8th London Wikipedia Meetup

We went for a sunday lunch pub meet up with some wikipedia enthusiasts last Sunday. It took us a while to get this organised (and I even ended up doing a bit of the organising) but eventually the turn out was pretty good.

In the pub we had a few others like me, but actually most were wikipedia sysops and some were even more “powerful” within the chaotic organisation of wikipedia. I’m an enthusiastic wikipedia contributor, or at least I’m enthusiastic about what wikipedia represents. I am fascinated by wiki technology, and the processes that it facilitates within wikipedia (the most extreme example of a wiki).  I would say I have a deep understanding of this, but actually as far contributing goes, I only dip in and edit articles briefly when I spot somewhere I can make a quick improvement.

I met James F. who is on the wikipedia arbitration committee, and Theresa knott who used to be, and WJBscribe who is current chair of the mediation committee. What this basically means is, these people dedicate a lot of time and energy into keeping wikipedia going. These are the people who essentially have the “final say” with a calming voice of reason, when disputes turn nasty. I have a lot of admiration for them, but I wouldn’t want to take on the task myself.

What do I mean by “disputes”? Wikipedia encourages good will among contributors, as it opens up every article to public editing. Anyone can edit anything, and provided people act in good faith, that might be the end of the matter; the encyclopaedia just gets built… bit-by-bit, collaboratively. Remarkably this actually works a lot of the time. Unfortunately this is not always a harmonious collaboration. You may have to engage in a discussion to persuade others not to revert your edit. Where there is discussion, there may be debate, which leads to arguments, which lead to furious rows. Still, the people involved in such a row are allowed to edit the articles. To prevent the disputes raging out of control across the community, there are hierarchies and layers of permissions, and processes for “mediation” and ultimately “arbitration”. The people on the mediation and arbitration committee must regularly deal with people who will argue their cases politely (otherwise they would just be blocked), but who are simmering with anger and vitriol.

Seth Finkelstein’s critical description of wikipedia as an “elaborate hierarchical structure which is infested with cliques and factional conflicts” isn’t so inaccurate, but what does he expect? It’s an open community of volunteer editors in which the voices of sanity and calm need to somehow triumph when debates erupt. Perhaps he could suggest a better way of organising it (Instead he seems to be deeply concerned about the state of Jimmy Wales’ ex-girlfriend’s biography article). The mediation and arbitration committee have a kind of a position of power at the top of some hierarchy, but it looks like hard emotionally draining work. Clearly they are an essential part of what allows wikipedia to keep running smoothly. I am grateful that some people have the energy to do it.

Anyway… Those guys obviously enjoyed the opportunity to meet up face-to-face, chatting enthusiastically about organisational voting processes, and other such topics which went way over my head. The rest of us had some more down-to-earth chit-chat about general topics of interests. I briefly showed people some OpenStreetMap stuff before laptop battery died. This was all good fun. Hopefully we can arrange another London meet-up pretty soon.

6 thoughts on “8th London Wikipedia Meetup

  1. I failed to make this one, unfortunately. Hopefully next time!

    Seth Finkelstein’s description of it as an “elaborate hierarchical structure which is infested with cliques and factional conflicts” also applies to the real world in general. The essential problem being that you have to interact with large numbers of humans, as individuals and as a group, and this is hard. So, just like life then.

  2. I’m glad that someone read the article! 🙂 To reply to your objections:

    “but what does he expect?”

    Well, it’s important to be aware of the context I’m writing in. There’s an enormous amount of hype about how Wikipedia supposedly works via the magic of The Internet and Wisdom Of Crowds. And is thus leading a New Era. There’s been book after book flacking this stuff. It’s bunk, and I’m trying to deflate it – Wikipedia’s just a pretty typical cult (granted with some interesting twists due to being all online, but still nothing that can’t be properly understood).

    “Instead he seems to be deeply concerned about the state of Jimmy Wales’ ex-girlfriend’s biography article”

    Eh, it’s not the article in particular, but how it serves to illustrate the mechanism of influence and favor-trading, to explain those to people via a concrete example.

    Again, keep in mind that your “insider” perspective on Wikipedia is very different from what the general public often hears about it. They get fed a line of mysticism, not that it’s just a bunch of people who’ve been willing to work for free.

  3. Well I agree that some of the “wisdom of the crowd” hype is a bit over the top. Big business doesn’t want to know that wikipedia is not for profit, and to create wikipedia took years of careful community stewardship, rallying people around the cause of providing free open content knowledge. So web business analysts, the same people who proclaimed that “content is king”, will paint big dollar signs around ideas of “user generated content”, as if business can somehow exploit this. But glossing over the crucial detail that wikipedia isn’t about profit. There is a lot of business related hype which should be deflated.

    But your article is largely an attack on wikipedia itself. We can worry about the biography of Jimmy Wales’ ex girlfriend, and some people no doubt will worry about it. But to say this is focussing on the negative, would be rather an understatement, given there are another 1.4 million articles to worry about!

    It’s an online community, and very a large one, with all of the conflicts and cliques of the real world as David was saying. Sure there’s an open knowledge idealogy which many contributors believe in and rally arround, but to call it a “cult” seems unduly negative.

  4. I don’t view my article as an “attack on wikipedia itself”, but rather on the extensive mythologizing of it. Indeed, I’m saying very much what you state, in terms of “an online community, and very a large one, with all of the conflicts and cliques of the real world”. But, if I can attempt to cut to the chase, I read you as meaning that as an excuse for its flaws, while I take it as proof the the hype cannot be true, and it IS very flawed.

    How many of those other articles have similar problems from cliques? Or other problems? ANY infamous example can be dismissive with a hand-wave towards all the other articles. Do you see the logical problem there?

    Wikipedia is a community – in my view, a highly exploitative, dysfunctional one (pre-emptive anti-strawman: What didn’t I say? I didn’t say that an exploitative dysfunctional community couldn’t produce anything. Pretending I said that would be attacking a strawman. It’s the costs and limits which concern me). I would say “cult” is far more accurate in summarizing it, in capturing the essence of what drives it, than the gushing press I’m writing against.

  5. There’s a miriad of policies and guidelines in place to try to limit the “flaws” of social influence and favor-trading. These are nicely distilled in the 5 pillars of wikipedia. People easily deviate from these rules, because we’re all flawed human beings. Jimmy Wales is a flawed human being, but when he deviates people tend to cry foul very loudly, and the press announces a “scandal”. But the fact that people do cry foul within the wikipedia community is a positive thing. Content disputes get mediated. Edits are matched against the policies and guidelines. And across all 1.4 million articles, things carry on as normal (including thousands of simultaneous conficts)

    Does wikipedia always manage to patch up the flaws in human nature? No. Absolutely not. Cliques and factional conflicts are unavoidable. Whether the system is flawed or the system has some flaws, well that’s a glass half full/half empty kind of discussion. If you choose to take a negative viewpoint then….

  6. Almost every organization, even the most brutal and repressive, tends to have some sort of formal policies and procedures. If the prevailing view of Wikipedia was that it’s no better than any flawed clique-filled group of petty power-trippers, then I wouldn’t be writing those columns. Instead, it’s popularly held up as a very far-reaching revolutionary social model, and I believe that is quite wrong.

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