Wales and Sanger on Wikipedia
Hey, Jimmy. Didn't you just edit me out of history?
What do you think of Wikipedia today? Time to hear it from Wikipedia's co-founders, Jimmy 'Jimbo' Wales and Larry Sanger. Or depending on which part of Wikipedia you choose to believe, Wikipedia's founder and ... well, some other guy.
Sanger was editing the Nupedia project, which grew into Wikipedia, before leaving in 2002, wishing the project the best. Earlier this year, he announced his latest venture, Digital Universe, which seeks to develop Wikipedia's networked model but using domain experts. Adopting this approach, he hopes, will avoid the site becoming the world's graffitti board for the unemployed, the retired and teenagers - Wikipedia's fate. The "some other guy" reference http://www.theregister.com/2005/12/06/wikipedia_bio/page2.html
stems from Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales editing his very own Wikipedia entry to remove the co-credits from Sanger.
The last six months haven't been kind to Wikipedia. Not only has the project lost some of its most respected contributors, but some of its proudest supporters have cooled on it, too. The experience of Jorn Barger, who coined the term 'weblog', is a parable. A year ago he was one of the keenest enthusiasts. But he first gave up trying to contribute to his area of expertise (his research on James Joyce is professionally respected), and then gave up trying to defend his own biography from youthful doubters. Now he's given up on Wikipedia.
What's left is a decaying biomass of misinformation, and often stupendously accurate fan trivia, but you have to know your subject to spot it. Documentary film maker Jason Scott has the wittiest exposition on why, in the form of a 45-minute talk. You can find it in multiple formats at Archive.org, here. Jason's comments on MetaFilter are also worth reading. Scott isn't, and never has been a Wikipedia administrator - he's a computer historian. But his fleeting brush with the site gave him a common guy's insight into this labyrinthine pseudo-democracy.
Today, with entropy in the ascendant, the press no longer asks "How does Wikipedia work so well?", but, "How did anyone ever expect it to work?" (Droll example)
Even Wales himself seems to be looking to the future, and last month his own private venture Wikia received a $4m injection of venture capital. Wikia will go forth and teach businesses and groups how to use Wikis, Wales told us.
But let's turn to Sanger first, as we haven't had the opportunity to talk to him since the January announcement of Digital Universe.
Sanger diplomatically thinks there's room for both his venture and Wikipedia.
"I remain on good terms with Wikipedia and Wikipedians. Wikipedia can occupy the niche it occupies, and the world is richer for it occupying that niche."
But Digital Universe pays experts who can write - and that's three big differences already. And the goal is different, too -
"Wikipedia is devoted to making it possible for everyone to contribute on an equal footing to an encyclopedia. Digital Universe is devoted to creating an ideal information resource – it's what we’re aiming at."
"While we do want to open the project up very wide, the range of is controlled by domain experts.
So did Larry think Wikipedia's fate was an inevitable consequence of an open model? He put more emphasis on the sociological composition of the editors.
"It's really that the skills to marshal an argument, and represent the facts correctly are all skills encouraged by a solid liberal arts education. It's a problem associated more with a lack of training in the liberal arts."
It's true, he agrees, that Wikipedia articles "shift back and forth between an entry someone crafted, and a stitched together Frankenstein's monster."
As for what he's previously called Wikipedia's anti elitism, Sanger is careful:
"There was a time in the first nine months in which there was still current a general policy of some amount at least of deference to experts. That was a policy I personally encouraged. I believe it fell by the wayside to a certain extent."
"I don’t mean to accuse Wikipedians in general of being disrespectful of experts because, in fact, I do think most Wikipedians still are respectful of subject area experts. The majority are very reasonable people, and that needs to be said.
"It's a relatively few, difficult to deal with people that cause the problems, and once a quorum of such people were at work on the Wikipedia system, it became more and more difficult to defend an edit by pulling rank, by claiming a special expertise.
"There really was a time when that sort of behavior was tolerated, and it really isn’t tolerated so well anymore."
With Digital Universe, he wants to take the utopian enthusiasm and channel it to a system that respects expertise.
"What makes people enthusiastic about contributing to Wikipedia is not that anyone can participate, it's that it's easy for the people who do to participate, and that they get instant feedback from in the community," he says. "Those features that make Wikipedia compelling can be replicated in a system that is managed by experts. The whole idea is to teach experts the Wikipedia magic."
Contributors will be credited he says, right down to the copy editors.
"If anyone ought to know that systems need to be adapted it needs to be me. That's what we did with Wikipedia in the first place – we adapted the wiki software to the task of writing an encyclopedia. The result was a very nonstandard wiki."
"What remains the same in Digital Universe from Wikipedia is hopefully going to be enough to work."
And so, to Jimbo.
A major difference in the way Wikipedia is perceived is the result of its internal processes being revealed to the world. A new site, Wikitruth.info, consists of Wikipedia administrators frustrated by the current management and direction of the project, and can't be lightly dismissed. Having spoken to the Wikiedpia admin "Skip" (some details here) it's evident he wants Wikipedia to succeed - but no longer thinks it will, under the current regime. (Jason Scott details the arbitary nature of Wikipedia processes in more detail in his talk).
For example, "Skip" finds it incredible that Wikipedia doesn't use a Captcha to deter robot vandalism, while other Wiki sites such as WikiNews do. Instead, he says, 300 or so members of the "Anti Vandalism Unit", most in their teens or early twenties, perform the duty manually.
"Aren't there other things they could be doing with their time?"
We put this to Wales.
"We want to make impairments to access as minimal as we can," he says, pointing out that conventional captchas pose problems to people with sight impairment.
"Vandalism is the price we pay for being open. If the vandal fighters say 'Hey, it's really getting too much, we need to adjust the system,' then we'll adjust the system."
On several occasions Wales disputed the claim of entropy, and stressed that keeping the system open was paramount. As The Times noted in its Education section recently, it takes just a few seconds to create an account, which unlike most discussion sites doesn't even require authentication by email. But he readily admits that "the difference between logged in and not logged in is pretty minimal."
"I'm not convinced we're losing rather than gaining. Far more often, people find it a welcoming environment," he says.
"It depends on what sorts of edits one is making... in some areas you're going to edit that more than others."
"If you're editing fairly arcane articles about statistical theory you're not going to come into 14 year olds, but in pop culture articles you are."
But a significant amount of Wikipedia consists of what is derogatorily called "fan cruft". Every Pokemon character is recorded, a Slashdot poster noted yesterday, as is every object that has ever appeared in Star Wars.
"It's a complex social process. You don't want to block people, you want to empower them."
Much of the time Wales takes the criticisms head on. How can Wikipedia improve the quality of prose which often reads as if it was written in Klingon and translated to English?
"Legitimate questions can be raised," he says.
Jane Fonda's article, which was highlighted by Nick Carr, was "a motley collection of facts", he agreed, characterizing it as "She won an Academy Award and has a dog." Somebody needs to come through after an editing back and forth and improve it.
Does Wales agree if it wasn't called an "encyclopedia" there wouldn't be such concern about its proliferation?
"We have always said Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and that defines what the aim of the project is. But H2G2 also gives you a clear idea of what it's trying to do. Everyone knows H2G2 from the books, and knows that it's tongue in cheek and ironic, whereas an Encyclopedia is a different style of writing and goal."
"If we called it 'Jimbo's Big Bag of Trivia', then it would be written to be a random collection of facts."
Er, and it isn't?
The only time Wales gets heated in our discussion is when the issue of Daniel Brandt comes up. Brandt wanted his entry deleted, and fought a losing edit war to prevent vandals from removing an old, derogatory link from his entry.
Reading some of the comments left by Wikipedia administrators, we suggested, showed some glee at sticking it to Brandt. By contrast Justin Berry, who featured in a recent New York Times article about online sex, had his entry swiftly quarantined - a new rule was created for this purpose by Wales, who deleted the old entry.
Is the message here simply that Justin Berry had a better lawyer than Brandt?
"I'm not sure there's any difference at all. In the Brandt case there was the same sort of question and the same sort of treatment: let's go in and try and work out what's right and what's wrong. Then he launched into his own campaign against Wikipedia, which was very unfortunate."
"There's a lot of discussion about biographies of living people being particularly worth of great care. And one of the positive things about Daniel Brandt is that he was really quite effective in highlighting that issue. Now I have a lot of criticisms about Daniel Brandt - he's supposed to be a privacy advocate but he was posting Wikipedia administrators home details on his site…
But, we interrupted, Brandt was posting the email addresses and IP numbers of the pseudonymous administrators attacking him, to make a point about accountability. Wales passes over this.
Wikipedia seems much more of a success as a social club than a reference work, we suggested. So what's the point?
Wales says most articles are improved from one, two or even five years ago.
But in many cases they didn't exist five years ago - and you really need to know the subject to spot these errors.
Finally, wasn't it obvious that in society the gatekeeping function was there for a very good reason?
"Absolutely," agrees Wales. "And it's the most interesting question. I don't think we're saying we have the right answer," he says. ®