Wikipedia's Awkward Adolescence

Like a startup maturing into a real business, Wikipedia's corporate culture seems conflicted between its role as a harmless nouveau-digital experiment and its broader ambitions.

Have you ever worked in a company where the lead project managers were mostly brilliant and hardworking—but short on accountability and frequently elusive? Where, after formal business meetings, the insiders met informally to make the real decisions? Where the product inspired a cult-like devotion among many users—but nonetheless left users or customers privately wondering if the product wasn't inspiring more than a little irrational exuberance in a sometimes shoddy, often mysterious product?

If so, then you understand Wikipedia's corporate culture, and you also understand the growing pains of this popular and undeniably useful free encyclopedia.

Wikipedia (which was consulted regularly during the writing of this article) is not a commercial organization. But there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, and like all organizations, Wikipedia needs to eat. In real dollars, Wikipedia is financially lean, at least for a global encyclopedia; the budget statements posted to Wikipedia claim it has a "de facto monthly budget for regular expenses" of about $75,000—a reasonable, even modest sum for the hardware and networking needs of a global encyclopedia with more than 2 million articles that hovers among the top 10 trafficked websites. But if you don't pay people in real money or similar assets to work, then what is the quid pro quo?

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For some participants, virtue is its own reward. "I'm sure that people contribute to Wikipedia for lots of different reasons, some noble and some crass," said Nicholas Carr, author of the forthcoming book, The Big Switch: Our New Digital Destiny. However, Carr added, "The desire for power and prestige is [also] an important motivation, and I think if you took that away you'd lose a lot of Wikipedia's most ardent contributors."

Like a startup maturing into a real business, Wikipedia's corporate culture seems, at times, conflicted between its role as a harmless nouveau-digital experiment and its broader ambitions. The "power and prestige" to which Carr refers results from management practices that were less noticeable when Wikipedia was smaller and its editorial community newer and less formal. However, these practices were noticeable enough that Wikipedia cofounder Larry Sanger departed in 2002, later citing issues with the project's "antielitism." The issues have become more visible since Wikipedia has grown.

Wikipedia claims anyone can edit an entry and, superficially, that is true for most pages (due to edit wars, administrators can now lock pages). Popular culture even identifies Wikipedia's loose access as its primary weakness. Stephen Colbert mocked Wikipedia on The Colbert Report, editing an entry while on live television, and CalTech graduate student Virgil Griffith embarrassed thousands of companies, organizations and individuals with Wikiscan, an interactive website that can "list anonymous Wikipedia edits from interesting organizations," revealing self-serving edits from organizations as diverse as Diebold, Bob Jones University, and the Republican and Democratic parties.

What is not explained is that edits made by those outside the informal circle of leadership may not stick very long. The quieter rumblings about Wikipedia have less to do with vanity edits or poor maintenance of content than they do with the organization's increasingly arbitrary editorial overrides and deletions and rapidly thickening in-group culture.

Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite

In one example, Lawrence Nyveen, writer and journalism professor, says, "When I added information to the Pace Mannion page about the infamous Pace Mannion fan club, and used scans and bibliographical entries of relevant newspaper articles, it was edited out for lack of documentation." Nyveen then provided the citations, but his edits were not restored.

Carr traces the increase in such incidences to a change in focus on Wikipedia from quantity to quality, shifting the balance of power from the inclusionists (who lean toward adding entries) to the deletionists (who lean toward rejecting entries). "As soon as the most dedicated Wikipedians began applying a quality filter to the encyclopedia, they felt the need to begin deleting the more trivial entries, such as the ones about people's pets and imaginary friends. Then, since there is no brake on the system, as you'd find in a traditional editorial organization, deletionism fed on itself."

In defending Wikipedia's edits and deletions, supporters point to Wikipedia's transparency, noting that every Wikipedia entry lists the history and discussion for the entry (such as this one for the Pace Mannion page). True enough—assuming it is sound long-range editorial policy to build an encyclopedia through a battle of wills, with the last edit winning—but deletions are another story. Once a Wikipedia editor deletes a Wikipedia article, the history of that article's edits is gone forever. Even if the article is reinstated, the page author, if challenged, must again laboriously rebuild his case.

Jason Perlow, cofounder of the food site eGullet, maintained a Wikipedia entry about this website for two years, until a Wikipedia editor put it up for deletion. Perlow then "referred to no fewer than twelve major articles from major publications (Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Newsweek, TIME, etc.) and [Wikipedia editors] then turned around and said I was promoting myself." Despite Perlow's protests that eGullet is (like Wikipedia) a not-for-profit organization, Wikipedia editors deleted the article anyway. Perlow, turned off by these "self-important jackasses," says he won't try again.

Chronic disputes like these between Wikipedia editors and contributors have led to the creation of websites devoted to critiquing Wikipedia or even restoring deleted or modified articles to another wiki. The anonymously-run website Wikitruth watches for articles that are vulnerable for deletion, "especially when an article has lived for years and has dozens of edits and a sudden 'information fad' screams across Wikipedia and enough people are snowed across the voting period (about five days) to delete the article," said the respondent to a query to Wikitruth, who would not reveal his or her identity. According to this source, Wikitruth volunteers save articles to the Wikitruth site and then "put them back [on Wikipedia]."

If U Cn Rd Ths...

As Wikipedia ages, its editors increasingly write in a bureaucratic patois thick with internal jargon and acronyms, making it difficult to decipher the rationale for their decisions. The webpage discussing the suitability of Salon as a source for Wikipedia articles tosses around terms such as BLP (Biographies of Living Persons), WP:RS (Wikipedia: Reliable Sources), WP:AGF (Wikipedia: Assume Good Faith), or WP:RfAr—the ominous-sounding "Wikipedia: Requests for Arbitration," also described as "the last step of dispute resolution on Wikipedia."

WP:RfAr turns out to be a misnomer, because articles can go on probation. When this happens, Wikipedia cautions that "[Editors] of such articles should be ESPECIALLY mindful of content policies, such as WP:NPOV, etc. and interaction policies, like WP:CIVIL and WP:NPA" (respectively, Neutral Point of View, Civility, and [Personal] Attacks). Perhaps Carr had this acronym soup in mind when he said, "For the best management analogy to the current model [of management for Wikipedia], you'd probably have to go to Kafka."

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The power to edit has also led some editors to abuse that power through sockpuppetry—assuming a second, clandestine identity—which they then use to support their own point of view on a page. Wikipedia's incidents page lists some sock puppet incidents. The discussions of these incidents tend to devolve into fine-grained disputes on the details, leaving an outsider wondering if the real-world implications of such abuse of power are lost on Wikipedia's administrators.

Sock puppets, spy-versus-spy hijinks, and super-secret-vocabularies may be fine for a short-term experiment in information management; but Wikipedia positions itself not as a free encyclopedia, but the free encyclopedia. A FAQ claims, "We want Wikipedia to be around at least a hundred years from now, if it does not turn into something even more significant," and Wikipedia's fundraising page asks potential donors to "Imagine a world in which every single person can share freely in the sum of human knowledge." (They accept PayPal, all major credit cards and personal checks.)

The significance of Wikipedia and its role as the encyclopedia was not lost on Turkish historian Taner Akcam, who according to news reports was detained at the Trudeau Airport in Montreal for more than three hours in February 2007 because security officers suspected him of terrorism based on a vandalized biographical page on Wikipedia, now "semi-protected from editing."

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Love it or hate it, Wikipedia is a powerful force. As the site matures, optimizing that force in the pursuit of truth will mean that Wikipedia must learn from others as much as it teaches.

To start with, say some critics, Wikipedia could stop letting editors hide behind made-up names. Even before Wikiscan, Wikipedia was embarrassed by several scandals, including one in which Wikipedia editor "essjay," supposedly a professor of theology with doctorates in theology and canon law, turned out to be a 24-year-old college dropout. Clay Shirky, adjunct professor at New York University, agrees that "the essjay controversy certainly demonstrates some need for individual reputation" in addition to the group-reputation model that Shirky believes is key to Wikipedia's better articles.

But beyond the quality issues, anonymity and power are a toxic potion, particularly in the hands of people responsible for a project as visible and ambitious as Wikipedia. What Wikiscan reveals more than anything is that when all controls are lifted, many people succumb to tempation.

Another step Wikipedia could take would be to borrow from Wikiscan and similar websites, and create a shadow Wikipedia—or Wikimorgue—composed of all deleted articles. (A commenter also facetiously suggested this idea on Carr's blog, Rough Type.) A Wikimorgue could be a small but powerful check on Wikipedia's editors, who might think twice about deleting articles if they knew that by routine practice and internal policy, Wikipedia preserved all deleted pages, including their histories and discussions. (Jimmy Wales, one of Wikipedia's founders and now its titular head, did not respond to an e-mail query about this idea.)

Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist who writes the monthly column Jaron's World in Discover Magazine, has discussed his own issues with Wikipedia in the past, calling it part of a troubling online Maoism. Lanier rejects even the idea of a Wikimorgue. "Let's say the Wikipedia is like fast food compared to real food-then this suggestion would be like eating off the floor of a fast food place...yuck," he said in an e-mail message.

But others—including some strong supporters of Wikipedia—see the potential for a repository for deleted Wikipedia articles. Jonathan Zittrain is an Internet lawyer, professor and author of the forthcoming book The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It, in which Zittrain is largely approving of Wikipedia. Zittrain says, "I'm not sure anyone would read that Wikipedia [of deleted articles] any more than people go back and look at the edit histories of articles routinely, but it shows that arbitrary edits sustained within [Wikipedia's] governance structure can be somewhat blunted."

It's true that a Wikimorgue composed of deleted articles would be largely a wasteland of spam and junk. But like the publishing of the federal budget, knowing that everyone could see the deleted articles if they wanted to, and that it was Wikipedia's policy to make these deletions transparent, could stay the hands of overenthusiastic editors.

As for the jargon, Wikipedia maintains an admirable site called the Simple English Wikipedia, a "user-contributed online encyclopedia intended for people whose first language is not English." Wikipedia should take a page from its own book (or wiki) and commit to writing editorial decisions that can be readily understood by people whose first language is not Wikipedian.

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Adopting practices to improve the accountability of Wikipedia's editors could improve the quality of Wikipedia, article by article. But one other perhaps unsolvable issue remains: whether we as a global community are well-served by any information resource that claims to serve as "the" source of information.

Stephen Laster, CIO at Harvard Business School, is also an avid sailor. About Wikipedia as a sole source, he comments, "When sailing, you should never rely on just your compass, just your GPS or just your depth scale to identify your location. You need to use all of your instruments to get an accurate picture of where you are. The same is true for knowledge and education—you can't get the truth from a single source."

It may well be that no matter how well-cited and well-written Wikipedia's articles are, its editorial commotions are grounded in the fundamentally subjective nature of most knowledge, and that as Wikipedia emerges from its charmed childhood to struggle with its awkward adolescence, we as a global community may decide that the "hive mind" is served best by more than one colony.

K.G. Schneider is a librarian who works in research and development for a library automation network. She lives in Tallahassee, Fla.

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