Good heavens, it’s a year or more since I had an argument with Nick Carr about Wikipedia. His Potemkinpedia starts out as a reaction to Noam Cohen’s Wikipedia: Exploring Fact City, which, I agree with Carr, mostly fails to transcend the lightweight in diligently pursuing the metaphor of Wikipedia-as-city.

But Carr goes on to argue, as he has before, that the essential culture of Wikipedia is changing, as illustrated by the imposition of editing controls on popular articles like those for Dubya and Barack. I think the evidence is against him, and I’m taking the time to say so because I don’t want the notion that Wikipedia is becoming a locked-down place to enter the conventional wisdom.

The Facts · Wikipedia is admirably self-documenting on this whole issue of “protected” articles [thanks to Prof. Carr for these pointers]: See Wikipedia:Lists of protected pages, Wikipedia:Protection policy (especially Semi-protection), and finally Autoconfirmed users.

What’s Protected? · Not very much. In particular, I couldn’t find anything “Fully protected”, i.e. only editable by an administrator, except for templates and user pages. As for Barack and Dubya and all those other allegedly too-hot-to-touch articles, I can edit them just fine, if I log in. I’m a very occasional and irregular Wikipedia contributor, which is plenty enough to make me “auto-confirmed”.

So, I would argue that:

  • The huge, overwhelming majority of users will rarely if ever see an article without “edit this page” at the top.

  • If they do, but they really want to edit the article, the threshold for becoming able to do so is very low indeed.

Prof. Carr pointed out in private conversation “the fact that semi-protected pages are watched very, very closely by Wikipedia administrators and the vast majority of edits are reverted immediately” and “the fact that the German Wikipedia now requires all edits to controversial pages to be reviewed before posting (and that Jimmy Wales has urged that a similar system be adopted for the English version).” These things granted, the fact remains that the vast majority of articles can be (and are) edited by anybody anytime, no permission required.

Prof. Carr has repeatedly argued that Wikipedia is heading in the direction of more top-down controls and thus a more conventional reference-publishing future. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising if he were right, but at the moment I just don’t see the evidence pointing that way.

What I Believe · Wikipedia is a new thing in the world. It resists metaphor: There isn’t anything else like it and there’s never been anything like it. It’s something that couldn’t have been predicted and can’t be explained by the conventional body of knowledge: in the common parlance, a miracle.


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From: Sam Johnston (Mar 29 2009, at 20:22)

As an active Wikipedian (see "cloud computing" et al) I so wanted to comment on that article to point out that autoconfirmed status is like Wikipedia's immune system, without which it would wither and die from the common cold.

Were I not so tied up with cloud standards (OCCI) and manifestogate I'd probably have written a post like this myself - thanks for saving me the effort.



From: Deron Meranda (Mar 29 2009, at 22:12)

In general, I also agree that Wikipedia is still amazingly open for editing. And I think it needs to stay so or it won't survive.

I usually stay away from controversial articles. But if anybody was around the night that Sarah Palin was nominated for V.P. you would have witnessed perhaps the closest to a meltdown of Wikipedia I'm aware of. Her article was getting dozens and dozens of edits every second, even the talk page was growing so fast it was getting archived almost as quickly as you could read it. It was a whirlwind of semi-protect, protect, opening back up, and scorching flame battles like I've never seen. Not even the administrators could keep up with the speed and confusion of it all; and before it was over even the administrators seemed to be in full-out battle with each other.

I think that was a hopefully-rare event that pushed Wikipedia beyond a new boundary: speed. In fact most of the calls to lock the article down were simply because things were moving so fast that nobody could make sense of anything quickly enough. It was as if a million readers suddenly turned into a million editors.

That was I believe the perfect storm of events and timing. An almost zero supply of actual facts and a nearly infinite demand for them. Of course, even the professional (sic) mainstream news media wasn't fairing much better. They were practically tripping over themselves in an embarrassment of journalism while launching an overnight invasion into Alaska.

In the end Wikipedia survived; but for several days it sure wasn't pretty. It makes you wonder what exactly are the kinds of impulse events, like that, for which Wikipedia is just unable to scale.


From: Dave (Mar 30 2009, at 02:01)

Carr doesn't explain why requiring login for popular vandalism targets is "top down" and not "collective". Surely real life collectives assign roles. And given his Potemkin metaphor gives it a flavour of the popular American tactic of labelling thing as "communist".

Also, given the scale of wikipedia, focussing on the protected pages is like going into a small town that's that people don't have to lock their doors and pointing out the bank vault.

(I wonder how hard Carr has to resist linking stuff like "Potemkin village" to the most obvious source of background info)


From: Gardner Campbell (Mar 30 2009, at 04:38)

I agree completely. What's needed in my view is for educators to explore the depths of this miracle with their students: editing pages to make the prose stronger, the facts and citations more reliable; combing the talk pages to learn about regular contributors, think about patterns of editing; looking carefully at Wikipedia policies, rankings, projects, etc. to get a sense of the scope of the project that it represents. There's a semester's worth of great and necessary work right there.


From: Drew Stevenson (Mar 30 2009, at 06:04)

Having been on the losing side of a disagreement with Wikipedia editors who knew absolutely _nothing_ about the article they were deleting, I'm inclined to believe the theory that it's becoming a top down oligarchy. All I had to do was look at the talk pages of the admins involved. Most of them were a litany of people asking that unreasonable deletes, reverts and bans be undone. It feels like every other article I read has a error/inappropriate/whatever template assigned. I guess I'm saying I'm frustrated by wikipedia's current state and I understand the criticizing article's concerns all too well.


From: Eric Meyer (Mar 30 2009, at 06:28)

Well, Wikipedia couldn't have been predicted by anyone except Vannevar Bush:

"First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him... Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified."



From: len (Mar 30 2009, at 06:58)

"resists metaphor: There isn’t anything else like it and there’s never been anything like it."

Schools have bulletin boards on every hallway. The one nearest the principal's office (head master?) is monitored and any unofficial posts are immediately taken down. The closer you get to classrooms, the less control over postings you find. I think you'll find that replicated across many companies as well. Before anyone says "but only the kids at school see that", it's just scale and content.


From: Mike M (Mar 30 2009, at 09:00)

It's not the list of semi or fully protected pages that concern me, at least those are documented and rare (and typically make good sense). What concerns me more are the fiefdoms that I've seen and heard of throughout the various categories in wikipedia. Editors that have a group of related pages all set to 'watched' and track each and every change and revert most of them because they aren't theirs or don't further their own perspective.

This won't be an issue for pages like Obama's or Dubya's, since those have millions of readers. It's the pages of lesser interest but that are still important that this will impact. Pages about regional issues, especially those involving sovereignty or history, will be the most at risk of this. Examples probably include pages discussing Tito, Macedonia, Cyprus, Gypsy (Roma), etc.

I've heard of editors that essentially have their little fiefdoms under total lockdown. For all intents and purposes, those pages are set in stone, and no amount of complaining on the talk pages or complaints through the wikeaucracy can dislodge these entrenched editors. It's the Wikipedia equivalent of this:

These fiefdoms aren't documented anywhere, and are far more dangerous to wikipedia's future.


From: piers (Mar 30 2009, at 10:40)

I'm going to have to pitch in with len here; however, not to sound too mcluhanite, but wikipedia *IS* scale and content. To the majority of users, it is read-web, not read-write web, and the ongoing potential of wikislicing for educational purposes are also remarkable.


From: Aristotle Pagaltzis (Mar 31 2009, at 06:53)

WRT the “just scale and content” thing, I want to quote Linus Torvalds on performance:

“One of the things I want to say about performance is that a lot of people seem to think that performance is about doing the same thing, just doing it faster, and that is not true. That is not what performance is all about. If you can do something really fast, really well, people will start using it differently. […] That’s the kind of performance that actually changes how you work. It’s no longer doing the same thing faster, it’s allowing you to work in a completely different manner.”

And I think the same is true of scale in the case of Wikipedia. Sure it’s “just” scale, but OTOH, if a quantitative change in some properties of a tool or system becomes large enough, it results in second-order effects (and they in turn in multi-order effects) that amount to a qualitative overall change.


From: Kunthar (Apr 01 2009, at 04:48)

Microsoft gave up with Encarta now.

Encarta stops publishing. This is the good news :)


From: Ben Hutchings (Apr 01 2009, at 05:14)

Dave wrote: "And given his Potemkin metaphor gives it a flavour of the popular American tactic of labelling thing as "communist"."

I wasn't aware that 18th century Russia was communist...


From: len (Apr 01 2009, at 14:11)

The scale change is access applied over the methods of the class (edit, delete, revise, review, etc).

The scalar is over the content.

What are the properties of the content to which the interpolator is being applied?


From: Ed Murphy (Apr 01 2009, at 22:02)

[really a clarification, not so much a comment] Carr's not a professor, and I don't think has ever claimed such.


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