Peer Governance and Wikipedia (interview with Cedric and Barry Kort)

In the vein of the previous post, here two interviews are introduced. Cedric  is an active member of Wikipedia Review and has written a lot of critical material on Wikipedia (The Six Rotten Pillars of Wikipedia ) published in sites such as Wikipedia Review and others. The second interviewee, Barry Kort, is a MIT Media Lab scientist and Wikipedia contributor.

Question: What is your position towards the battle between inclusionists and deletionists? Why so?

Cedric’s answer: During my time on Wikipedia (November, 2004 – March, 2007), I considered myself a “deletionist”. It seemed to me back then that some users were misusing the “WP:NOT” policy to include articles on very obscure topics that had appeal to a rather miniscule segment of the population. For instance, some tiny elementary school somewhere in the US that they, a relative or a friend attended, with no indication of the school’s “notability” whatever. At that time, it seemed to me that WP was becoming swamped with such trivial articles, which would in time ruin whatever reputation WP had for being a good general use encyclopedia.

While WP proclaims that it “is not paper” (i.e., that it is not an encyclopedia printed on paper, and accordingly can be more inclusive), the policy also states that WP is not “an indiscriminate collection of information”. In fact, WP is a fairly indiscriminate collection of information; some accurate, some biased, some libelous, some otherwise plain wrong. While on the surface WP seems truly encyclopedic its wide variety of articles, in terms of emphasis it is truly a product of the particular interests, agendas and obsessions of its contributors. This is the reason for the undue weight that is given to articles on pop culture topics, which many observers of WP have noted. As I later came to learn, “WP:NOT” is just another one of the many illusory promises of WP. Go through the page, strike out all the “not”s, and you will be left with a more accurate picture of what WP really is.

When I stopped contributing to WP in March, 2007 (the same month I joined Wikipedia Review), I still believed that radical “inclusionism” was slowly but surely destroying WP. Today, I no longer believe that, although I still think that radical “inclusionism” is a bad idea for writing a general use encyclopedia. Now I see that the problems that are destroying WP run far deeper than the old “inclusionist” vs. “deletionist” battle. In fact, I ended up writing a seven-part editorial essay about it, which first appeared as a thread here on WR (URL embedded). Later it was reposted with permission here (URL embedded), and here (URL embedded), slightly modified. At most, the “inclusionist” vs. “deletionist” battle is one of many symptoms of the the disease killing WP, not the disease itself.

Kort’s answer: It’s mixed. I’m in favor of including relatively obscure topics in academic subjects, such as one might otherwise have to turn to a library book to read up on. But I am against inclusion of biographies of living people except for public figures so notable they would be included in a conventional encyclopedia, and then only if the articles are written by identified authors with disclosed credentials who have demonstrated a basic appreciation of journalistic ethics.

Question: Which governance problems of Wikipedia gave rise to the aforementioned conflict? In other words, what could have been done in order to avoid such a battle and find a resolution of the problem?

Cedric’s answer: The crux of the battle between “inclusionists” and “deletionists” is over what subjects should be considered “notable” for purposes of inclusion in Wikipedia. WP’s policy on “notability” (URL embedded) is stated in fairly general terms, and I would not say that that policy itself is really part of the problem. Rather, it is open editing policy and the “consensus” policy, and how they are administered, that I identify as the more likely culprits here (the first (URL embedded) and forth (URL embedded) of The Six Rotten Pillars of Wikipedia). These two factors act together to generate a lot of online drama, of which the “inclusionist” vs. “deletionist” battle is only one part.

Kort’s answer: The main problem is that there is no conflict resolution process for content disputes. As a result festering content disputes eventually become disputes over the behavioral demeanor of the combative editors. Wikipedia needs both a functional policy for the scope and depth of its content (especially content which includes biographical material on living persons) and a functional conflict resolution process for resolving content disputes without turning them into editorial slugfests that become behavioral disputes among adversarial editors.

Question: Do you have anything to add related to the problems of Wikipedia’s governance in general?

Cedric’s answer: Yes. Wikipedia‘s governance model is so diffuse and dysfunctional, that even they don’t know how to describe it. Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to make of it either, but finally came to this conclusion (URL embedded). I was interested to see that Jimbo Wales effectively admitted in a recent interview (URL embedded) that Wikipedia‘s policies were essentially made up as they went along, just as I earlier surmised in my essay. This ad hoc nature of WP governance, coupled with some basic flawed assumptions upon which the project was based, made all the drama surrounding WP inevitable.

To be fair, it is quite possible that there still would have been a “inclusionism” vs. “deletionism” debate on WP even if it had a far more rational and functional governance model. It’s just that it would have been less of a distraction. In the end, I think that is the best description for it: “a distraction”; for “inclusionism” vs. “deletionism” is a symptom, not a root problem.

Kort’s answer: Yes. Wikipedia has evolved a helter-skelter hodgepodge of WP:RULES which are mutually inconsistent and conflicting. Those who become adept at gaming the system can thus pick and choose among hte hodgepodge of rules to clobber their adversary (and even justifiy a block or a ban). The whole Rules and Sanctions paradigm is ill-conceived and should be scrapped in favor of a 21st Century Community Social Contract Model consistent with collegial norms of academic and scholarly enterprises.

1 Comment Peer Governance and Wikipedia (interview with Cedric and Barry Kort)

  1. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » Peer Governance and Wikipedia (interview with Hartzog; discussion with Bauwens, Cedric & Hartzog)

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