Citizendium Blog

December 9, 2007

Wikipedia’s latest governance woes

Filed under: Governance, Other projects — Larry Sanger @ 10:44 am

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.

May 8, 2007

Wales’ comments on Wired.com

Filed under: Other projects, Press & blogs — Larry Sanger @ 12:13 pm

UPDATE, May 16: my reply to Jimmy Wales’ comment have been posted on wired.com, with both the comment and my reply now moved to the end of the article.

I hate being engaged in a public controversy, but I find myself in one anyway.  The controversy was summed up in the following mercifully brief way in the Wired.com/Assignment Zero article about Citizendium:

The drama raging between the two information pioneers [me and Jimmy Wales] goes well beyond the scope of mere competing websites; it’s fueled by a well-documented professional-gone-personal conflict between Sanger and Wales about the paternity of Wikipedia. Sanger wrote the essay for kuro5hin that introduced Wikipedia. In the essay he credited himself as the “chief instigator of Wikipedia.” Wales wrote extensive comments to the essay, but not once did he object to Sanger’s crediting. Now Wales insists that Wikipedia was his own sole creation. He chafes at Sanger’s usual co-founder credit as “absurd,” going so far as to tell the Sydney Morning Herald that Sanger was just one of twenty people working on the project.

Also merciful was the next line: 

Wales refused interview requests for this article.

But, at some time after the article was posted, an “Editor’s note” was inserted, which reports Jimmy Wales’ views.  I’m no journalist, but I am a long-time consumer of online news, and I have never seen an editor’s note, of this sort, inserted into an Internet news article after publication — much less one that gives one side of a controversy three paragraphs to state views that, in my opinion, are libelous.  I was not given any opportunity to rebut the claims Wales made; I just happened to come across them today as I was glancing over the Wired article again.

Wales has made similar remarks before, but only privately and to Wikipedians.  He’s never said such outrageous things to a reputable news organization, or, if he has, the editors have had the good sense not to repeat them.

Here is my reply to Jimmy Wales’ remarks.

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April 27, 2007

Reply to Nicholas Carr

Filed under: Press & blogs, Theory — Larry Sanger @ 10:26 am

Nick Carr used snippets from my recent essay on Edge,Who Says We Know: On the New Politics of Knowledge,” as an excuse to rant on at great length yesterday.  Apparently, Nick says, I didn’t just hit a nerve, I hit three nerves.

Well, I think Nick should be on my side, and his charming rant is based primarily on misunderstanding.  Let me explain.

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March 5, 2007

One last, brief comment on the Essjay scandal

Filed under: Other projects, Web 2.0 — Larry Sanger @ 2:21 pm

Something just came to my notice about the Essjay scandal that removed all doubt on a certain point, which placed things into a clearer perspective.  I know I said I wouldn’t write anything else about the scandal, so I’ll be brief.

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March 3, 2007

Jimmy Wales’ latest response on the Essjay situation

Filed under: Other projects, Web 2.0 — Larry Sanger @ 10:55 am

As you might know, I haven’t interfered with Wikipedia’s “internal affairs” for a long time.  But the Essjay situation isn’t just an internal affair, because this is an existential, standards-defining, precedent-setting event that could affect Wikipedia’s reputation for years to come.  So on this, we need to hold Wikipedia’s feet to the flames, and make sure that they do the right thing.

The latest is that Jimmy Wales has posted a clarification in which he requested that Essjay “resign his positions of trust within the community.”  Overall, Jimmy’s statement answers few questions.

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March 2, 2007

Our registration policy - how we check identities

Filed under: Governance, Recruitment — Larry Sanger @ 9:38 am

In our pilot project, we’ve gone through several different registration policies, adapting to growth and finding the right one.  We began, in the first couple of months, with a policy that required a CV or resume, plus supporting Web links, from everyone who applied.  On about January 22, we opened up the wiki to self-registration.  At the time, we required only a bio from authors; so, we relied upon the “honor principle,” but we still required a CV and proof of identity from editors.  More recently, as of February 16, we have shut down self-registration on account of rampant vandalism.  We have had no vandalism either before or after the self-registration period.

Since we have moved back to hand-approval of new applications (you’re welcome to join us, by the way!), the Executive Committee and the Constabulary have been doing a bit of soul-searching.  It isn’t just that we don’t want to waste our valuable time babysitting idiot vandals.  We are very concerned about the credibility of the Citizendium as a reference work.  If we rely heavily on the “honor principle” (used for example by my alma mater) for determining real identities, we assume that most of our contributors will be, well, honorable.  Perhaps we are too old and jaded but I think most of us believe that too many contributors are not really honorable at all.  We simply do not want to wake up in five years, to find that someone has done a study of the Citizendium and demonstrated that in fact 25% of all of our contributors are using neither their real names nor pre-approved pseudonyms.  In short, we’ve reluctantly concluded that the honor principle, even coupled with a willingness instantly to ban people like Essjay who are exposed for using false personas, really isn’t due diligence.

We’ve come to this conclusion “reluctantly” because we also know that ease of registration is absolutely essential to really rapid growth and dynamism.  So we are planning two things:

  • While we still need human beings involved in the application approval process, we’re writing requirements for a new system, to be integrated with MediaWiki, that will greatly automate the approval process.  Constables will be able to approve new applications with the press of a button, which should speed things up a lot.
  • But we will also give authors at least three alternatives for establishing their identities.  They can either (1) allow an existing Citizen to vouch for their identity; or (2) provide a link to a corporate or institutional Web page, or other credible Web page, that provides their name and relevant details of their identity, that (if we wished) we could check up with; or (3) point to the Web page of a person we can e-mail to confirm their identity.

Ultimately, (1) might prove to be the method of registration used most often.  The notion, then, is that if a person is discovered to have a fraudulent persona, the member who vouched for that person is also either reprimanded or banned.  But it should be quite easy, ultimately, to automate this recommendation system, since the recommenders are already in our system.  We’ll be able to help ourselves to it once we do our public launch–hopefully just a few short weeks away.

March 1, 2007

Wikipedia firmly supports your right to identity fraud

Filed under: Best of this blog, Other projects, Web 2.0 — Larry Sanger @ 5:05 pm

Now this is very sad.

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