Wikipedia takes a u-turn – The change in the editing concept of Wikipedia (Part One)

20 September, 2011 at 19:28 | Posted in Collaborative work, knowledge, Politics, Web 2.0, Wikipedia policy | 3 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Notes These are the first few paragraphs of an article I write about the concept behind the editing of Wikipedia and how it has changed. I will publish the next ones shortly. In the mean time, comments are welcome. Please note that this is a draft, so it might include mistakes or inaccuracies. If you find one and would like to correct me – I’d be grateful.

The three principles of Wikipedia

Wikipedia's puzzle piece stands between Veritas, the goddess of Truth, and the Mouth of Truth, which she holds in her hand.

Veritas, the Mouth of Truth and Wikipedia

Wikipedia has three basic rules to govern its editing policy, namely Neutral Point Of View (commonly known as NPOV), Verifiability and No Original Research (commonly known as No OR). The first rule, which, for many years, was also considered the most important one, was NPOV. The other two were added during the early stages of Wikipedia’s emergence. No hierarchy was set for these three rules. Perhaps they were considered harmonious, and in some respect they are indeed. For example, the “No OR” rule caters for neutrality and verfiability by screening out new analyses and views that were not subject to thorough examination and criticism, hence, are likely to be unreliable or biased politically, commercially, ideologically or otherwise. The Verifiability rule requires that every statement be attributed to a certain person or body, so that controversial statements would not be presented as commonly accepted facts.

And yet, quite often do these three rules contradict one another. For example, in case a place or a phenomenon have two names, each of which carries some political or emotional meaning. In such cases, using any of these names harms the NPOV principle, while inventing a new neutral one is a violation of the “No OR” rule. Most of the examples for this problem come from the field of geopolitical conflicts. Is it “the Malvinas” or “Falkland Islands“? Should the leading name be “the West Bank” or “Judea and Samaria”? Is this port city on the Baltic Sea called “Danzig” or “Gdansk“? In the latter case, Wikipedians on the English-language Wikipedia debated for months and eventually developed a scheme matching between periods in the city’s history and the appropriate name to be used in the certain context. They figured that neutrality would be better served if the city be called “Danzig” when referring to it in the time between the two world wars (for example) and as Gdansk in the post-World War II era. Such a solution would be futile for the West Bank/Judea and Samaria and for the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, since the conflict is ongoing and any choice could be interpreted as siding with one of the parties.

The term “massacre” is sometimes used to denote events that did not involve mass killing. The Boston Massacre in 19770 is a good example. The loss of lives is regrettable ofcourse, and yet the number of people killed is not considered a massacre by commonplace standards. The name “Boston Massacre” is, however, the name by which this event has come to be known, and after so many years, and after time healed most of the wounds, no one really cares  any longer about the title given to this event. This, however, is not the case with recent events, especially those which still have political, emotional or ideological significance.

Sometimes, even using or rejecting a certain terminology in an article about seemingly innocent subject might be problematic in terms of NPOV. Is Pluto a “planet” or a “dwarf planet”? You may ask, who cares, but I won’t be surprised if this issue touches sensitive nerves in the astronomical community. If you are in the business of Linguistics, think of terms like “pro drop” versus “null subject”. The two describe the same phenomenon. The former is a Generative Linguistic term that assumes the existence of an abstract “pro” element in certain languages. Linguists who reject the Generative (Chonskian) theory might frown upon such a title for an article about what they prefer to call “null subject”. In all of these cases, you cannot satisfy both neutrality and the “no original research” principles.

Problems exist anywhere. If they are not too harsh, they make our life more interesting. The issue here is not whether Wikipedia encounters problems. Sure it does. It is bound to encounter problems. The question is how Wikipedia resolves these problems, and more generally, what is the new concept (if any) behind its editing policy. Such concept is, and will always be, reflected in the way Wikipedia solve such contradictions as the ones I mentioned above.

There is another principle, never formulated explicitly but very much present, especially in the early days of Wikipedia. This is the principle of collaborative work. Now, most of our lives we work with other people and cooperate with them. There is no other way to live, let alone build projects. But Wikipedia, especially after its inception, presented the idea of building a systematic corpus of knowledge without a strict blueprint or editorial line, but rather by constant productive negotiation among the various editors. This constant negotiation was supposed to be the solution, or at least one of the major solutions, to the abovementioned problems. Productive negotiation would highlight the points on which all agree, single out the controversial issues and lead to an accepted decision on how to present the controversies fairly. This concept is somewhat utopic, and in my humble opinion, it indeed failed. However, I also believe it was not given much chance. Wikipedia took a sharp turn and adopted a different concept before a system of real collaborative work could evolve.


By the end of its first decade – Quo vadis Wikipedia?

18 October, 2010 at 07:06 | Posted in knowledge, Wikipedia policy | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Five cartoon images in various colors sitting or leaning on the Wikipedia puzzle-globe, engaged in deep reflections (Drawing by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal, originally for the 5th anniversary of the Hebrew Wikipedia).

Quo Vadis, Wikipedia? (By Mariana Ruiz Villarreal, orig. for 5th anniv. of Hebrew Wikipedia)

Victim of its own success

Wikipedia is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary. If you asked me, I would do without celebrations. A decade after its creation, Wikipedia needs most of all a profound self-examination. Wikipedia is actually a victim of its own success. It has become so popular so quickly, that it grew faster than its ability to steer itself efficiently toward its initial goals. You can think about it as a car speeding up to 200 km/h while its driver never expected anything beyond 30, or as a cargo ship being loaded with double the weight it was originally expected to carry. Success can turn into a curse unless handled with care. I am going to list some of Wikipedia’s crucial problems (in my humble opinion) and some suggested solutions.

Less bureaucracy, more transparency

Policing Wikipedia - When in doubt do without ...

When in doubt do without blocking (Image via Wikipedia)

Has anyone ever tried to read all the rules and guidelines that govern the work on Wikipedia? By size and complexity, the bylaws of the English-language Wikipedia resemble the code of law of a big province, or perhaps a small country. If it keeps growing, it would be recommendable to train special wiki-lawyers who would advise users about the legal consequences of their edits and defend them in trials. Don’t laugh, trials are already conducted on Wikipedia on a regular basis. There is an arbitration committee that functions like a tribunal, there are mechanisms for trying users for breaking rules. Remember, this project started with five pillars, the fifth of them stating “ignore all rules“. There is too much to “ignore” these days, and too many penalties to those who boldly follow this fifth pillar.

At the risk of sounding too romantic, I am going to cite Jimbo Wales’ Statement of Principles:

There must be no cabal, there must be no elites, there must be no hierarchy or structure which gets in the way of this openness to newcomers. Any security measures to be  implemented to protect the community against real vandals (and there are real vandals, who are already starting to affect us), should be implemented on the model of “strict scrutiny”.

These pages are hardly in line with the statement above: Editing Restrictions, General Sanctions. Here are some examples for cabals: WikiProject Palestine, WikiProject Israel (the former seems to be more efficient as a cabal, at least in recent time). Here are directions on how to apply for the elite of English-speaking Wikipedians: Guide to Requests for Adminship. It is slightly easier than applying for a US “Green Card”, but only slightly. Admins hold power that any “real world” judge in a democratic country could only dream of. And remember, there are mailing lists too.

Possible solutions
  • Abolish rules Reduce the number of rules to the minimum necessary.
  • Administrators – (i) Adminship should be restricted in time. (ii) An admin should reveal her/his real name, location and occupation – It is unethical to judge people hidden behind a mask. (iii) When in doubt do without blocking – “He seems a vandal to me, so I decided to block him” is not a legitimate justification.
  • Arbitration Committee should not produce new rules. It should accept requests for solutions to ad-hoc problems. It should deal with them in plain simple language and procedures. It should not impose restriction on users or define conditions for such restrictions.
  • Abolish “project pages”, these are nothing but substrate for cabal culturing. In general, redundant talk pages should be avoided. An article needs a talk page, a discussion page does not need a talk page for discussion about the discussion.

Excessive size and visibility

Perhaps the most crucial problem of Wikipedia these days, especially in Europe and the Americas, is excessive visibility. What seems to be a huge success (and it is, actually), is on the verge of becoming a curse. As I type this blog, links to Wikipedian articles pop in on my dashboard, suggesting I add them to my article. Seldom do I see non-Wikipedian link suggestions. The comprehensiveness and accessibility of Wikipedia is indeed very impressive, especially if we consider the fact that it is all the work of volunteers, but this is becoming too much and counter-productive. It reminds me of the time Israel had a single TV channel. When I said, I saw it on TV, it was obvious where I collected the information, and yet people rightfully complained that they want more TV channels in order to have more sources of televised information. Wikipedia was never meant to become a monopoly in the field of providing knowledge and information. Quite the contrary. The idea was to set Wikipedia as a model to more projects of free content. This is why the whole infrastructure of Wikipedia is code-free and free of charge. This is why Wikipedian activists enthusiastically try to convince institutions to publish their material under free license. People sometimes ask me, as a “veteran” Wikipedian, how to introduce their material to Wikipedia. I tell them to leave Wikipedia alone. If you have good stuff at your disposal, publish it under free license, or even better – release it to the public domain, put it on your own well-designed website, and let people read it there. If it is good enough you will become a source to Wikipedia, rather than becoming dependent on it.

Possible solutions
  • Play down the public relations for Wikipedia, it has had enough. Make Wikipedia more visible in places where people are still not very acquainted with it, like Africa, the Arab World and Eastern Asia, but in other parts of the world, it is free content and free access to sources of information that should be promoted rather than Wikipedia per se.
  • Encourage people to establish competitive projects. Wikipedia is not a commercial business, it can benefit from competition and should encourage it for the sake of its mission. Niche projects should especially be encouraged. People who are interested in a specific subject should be encouraged to start a new independent Wikipedia-like project about this specific project. This would also create smaller more consolidated groups of editors and reduce frictions and disputes among editors on Wikipedia itself.


Continue Reading By the end of its first decade – Quo vadis Wikipedia?…

Blog at
Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: