Please read: A personal appeal from a former Wikipedia editor

17 January 2012
Categories: Wikiality

For the past few months, pages on Wikipedia have been headed by a series of “personal appeals,” with folks ranging from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to random users, all of them shilling for money to support the Wikimedia Foundation.

My appeal, from a former editor with more than 16,000 positive contributions: don’t bother.

I have said it before—Wikipedia is a failure.

Its experiment in community knowledge-gathering is fatally flawed, and I think in the long term it will become yet another Internet graveyard, another of those interesting online concepts that people will look back on and say, “Remember that? It was cool for a while, and then it fell apart, and nobody really misses it now.”

Statistics already show a steady decline in editor activity on Wikipedia, and analysts have myriad theories as to causes. But I think it all comes down to a handful of interconnected problems:

  • A naïve openness that leaves it vulnerable to troublemakers.
  • A model that ignores the possibility that some contributors are more reliable than others.
  • A lack of concerted oversight.

Nobody gives a thought to who might have created or edited any particular article, and yet Wikipedia’s articles carry a pervasive air of authoritativeness—an air that’s taken, if you’re smart, at arm’s length. As much as it aspires to be, Wikipedia is not Academia. And it never can be.

No bylines exist; recognition of an editor’s work is fleeting at best. Unless—you’re an editor who works to defend Wikipedia against the rampant vandalism that occurs continually, and you run afoul of one of the many sociopathic recluses that lurk there. Then you get recognition, of the unwanted kind, and plenty of it. And that’s where Wikipedia utterly fails.

More than once I’ve been the target of attacks by people (and I use the term “people” loosely) whose sole purpose in life appears to be watching the Internet burn. Since Wikipedia was the place that drew these gnats future presidents, I reported the attacks to the Wikipedia administration caste—which resulted in exactly zero attention.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia’s all-volunteer model effectively means that all editing, all policing, all administration is ad-hoc. When these same vandals and mindless pranksters returned to vandalize again, no one was paying enough attention to realize they were the same attackers, operating under new accounts. Editors went through the same nicey-nice, bullshit motions—polite notice, followed by caution, warning, and final warning—before finally blocking the vandals yet again, usually several days and many edits after their return.

Warning these douchebags does not deter them; in fact, that response is just what they want most—recognition and attention, negative though it is. Blocking their IP addresses is only a momentary solution, since for most of them a new IP address is only as far away as their modem’s power switch. They will not be appeased, and if thwarted will find other, extra-wiki (and frankly, illegal) means to cause trouble. I know this for a fact, from first-hand experience.

As a result, I have ceased all activity on Wikipedia, and will never again edit or contribute to it. My personal well-being (as well as my privacy and, I truly believe, my safety) are not worth the risk and grief. I have little doubt that many others have found themselves in a similar situation.

Unless Wikipedia decides to erect some semblance of a velvet rope, with a virtual bouncer checking for editors who are “on the list” by having demonstrated just a modicum of good faith, Wikipedia will suffer more and more from editor burnout and will soon cease to improve; it will stagnate, and the ruiners will win. Maybe they already have.

[Follow-up: This post was picked up by Hacker News on 14 Feb 2012, engendering a lively and interesting discussion.]

  1. February 14th, 2012 at 12:08 | #1

    The day “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin died, Wikipedia stated that his last words were “Crikey, I’m dead!” Case in point.

  2. February 15th, 2012 at 00:19 | #2

    Wikipedia will die because noone real can contribute. Write a new article and it will be shot down. Write an article about important programming languages and it will be killed with some strange acronym – because some liberal arts major does not deem it important enough – Exception: an several thousand word article about what Homer did eat in one 8 year old Simpson episode will stay.

    Your “on the list” idea is totally Wikipedia directorate style and a.) will be implemented b.) will accelerate Wikipedias death

  3. Cristian
    February 15th, 2012 at 01:02 | #3

    Did you maybe think that the contributions are decreasing because Wikipedia is more and more complete? And fewer people actually have knowledge in what is lacking?

    [ad hominem redacted]

  4. Tomás Senart
    February 15th, 2012 at 02:07 | #4

    Interesting article. I’d like to know what do you think the alternatives can be. Wikipedia is truly embodied on the web as the first source for any knowledge seeker, which then researches further if interested in knowing more and better. What could replace Wikipedia and if not replacing it, what can be done to improve it?

  5. Mike Llewellyn
    February 15th, 2012 at 02:26 | #5

    That’s a powerful call to action and I hope Jimmy Wales sees it.

    Perhaps Wikipedia editors would benefit from a reputation system like that of Stack Overflow? With more admin power gained at higher levels etc.

    It would be utterly tragic if Wikipedia was killed by the sociopaths, especially when tools already exist for at least part of the solution.

  6. Chris Sherlock
    February 15th, 2012 at 02:48 | #6

    I was (and I emphasise WAS) a Wikipedia administrator and editor. I started the Admin’s Noticeboard and invented [citation needed], along with a final stint taking about two years of writing the USA PATRIOT Act.

    In the end, I pretty much got bullied off the project. I’ll never go back myself. Why should I? I agree with a lot of what you say – but I’ve found that the bullying was what stopped me in the end.

  7. Alex
    February 15th, 2012 at 03:02 | #7

    Surely the number of active editors will level-off /fall slightly as the content is now mature and in place?

  8. February 15th, 2012 at 03:54 | #8

    To be honest, I am also not very interested in updating Wikipedia. I still occasionally do, but I’ve come to think of it as a waste of time.

    One of my last disheartening experience was in early 2007 when I sent an article to deletion. Deletion is supposed to be a threshold policy, one that differentiates Wikipedia from the rest of the Internet somehow. Anybody can make a website on anything, but we occasionally delete things because we are an *encyclopedia*. (This will be familiar to any artist: most of what makes good art good is cutting out the crap.)

    The article was titled “David DeAngelo.” The first line said “real name: Eben Pagan.” Now that’s a bit of a comical name in any case. “Pagan” is a real word and some conservative Christian vandal might have thought it sounded Godless or so; and Eben / Ebeneezer is a name most commonly associated with Scrooge, so maybe it was someone who felt “cheated” by this guy. Did I mention he was a Love Guru?

    So my concern as a Wikipedian was, “was that correct, or was that vandalism? how can I fact-check that?” And I basically found out that I couldn’t fact-check it one way or the other because there was *nothing* on Google except for the articles that he himself had written. And it was, like, a real issue — because on Wikipedia, these articles are supposed to be titled with the Real Name, so about a month before I had submitted it, there was actually a “page moving” war: someone was moving it to “Eben Pagan” and someone was keeping it at “David DeAngelo.” Hello — shouldn’t we know which name is right *before* we start moving the page around?

    So I found this long article with vandalism-sounding aspects which I couldn’t quickly fact-check, and submitted this to the “deletion queue” for the simple fact of “you can’t fact-check this dude.” This led to an Internet debate, which really wore me out in general — it’s basically a hopeless waste to get into an Internet debate. So, when an article is being reviewed for deletion you put a big noticeboard on that article saying “hey, we’re about to delete this article!” and everybody who sees the article comes to say “no, you shouldn’t delete this,” and then you have to debate them. It’s miserable.

    I was told that this character was “notable in the seduction community.” Look, I don’t want to hurt your feelings and I’m sure that the “seduction community” finds him noteworthy, but unfortunately, I can’t figure out what parts of this article are vandalism and what aren’t — and nobody can.

    In the end there was no administrative voice who looked in and understood the issue enough to say, “okay, yeah, we can’t make a reliable article about this guy.” The ones that did looked through the votes “Yea” and “Nay” and tallied them up to come at a result of “No consensus.” So it stayed there.

    So, like, this isn’t my concern — if nobody cares enough at Wikipedia, then let the Seduction Community have non-fact-checkable pages. They could have it their way, I guess. I’ve just checked today and apparently in 2009 it was moved to “Eben Pagan” and then in 2010, it was nominated again for deletion. Fortunately, this time, nobody happened to look for their Love Guru on Wikipedia and two “delete” votes were compared to one “weak keep” vote; the page was then deleted. This tiny discussion has now been enough to block the page’s recreation, which happened two times in 2011.

    Of course, that also feels wrong — there is now no opportunity to start fresh, due to these two guys who randomly popped in once and said “no.” What if a new biography of the Seduction Community comes out from a reliable reporter, so that we can finally fact-check these things? There’s no clear system to say, “this is the problem with this article,” and there’s no clear way to appeal that and say “okay, the problem has since been solved.” Most of the contributors don’t understand the varieties of possible problems that can occur. The administration either doesn’t exist or else it gets in the way of what might be forward progress.

    I don’t mind contributing knowledge; that’s usually easy. I don’t mind reading some of the knowledge, especially on mathematical topics — although I always have to make sure to reconstruct the proofs myself, because anyone can throw any crap on there. But there is some darker aspect lurking underneath the rest of Wikipedia that has me disenchanted.

  9. Eric
    February 15th, 2012 at 04:09 | #9

    Well, maybe the editing activity has peaked because Wikipedia is basically written, all that’s left to do is tweak and update new pages, did you expect the curve to keep going up?

    So you had some bad experiences, someone pissed you off and now you’ve had enough of Wikipedia, fine. That doesn’t mean it’s broken. Wikipedia is still an unrivalled source of information.

    Yesterday I spent hours reading the page for “tea” or what about finding out about “female ejaculation” (I’m not joking, that page is fascinating), want to know the history of HTTP code 418 – I’m a teapot? It’s unbelievable how much well written and referenced information there is in there.

    Take a look at Steve Irwin’s page now. See how it’s been fixed? (not by me), that’s how Wikipedia works, but like any other source of information you need to use your head when reading it.

  10. February 15th, 2012 at 18:37 | #10

    If, as you say, Wikipedia is “basically written,” why then isn’t it locked down completely from further editing, with the exception of a small, priestly caste to do the tweaking and updating? (Of course that question is rhetorical and ironic.) I disagree that there’s not that much more aside from current-events updates to add to Wikipedia—the sum of human knowledge goes far beyond what has made it onto Wikipedia. Sure, there is a lot of “well written and referenced information” in there—but there could be so much more.

    And so, yes, I did expect the curve to keep going up, or at least not to subside quite so abruptly.

    My theory, albeit unsubstantiated, is that the downturn in editor activity coincides with the period of time when Wikipedia: 1) reached a new level of public attention, in the wake of (among others) Nature’s comparisons with Brittanica; and 2) reached a state of comprehensiveness that led to it being highly ranked in a multitude of search results. These two factors attracted a far wider range of people who might never have heard of the site before.

    That’s a good thing, right? Yet many of those were intrigued—titillated perhaps—to find that they could post any old thing they wanted, and the whole world would see it, even if only for a moment or two. There were other factors in the decline, sure, such as the “Notability” policy and, yes, a certain amount of being “basically written.” But the big issue from the basic editors’ level was that they were left fighting vandals rather than making improvements, and editor burnout was the inevitable result.

    As for my “bad experiences” that you so readily dismiss, I refrained from describing them in detail because of the satisfaction doing so would give to my attackers. Suffice it to say I’m not talking about petty edit wars and angry notes on my Talk page, and I’m not being petulant about others reverting my edits; those are normal hazards of editing Wikipedia. I’m talking about what I termed “extra-wiki” acts—actions outside of the Wikipedia sphere—among them threats of violence by phone and email, interstate wire fraud, and invasions of my privacy and property. Acts that left me with genuine and justified concern for what their next actions might be.

    Is it in my best interest to continue to edit Wikipedia in the face of such risks? I think it is not. Not for the sake of your edification on the world of “female ejaculation” or some such.

    Steve Irwin’s page remains a good example of the problem with Wikipedia’s core model, now that the site has reached maturity. Say someone heard about Irwin’s death—it was ubiquitous in every information medium, due in large part to its tragic nature—and said, “who’s that?” They googled him, found the Wikipedia article, read the “crikey” bullshit, believed it, and moved on—not knowing that the misinformation would soon be removed; heck, might have been removed mere moments after they downloaded the page.

    The point is, that kind of deliberate misinformation has no place in a respectable encyclopedia—and Wikipedia’s founders and defenders certainly want us to think it respectable. A simple vetting, a short period of embargo until the edit could be reviewed by an editor or two who had established their good faith (something that’s not hard to do, and not solely the province of the secretive admin caste), and that misinformation would never have reached the public eye. A system like that might have prevented Wikipedia’s present vandalism problem, because without the easy traction they gained, they would have quickly gotten bored and gone elsewhere.

    I always “use my head” when reading Wikipedia, not that I use it as much as I used to—but there are far too many people, eager for a quick hit of authoritative-sounding information, too lazy or distracted to look further into a topic than what they find on Wikipedia, who will not.

  11. Wise Guy
    February 28th, 2012 at 19:43 | #11

    Wikipedia suffers from some of the same problems that affect all commons. To fix them you must add cost and consequence to those that add/change or review content. Suggest that once namecoin is more integrated into browsers and other common software that it be used to establish a persistent identities and related reputations and that payments in bitcoin be required for each change submitted.

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