Wikipedia: Out of hand

I had a bit of a run in with a Wikipedia editor this afternoon. This particular editor took it upon himself to remove some of the content I had posted on a Wikipedia entry. My entries were not scandalous, were not spam, or shameless self promotion, commercial in nature, or in any way shape or form invalid. If anything, my content contributed value to the article. Yet this editor took it upon himself to remove the content. When I asked the editor what the issue was, he only cited some ridiculously tawdry policy on the Wikipedia website. Even the referenced policy has been wikilawyered the point that it read like an obscure Massachusetts General Law regarding liquor sales the day after Christmas (but only if xmas is on a Sunday). The debate continues and now involves previous contributors and a couple administrators. I will confess that I made one mistake: in my defense of the content in question I used the word “gestapo” to describe the tactics and methods employed by the specific editor. That didn’t go over too well and I quickly apologized for my bad choice of words (and I meant it).

Wikipedia seems about as respectable as you can get when it comes to user generated web sites. People, any people, contribute content and that content is managed and modified by other users, through a sort of consensus with little oversight except to ensure quality, which is also determined by consensus. However, therein lies the problem. Who can assert that their content is better than someone else’s, and who substantiates him/her? And then him/her? And up the ladder it goes. This creates small content battles where one contributor suggests that his content is better than the next persons. But when you’re dealing with humans, who are self-proclaiming experts in a certain subject matter, you get disagreements. The only way to prove that one contributor is right is one of two ways:

  1. Someone comes up with supporting facts, to prove his/her own assertion, and thereby disprove someone else’s assertion.
  2. The community (typically a subset of the greater Wikipedia community) says so.
  3. An editor or administrator steps in and rules one way or the other (almost always creating a fight and what’s known as revert-wars)

Therein lies another problem. Revert wars? What?? I’m already hanging up the phone. Someone has to manage that process. Someone needs to take ownership of it, and perhaps more importantly, and dangerously, someone needs to keep watch over all of this. Naturally a large UG site like Wikipedia is subject to digital vandalism, spam, abuse, etc. Those things result in obvious user adoption problems – no user wants to return to a site where a) accuracy is an issue, and b) they might be subjecting themselves to unsafe digital experiences. So who manages all this? Well, there are editors and there are administrators. I only know so much about these roles, but I’m assuming there are different layers within those groups too. The more you do to improve an articles popularity, or accuracy, or what have you, the better an editor or admin you become. And from what I can tell, editors and admins have to even take Wikipedia tests, or somehow become qualified for the duties at hand.

There is an overwhelming amount of protocols that one must be aware of to participate on Wikipedia. There are rules, policies, guidelines, suggestions, etiquette, and much more. All of these things, combined with users, editors, and administrators is what I like to call beaurocracy. That’s what it is. A deeper look at this, such as my own bare-knuckled experience today, reveals a darker world – one of classes. Yes, there are classes in Wikipedia.

Basic contributors are clearly at the bottom of the totem pole. You can even be an anonymous user and still contribute content! Something I find absolutely absurd. Then you have the more savvy users, and editors, and administrators, and I’m sure there are other layers I’ve yet to see. All of these are classes of users. How you get to become an editor or administrator I do not know. But there are some sites that claim to have a list started. Take a look at that! That’s a bit frightening to me. That’s a list of editors and admins on Wikipedia that have really pissed some people off. There is one fella out there who had such a problem with a Wikipedia about himself, that he complained to the founder, Jimmy Wales and even created his own site to rant and rave about it all. I have to admit, I think he’s onto something.

Another thing that dawned on me during my experience today was some bad press I’ve read about Wikipedia. OK some of it might not be ‘bad’ but it’s not all that good. Any press I can think of as of late about Wikipedia has something to do with the tightening of restrictions that are starting to happen on the site, and the idea of the admins and editors getting a little, well, let’s avoid any German words. One article I enjoyed was in the NY Times in June.

I could go on and on about Wikipedia but the bottom line for me is that I just don’t like it all that much – I’ve tried and I’ve tried but I can’t buy-in. I can’t help but feel that when I use it to learn something, that I’m somehow being mislead, or miseducated. It’s sort of like watching Fox news (for me anyway) – I just feel like I’m getting only one skewed perspective, not fair and balanced. Wikipedia is like that for me. I use it, sure. I limit myself though – like I do with Fox news – I only watch Fox 25 at 10 when I just want the local headlines. I use Wikipedia only when I need to quickly get an understanding of a subject matter or a word that’s not in my vocabulary. Just the other day I used it to look up an acronym, “MSA.” I use the term a lot but I didn’t really have a good understanding of what it actually meant. Well, now I know. I didn’t rely on it and squeeze every last piece of information from it – I just got the gist of it. Ya know? Got my mind wrapped around it so I could a little more educated about the term for the next time I used it. If I was a student, for example, Wikipedia would be way too convenient, but also way too risky. It’s accuracy problems have been written about before, in one case by the very well respected journalist John Seigenthaler (the elder John, not the younger John on NBC Nightly News). Cases like this just make me more convinced that I should never really rely on Wikipedia for truly accurate information. I’m just glad I’m not an editor or an administrator because then I’d somehow feel I had a hand in it all – otherwise I’m just a mere contributor who doesn’t know any better!

All this brings me to a much bigger point, something I’ll have to think long and hard about before I spill it here in my blog. It’s this whole notion of User Generated content just being the swellest thing that’s shaking up the Internet. I might be overstating it, but some out there really think that Web 2.0 + User Generated content = radical changes and big $$$. I don’t see it. I think it’s a big flash in a bigger pan. I’m not a huge fan of user generated content. In some forums, yes, I’m a huge fan! But UG has it’s place on the Internet and I think it’s place has yet to really be defined and it will define itself. Just like it is on Wikipedia. Already, it’s becoming ever so slightly more editorial.

Anyway, more on UG and community at a later time. I’m going back upstairs to watch TV to get some real information