Archive for June 2008

Wikipedia wussiness

21 June 2008
Categories: Wikiality

The other day an anonymous IP user, who had previously vandalized Wikipedia’s John Glenn article to get onto my watchlist, twice blanked and then restored some other page within the space of a few minutes. Looking at the user’s talk page, I saw that this user had been blocked for vandalism a couple of times in the past, and had been given another final warning the day before.

This fair warning having received the response of further vandalism, I reported the user to WP:AIAV. Within a couple of minutes, the report was deleted as “stale,” and the administrator who dumped it sent me this message:

Your efforts are appreciated but please ensure you only report vandals who [are] actively vandalizing.

I replied:

You were the one who told [the user], “Although vandalizing articles on occasions that are days or weeks apart from each other sometimes prevents editors from being blocked, your continued vandalism constitutes a long term pattern of abuse. The next time you vandalize a page, you will be blocked from editing Wikipedia.” (emphasis yours) And in response they vandalized again. How does the fact that it happened 5 hours ago, rather than 5 minutes, make any difference as to whether they should be blocked?

Which got this response:

According to the blocking policy, blocks are meant to prevent disruption, as opposed to be punitive. If the IP is no longer vandalizing at the time, it shouldn’t be blocked because there is no ongoing disruption. See also the instructions at the top of WP:AIV. Best regards, [the admin]

I refrained from replying and let it slide, not wanting to get into an argument over policy. I have since pulled the conversation off my talk page so it doesn’t aggravate me any more. But that’s not going to stop me from ranting about it here.

The argument that the admin uses is specious at best, and Wikipedia policy is flawed, perhaps fatally.

To claim that timely blocking of disruption is preventative, while delayed blocking is punitive, is to say that an incident of disruptive behaviour becomes less disruptive over time. This is hardly the case; as the admin himself said to the user, long pauses between disruptions do not constitute a cessation of disruption; specifically, he called the user out for a “long term pattern of abuse.”

If a graffitist tags a wall, and then goes home and puts his feet up, does it make the wall any less defaced in the morning? No. And to follow this analogy, blocking a Wikipedia user is not imprisonment of a tagger—it’s taking away his spray can. Preventative, not punitive.

In fact, the policy that the admin cites specifically states: “Blocks are not punitive in the sense that they aren’t retribution. Blocks sometimes are used as a deterrent, to discourage whatever behavior led to the block and encourage a productive editing environment.” In other words, the use of a block does not constitute punishment. I repeat: “Blocks are not punitive.”

I know that Wikipedia feeds the know-at-all in me, and I have been guilty of mishandling policy in the past, but nothing is quite so irksome as someone with administrator-level privileges who cites policy according to whim and selectively omits those portions that don’t suit his opinions. Regardless of whether or not their ultimate goal is the improvement of Wikipedia.

Moreover, I think this incident illustrates yet another example of how Wikipedia policy, intending to support an open, welcoming atmosphere, finds itself at the mercy of disruptive, ill-intended editors because it bends over backwards to be nice to them. Wikipedia has reached the point in its development where the “anyone can edit” model needs to be reassessed, at the very least with an eye toward fettering the anonymous users who, nine times out of ten, are looking to deface rather than contribute.

I know I’m not alone in my frustration over Wikipedia. Here’s an interesting Slashdot commentary from user Admiral Ag, who goes beyond the random wall-pissers to address deeper concerns:

Wikipedia… has almost run its course. If nothing else, Wikipedia has demonstrated the power of the wiki concept, but its inability to self regulate in weeding out sociopaths, POV warriors and petty authoritarians has led to the departure of many good contributors, who simply can’t stand dealing with some of the obsessive and Machiavellian loons who populate the site. There’s no better sign of the downfall of Wikipedia than the endlessly increasing sets of rules and the endless discussions over them. I guess they just lost sight of the fact that Wikipedia should be structured to serve its users and not the obsessive people who have made it their hobby. Secret email lists, cabals, evidence of admin dishonesty oversighted, rules bent to suit the ruling clique, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Wikipedia, but we can do better.

I would rephrase Admiral Ag’s main point: we should do better. But can we?