Is it time to go beyond Wikipedia?

One of our more popular blog entries, which seems to have a long afterlife and is still generating comments (over 30 so far), is our commentary on the Wikipedia governance issues: Is Something Fundamentally Wrong with Wikipedia Governance?

One of the latest contributions, by Wird Krapht, deserves an upgrade to a full editorial, so here it is.

Wird Krapht:

Recognizing that a social network is not only ungoverned but ungovernable, critics need to turn their attention toward what to do about it. A first act would be to stop venerating the damned thing. A next step would be to replace it with something useful, preserving valuable constructs while severing the structure of poor governance and leaving those methods the to rot in the field.

What other publication, corporation or affiliation do we refer to as “The (brand name here)”. With the exception of a few books, ancient and with long histories of sometimes violent self promotion. The Bible. The Koran. The Torah. The network collectivity known as Wikipedia, when called “The Wikipedia” gains status along with those texts and with such major worldwide affiliations such as “The Internet.” There is no need to afford the project such recognition in Web postings, in printed news or academic reports, or in casual conversation. There are other ways to refer to the project. “Wikipedia” is the name. It’s just a brand name. We wouldn’t call Coca-Cola “The Coca-Cola” though company promoters would certainly appreciate if we started calling it “The Cola.”

Major social collectivities that are nearly universally recognized among a particular population tend earn a direct article (”the”) when their name describes them as a collectivity. England is usually referred to as just England, with no article, but the widely used phrase “the United Kingdom” uses a direct article to emphasize the descriptive nature of the moniker. So it is with the United States, the AFL-CIO, and such. “The English Wikipedia” uses a direct article to differentiate various language portions of the site, but for a Web site who hired a felon operate corporate governance, such familiarity might not best convey a writers’ perspective of the site. “The English version of Wikipedia” better isolates “Wikipedia” as merely an early brand name of a fad that has contributed some valuable direction to social networking on newly available platforms. But let’s concentrate on social networking on newly available platforms, not on Wikipedia, except when we are extracting from the Wikipedia experience lessons in how to manage these new networks, or perhaps when we are citing content unattributable to any source other than Wikipedia pages.

There is no need to assume everyone knows about Wikipedia. They don’t. The more we continue to emphasize a phenomena that largely occurred between 2001 and 2005 as a timeless, universal movement, the longer development of rapid-access information sharing networks will remain stunted. A focus on the stifling context of the world-wide free-for-all that emerged in the excitement of a new technology impairs vision of and execution of more manageable projects.

Psychologically, we can analyze the phenomenon in more stark terms. Wikipedia was revolutionary in it’s rapidly changing time. Like many revolutions, there were atrocities. Even as the list of flawed decisions, directions and actions grows to include felons at the helm and ugly domestic confrontations involving the founder aired as network news items, Wikimedia Foundation spokespeople, like many revolutionary leaders, infer “fog of war” in the standard claim that these news stories are about “non-issues.”

They are issues for those hoping to rely on user-generated content on the Internet as a source of information. Background checks for new employees, less transparency into poorly managed democratic governance and new declarations from a “founder” who considers himself a spiritual leadership and infers a lifelong divine right to rule won’t fix the problem. The problem is not only written into the structure of governance, it is written into the increasingly cumbersome code that drives the site.

Add-on name-spaces that allow more granular control of content development, and after-the-fact systems of blocking unwanted users have not plugged a sieve of security leaks that prevent MediaWiki from being used as fast, collaborative content development system. The software was designed from the ground up to allow ungoverned access.

Privacy for deliberative processes, and staging of unfinished work were not part of the coders’ original intentions. Dominant MediaWiki developers continue to insist the code be centered around now widely dis-proven concepts of anonymous crowd governance, refusing patches or directions that would let users run the software inside a typically limited social network.

The organization lost focus. What was once a purpose of encyclopedia production, compelled by endless available topics, soon consumed the frontier and a purpose of organizational self-preservation emerged, within which countless interest groups battled for self-preservation.

The solution is to move on. Fork or better yet, rewrite content based on sources cited in Wikipedia and elsewhere. Avoid being a one-for-all answer to everything. Focus on areas of interest and within professional and social networks develop collaborative methodologies that can scale.

And not to set the bar to high, but don’t count on the now widely circulated MediaWiki softare as a primary wiki tool. Other available wikis tend to be copies of MediaWiki functionality. Anticipate the emergence of new code, built from the ground up to facilitate the granular access around which humans have constructed societies for thousands of years. And don’t worship the thing. Among IT professionals, maybe it is “Wikipedia.” In popular press, refer to it descriptively and in context as often as by name. “The popular social networking and information sharing site, Wikipedia…”

Let the thing enjoy it’s old age in the latter years of its software lifecycle, then let it die a dignified death. Talk and write about Wikipedia in the past-tense, recognize its progeny and talk about new growth the way we would talk about young adults whose ambitions are marred by their recapitulation of their parent’s trials.

We can grow past this. Let’s keep pulling weeds, but lets not venerate a plant that has outlived it’s productive lifespan, and let’s start planting for the next season.”

5 Comments Is it time to go beyond Wikipedia?

  1. Pingback: Is it time to go beyond Wikipedia? | Internet Marketing and Affiliate Blog

  2. Marc Fawzi

    HI Michel,

    See this http://evolvingtrends.wordpress.com/2008/07/23/people-hosted-p2p-version-of-wikipedia/

    And note the part about how Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales’ own for-profit, VC-financed venture has taken over the Semantic Mediawiki which was originally developed to enhance Wikipedia, i.e. he’s using public good will/intentions for his own $$$ benefit.

    Wales character has been the subject of many controversies. But it’s not about this one person. The whole way Wikipedia’s governance is structured creates this pathological need for control in those who are supposed to guard its reputation,, and as any runaway human need it is often polluted with greed and abuse.

    I call for a fully decentralized P2P version of Wikipedia as described in the above-referenced blog post, or any better or comparable ideas that put power with the whole, not with any group of people.

  3. Moulton

    The governance model of Wikipedia was so anachronistic that it took me over a year to place it in the timeline of historic governance models adopted at various times in the annals of human history.

    The thing that stymied me was the prominence of blocking and banning as the primary tool of governance. I simply couldn’t place that among the recognized tools of governance in any historic context.

    And then I happened to take a look at the oldest surviving account of secular law — the Code of Hammurabi of 1750 BC.

    Of the 282 laws that Hammurabi of Mesopotamia carved into the stone tablets, take note of the very first one:

    1. If any one ensnare another, putting a ban upon him, but he can not prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death.

    Evidently, banning (ostracism) was a common practice in the tribal cultures in the Middle East some 4000 years ago, at the dawn of civilization. Capricious and spurious banning was evidently such a common and egregious abuse of tribal overlords that Hammurabi made it a capital offense to ban someone without proving just cause.

    And yet, on Wikipedia, indefinite blocks and bans without due process are a common occurrence. That is to say, the prevailing governance model of Wikipedia corresponds to a pre-Hammurabic tribal ochlocracy that is so anachronistic, it predates the advent of the Rule of Law.

    When Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders drafted the US Constitution, one of the provisions they put in Article One was a prohibition against Bills of Attainder. A Bill of Attainder is the technical term in the law for declaring a person to be an outlaw (without respect to having violated any specific law that applies equally to everyone). The Founders excluded Bills of Attainder from the tools of governance because 4000 years of political history had demonstrated that such a toxic practice is corrosive and ridden with corruption, and invariably sinks any government that comes to rely on it.

    The irony here is that Wikipedia purports to be the “sum of all knowledge” with an educational mission that reaches out to students, teachers, and scholars around the world. And yet those exercising power in Wikipedia have not yet learned the oldest and most profound lessons in the annals of human history — lessons enshrined in the first written law and in the first article of the US Constitution.

    The consequence of adopting such an anachronistic governance model is that Wikipedians are fated to relive and reify the long-forgotten lessons of history. They relive those lessons by reprising the same kind of political dramas that fill the history books since the dawn of civilization.

    The anachronistic governance model which Jimbo Wales foolishly and mindlessly introjected into Wikipedia is simply not a sustainable model in this day and age. Summary and capricious banning wasn’t even a sustainable model some 3750 years ago when Hammurabi first singled it out as an unacceptable practice in a civilized culture.

    So what to do about it? The answer can be found in the second law of Hammurabi’s Code. As Hammurabi advises, the solution is to tell them to go jump in the lake.

    Or as they say in Yiddish, Nem zich a vaneh!

  4. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » Banning the Wikipedia bans as a governance tool

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