time has come for Wikipedia to amend its famous slogan. Maybe it should call itself “the encyclopedia that anyone can edit on the condition that said person meets the requirements laid out in Wikipedia Code 234.56, subsections A34-A58, A65, B7 (codicil 5674), and follows the procedures specified in Wikipedia Statutes 31 – 1007 as well as Secret Wikipedia Scroll SC72 (Wikipedia Decoder Ring required).”

19 thoughts on “Rise of the wikicrats

  1. Kendall Brookfeld

    This shouldn’t be too surprising, since similar things happened with usenet newsgroups, email, and other online forums open to all contributors. A variation of the tragedy of the commons seems to apply.

    The Wikipedia entry for my small company’s software has been subject to some ridiculous political editing, which at first we tried to correct but then just gave up on.

  2. John Evdemon

    Wikipedia is the “encyclopedia that anyone can edit”. It was only a matter of time before things like this began to happen.

  3. Seth Finkelstein

    Hmm, I don’t know if I buy this part: “It’s because Deletionism provides a path toward ever more elaborate schemes of rule-making”

    That seems like a just-so story to me.

    Wouldn’t Inclusionism actually provide a path toward ever more elaborate schemes of rule-making? Because every subject area then has the potential to create its own little fiefdom of acceptable rules, with people begging to get in.

  4. Nick Carr

    I disagree. Rules and laws (and police forces and bureaucracies) exist to control activities, to set limits, to establish what can’t be done, what is not allowed. They’re fundmentally Deletionist. Inclusionism is about resisting rules. Deletionism is about making them. And because there’s always something new that can be deleted, once Deletionism is set in motion and gains momentum, it can go forever, creating ever finer rules.

  5. Romuald

    Out of curiosity, I looked for deletionism on Google and found an article on … Wikipedia.

    Talk bout self-generated content.

    I looked at the rationales for deletionism.

    At first sight these rationales seem reasonable, but when you look deeper you start to note words like: unnoteworthy, obscure subjects, and uninformative. All these are very subjective.

    What’s unnoteworthy for you might be noteworthy for me. What’s unnoteworthy for someone from France, might be noteworthy for someone from South-Africa.

    What’s obscure for you, might not be for me. What’s … you got the idea.

    The point is that when you start putting subjectivity in rules, the results vary depending on who the rule enforcer is. And if the rule enforcer does not have the same culture, affinities, knowledge and tastes, that’s when the problems start.

  6. Gojomo

    The deletionism is depressing. Lots of truthful, useful info is being deleted for ‘not-notability’, etc. — as if there were some strict budget for how many pages Wikipedia can print.

    Plus, such deletions wipe the article history — or at least make it so hidden I can’t find it — so one of the great things about the wiki way, edit context and easily reversible mistakes, has been destroyed for those topics.

    I think Wikipedia will have to schism to keep the dream alive. Perhaps it can go in the direction of ‘Uberfact, a hypothetical expressly factionalized reference work.

    The first fork I’d like to see would actually be an adjunct: a site strictly made up of articles deleted from Wikipedia, with the original histories, able to live on for further edits.

  7. Jim Stogdill

    You know, I wonder if there isn’t one other little bit of human nature at play here. It seems like we just like to create state change in the world around us to sort of prove we are here / self validate. In an environment like wikipedia it’s just a whole helluva lot easier to change state by deleting than it is to create.

  8. dicknasty

    I agree 100% with your post. I added a brand new, in depth article about Opiate withdrawal. This article was a whole page long and took me 4 or 5 hours to get it where I liked it. You know, you have to tidy it up with little additions and subtractions, spelling etc.

    It was concluded by some admin over there (after the article remained on Wikipedia for almost two months) that it was “copyrighted” material and was put up for speedy deletion. Now, I told them that the article was written by me and was taken from MY SITE. So I put it back up and they took it back down again. I will NEVER go back to that site to add anything every again. It’s a bureaucracy, nothing more.

  9. Daniel Lee

    This is a good article with good follow up comments. Trust the process. We grow, we watch, we learn, we adjust and then grow more. Don’t give up.

  10. Bertil

    What happened to Wikipedia so that its main critic weeps over the loss of articles?

    I remember a time when there was so much fuss and red tape that the process to decide whether teh decision to revert an article deletion by a rank 4 admin couldn’t happen until a Counsel for Reversion was set up — the whole process so long no article written after 1998 could have been through before 2010.

    More seriously: Jimbo managed to set up in 10 years an encyclopaedia out of scratch, not the best one so far, but a unique one — and the editorial debates, instead of being behind closed doors, surprise those interested on Virtual Communities.

    The excesses of inclusionists have balanced back after a few months that’s all — and actually, that balance movement is a very interesting insight in understanding the social network within the community: we can infer how much people make decisions based on others, and specifically how they rule against others’ opinion, rather then imitate the majority.

  11. SallyF

    Nick Carr writes: Deletionism is set in motion and gains momentum, it can go forever, creating ever finer rules.

    At Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales has set a tone of competitiveness (which is all about winning) vindictiveness (winning at any cost) and hatred (a typical human-to-human emotion). He has stated often that he is anti-credentialist (his neologism for anti-intellectual and win-at-all-costs) and often cites his refusal to contribute to the Nupedia project is because he (understandably) feels “intimidated” by letting experts review anything he has written within the area of his training (economis). He would rather have amateurs review his writings.

    Purely for the sake of knowledge (or appropriately, a Nixon-like “enemies list”) Wikipedia now has formalized what they proudly call a Community sanction noticeboard where hate-driven admins who have already indefinitely blocked users attempt to have those blocks escalated to bans. From a “due process” and fairness point of view, the process is a lynching by a small number of others within the mob, er… “community”. To escape responsibility during blocking, an admin might say “oh, anybody else can unblock this user” with an implied “if they dare to”. The obvious implication of this approach (inspired by Jimmy himself) is to suggest the process is perfectly fair, that the blocked user did it to themselves and that the admin is “not responsible” for the outcome.

    One of the primary motivations for seeking a ban on an author/editor is the bully-oriented thrill of, after blocking the author, declaring the knowledge of that author’s work on at Wikipedia to forever be forbidden knowledge. Note that bans are retroactive to the block and are ascribed to the anonymous person, not the account. The author’s “books” are burned in the style of the Nazis and, in a sense, their patents are un-patented, hidden from the rest of the World and made illegal. This is no exaggeration. It is spelled out in their oh-so-carefully maintained


    Enforcement by reverting edits: Any edits made in defiance of a ban may be reverted to enforce the ban, regardless of the merits of the edits themselves(…). As the banned user is not authorized to make those edits, there is no need to discuss them prior to reversion. Other users are generally expected to refrain from reinstating any edits made by banned users. Users that nonetheless reinstate such edits take complete responsibility for that content by so doing. It is not possible to revert newly created pages, as there is nothing to revert to. Such pages may be speedily deleted… Jimmy sometimes put it even more simply: “revert on sight”. There is some really admirable, education-and-knownledge-for-all (except people I do not like). Jimmy is just a humble aw-shucks foreign currency trader. To be fair, Jimmy is smart and has worked hard, but he very forgetful about some of those who lent their help to get him to his current success. In a sense, Jimmy is the spider in the web: He owns the web and it only takes a moderate amount of venom from him, amplified by a few thousand 20-something wikicrats, to splash a lot of wanton destruction on those on the periphery of his network.

    All for the sake of Jimmy’s wonderful goal of sharing knowledge. All from the man who fired the real creator of Wikipedia and attempted to take 100% of the credit for the creative process, when, in fact his role was primarily that of “owner”. The only other thing that Jimmy did was to invent needless jargon (like “neutral point of view”) and allow anonymous editing which, logically, resulted in more traffic to the early site. The reason for firing Sanger was the failure of Nupedia (which Jimmy had refused to contribute an article to). To be fair: from a business point of view, it was clear that Jimmy no longer need to pay Sanger to create the foundation policies and initial high-quality articles of Wikipedia. But the reality was: “Thanks for creating Wikipedia. It is experiencing exponential growth! So long, sucker.” Oh well, this kind of thing happens every day in business, like in foreign currency trading. One of the few papers that do not buy into Jimmy’s lie these days is the The Washington Post: Wikipedia co-founder to test quality control idea August 8, 2007. Few others bothers to remember the Truth. Why should they?

    Nobody else bothers to suggest that Jimmy’s firing of Ryan Jordan who poured his life into Jimmy’s web site was unfair. Jimmy’s pathetic excuse that a few edits that Ryan made years ago does not wash: the real reason was that, when Jimmy revealed to the World that Jordan’s “pseudonym” was “not a problem” in Jimmy’s little world because the ends justify the means and, as a corrolary, the Truth does not matter. That firing really demonstrated Jimmy’s idea of an appropriate level of loyalty. Think about it: Jimmy encourages this secret police force, characteristic of dictatorships and totalitarian states, and grabbing credit for the work of others for yourself and then cannot take responsiblity for encouraging Jordan’s behavior. Really, Jordan was not such a bad guy. But if he were a mature person, he would have just contacted the Wikimedia Communications Committee (ComCom) and asked them to send a letter to Stacy Schiff explaining the truth (and he could have left out that he was a college drop-out, which his local newspaper found out only later and told the World) and let Ms. Schiff decide what to do. Either let the matter drop or publish the Foundation’s correction. If Schiff had decided to publish the Foundation’s correction, it would have enhanced the foundation’s reputation. But it is Jimmy’s fault because after Jimmy learned the truth, he did nothing. Why? Because Stacy Schiff’s Pulizter Prize meant zero to Jimmy because it was not his prize. Jimmy made teenager-level-stupid mistakes. But who paid for Jimmy’s mistakes? Ryan Jordan. Jimmy lead him down the primrose path and then said: “Well, you poured two productive years of your life into my project for free! So long, sucker.”

  12. Enroute011

    It is widely acknowledged that Wikipedia is an evolving tool. With that in mind, it is not unreasonable to think that the way the system works and the rules that govern that system will have to evolve as well. Just as the law of our society continues to adapt and develop to meet needs as they become apparent, so could that of Wikipedia. Maybe its time to spend some extra energy on the rules that operate Wikipedia and not just its content. I agree that an entry should be allowed some breathing room so as to be fleshed out by other contributors. Obviously, deleting something before it gets a chance to be enhanced will prevent it from ever getting enhanced. So change the rules. One should not lose sight of Wikipedia’s original goal.

  13. SallyF

    Jimmy Wales, just like Bill Gates, Donald Trump or whomever is about winning. His first career choice was strictly about money and nothing else. Currency trading is only a matter of using your brains to skim money out of the world economy.

    Jimmy Wales is not dumb. He works hard. He wants Wikipedia to be successful. He makes up obfuscating arguments and jargon. He has taken his cue from Larry Sanger and knows he has to market his project carefully: Here, we are polite, thoughtful, smart, geeky people, trying only to do something which is undoubtedly good in the world. But once you investigate him in less convenient web sources, you start to run across quotes that do not jive with that touchy-feely-good image: This is Calvinball — we make up the rules, so we win. Easy. That latter statement is about owndership (in the sense of property) and winning. This funny comic covers the gamut of Jimmy in three panels 1. Thinking up Wikipedia himself (a lie: someone else gave Jimmy the idea, Larry Sanger thought up the name, but it is a comic so maybe there is not enough room for the details…) 2. Jimmy, the personal savior 3. Jimmy groveling about money Roadkill Bill in Wikipedia. Or you can look at the author’s userpage. Ah, it’s art: there several different points of view (What?!? NPOV!) to appreciate it from that are all simultaneously valid. It’s good humor.

  14. john calligan

    Harry Carrs Wikipedia remarks are typical of pundicrats too sure of their own genius to see the forest for the trees. His “IT as a pay-as-you-go” UTILITY will result in a far more pernicious monopolistic version of the very threat he ascribes to WIKIPEDIA. talk about an information oligopoly!

    Anybody out there REALLY want to be stuck renting time on your own computer from AT&T or VERIZON?

    Over educated, well intentioned idiocy!

  15. Aaron Curtis

    This sounds like the “reject first ask questions later” phenomenon that I’ve seen criticized in discussions of the peer-review process in academic research (see http://misq.org/misq/downloads/download/editorial/20/) for an example. I think a lot of this boils down to the fact that deleting or rejecting a submission is frequently easier than improving a “diamond in the rough” especially if you don’t agree at first glance with the new article being submitted. Web 2.0 technologies have made it incredibly easy to author content. Wikis by design make it even easier to delete content. While this is great for responding to vandalism, the same feature seems to foster the deletionist culture described in this post.

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