Multiple sources are now saying that Wikipedia is more “on the ropes” than ever, burdened by multiple fresh scandals. Here’s a review of the sad yet fascinating situation, as I understand it.
Slashdot first highlighted a Register article, which pointed out that a “secret” mailing list was used by a “cabal” of Wikipedia insiders essentially uses to deliberate about sockpuppets — something I’ve repeatedly warned is the Achilles’ heel of any collaborative system that permits pseudonymity and anonymity. This news caused a furor among Wikipedians (as I think it should have). I actually invited the disaffected people to join the Citizendium — the first time I had ever gone to WikiEN-L Wikipedians to join us.
Then Slashdot highlighted another Register article (mind you, The Register has never been a big fan of Wikipedia’s). This is a very long one that goes into considerable depth about a particular case. It is hard to say who is telling the truth, but certainly some hard questions are being raised which go to the way that Wikipedia is being governed.
Problems with Wikipedia’s governance were pointed out by other recent sources, as well. Seth Finklestein had an interesting article in The Guardian following up on the mailing list story, and the lawyer who set up the Wikimedia Foundation has been dishing dirt on his new blog, and also criticizing the governance of the project. I’ve also heard from two ex-employees of the Wikimedia Foundation, who both have fascinating stories to tell, but I’m not about to “out” them. They both strongly insist that something is rotten in Wikipedia-land, and they insist that the rot starts at the top.
Meanwhile, Slashdot pointed out that Jimmy Wales, illustrating once again his tone-deafness on publicity matters, was now saying that Wikipedia is now suitable for use, and even citation, by students. I am not making this up. I only wonder where this downward spiral is going to end.
As much as I would enjoy diving into the fray, I’ll just leave it at this. My respect for both Jimmy Wales and the Wikipedia organization plummeted following the Essjay affair (all blog comments here) and their completely underwhelming response to the scandal. None of these more recent developments, however disappointing, is particularly surprising to me. Wikipedia’s caretakers have shown themselves, essentially, to be amoral and ultimately unaccountable.
I am happy to be able to learn from their mistakes, however. Here are the lessons that I draw. I hope the Citizendium will do better in each of these respects:
- Governance in the form of a constitutional, democratic republic is necessary for large collaborative projects like Wikipedia (and the Citizendium).
- Governance procedures must, of course, be as open as possible, and those in authority must of course be accountable to the community. There must not be a “cabal” nor a “dictator,” benevolent or otherwise.
- The rule of law is crucial to a healthy community. This is something that many Wikipedians have rejected outright, and it’s astonishing to me that they have done so. (They certainly wouldn’t agree to any such thing in their offline communities. Why should it be different for their online community?) If you do not have reliable mechanisms to enforce the rules, you’re going to end up with vague and inconsistent patterns of governance, and the persons in authority will ultimately be unaccountable to anyone. This is obvious to anyone with the slightest bit of understanding of the philosophy of law.
- Individuals in position of authority should be escorted out on a regular basis. If they stay on board for too long, they will set up groups and mechanisms that will expand their authority and make it more unaccountable.
- Censorship of criticism of persons in power is always a terrible idea. (While the Citizendium has a Professionalism policy which requires that people not be abusive, you can abuse me, the Editor-in-Chief, to a much greater extent, and I’ll take it — I have to.)
- The community must also be devoted to reasonably high standards of morality and fair dealing. If you allow people in authority to get away with corruption or just plain poor judgment, with no significant consequences, you’re going to end up with a never-ending stream of scandals.
- The ability to delete edits from the page history, called “oversight” authority, needs, well, oversight. Real oversight. That needs to be built into the MediaWiki software. The idea that you can cover up your edits, and make it appear as if they didn’t happen, even after they caused harm to others, is a complete nonstarter. Even if certain edits can be masked from the general public, they should still be visible to independent, responsible oversight bodies within the organization.
As I’ve said many times before, Wikipedia has a woefully dysfunctional governance system. It is time that they did something about it. This is going to take leadership. I wonder, however, if there are any real leaders left in Wikipedia-land. The fact that they do not require real names is going to prove to make such matters difficult – it implies conundrums I wouldn’t wish on anyone. What I suspect they will end up doing is creating official (real name) registration for members of the community who wish to become full voting Wikipedia “citizens.” I simply don’t see how else they can do it, without continuing to suffer the problems of the present system. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though. Jimmy Wales — who enjoys playing the CEO and celebrity rather than a real leader – clearly doesn’t acknowledge any problem, and without Wales’ concurrence, nothing will happen.
Perhaps the nascent Citizendium governance system, which has started coming online and should be fully operational in the next few months, will prove to be a model for Wikipedia.