Speaking Truthiness to Wikiality

[truthiness: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truthiness]

My article [available here on the blog or here on the BBC] about Wikipedia and the plans by the German edition to put new editorial controls in place on their edition on the site seems to have been taken by some of those involved as an attack on the site and its philosophy, at least if the postings to the English-language mailing list WikiEN-l are typical. This is a shame, since I’m on their side and thought that what I’d written was supportive, although definitely not sycophantic. Unfortunately it seems that anything less than complete approval of whatever happens inside the Wikimedia Foundation is an act of treachery, so you’d better mark me down as an apostate and draft the fatwa…

It all started so reasonably. After my article appeared on the BBC site Joe Anderson posted a message, ‘WTF Have I Missed’, in which he said the piece had ‘got my concern. Editorial control on the Wikipedia? What exactly have I missed?’. This then prompted a sensible and interesting debate about what precisely was being proposed, until Kelly Martin, a long-time administrator, decided to intervene by posting:

You basically missed the fact that Bill Thompson is fond of talking out of his ass.

Mark’s description of what German is going to be testing is not accurate. Anonymous users will still be permitted to make all the edits they want. The system that German is going to be testing will simply limit the impact that anonymous EDITORS have on anonymous READERS by changing which version of an article is displayed by default.

And later Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, known to his friends as ‘Jimbo’, decided I was worthy of attention and posted

The journalist is typical of bad journalists. Running with only the slimmest of understanding, he pukes out his biases about how the world works with little concern for underlying facts.

Fortunately for us all, there are also good journalists.

Which hurt, perhaps because I’m very sympathetic and supportive of Wikipedia, and think that it’s a massively important project that needs as much support as it can get. Of course I also believe that it needs critical friends who will point out what is wrong, or potentially wrong, who will speak truth to this particular power (unlike those who are happy to write hagiography, it seems) and such things are, evidently, unacceptable.

Since my article was based on what I’d read about the plans – and since I’m not a Wikipedia insider this was necessarily incomplete – it was in part an attempt to explore the implications of what was being proposed. And it seems that the details are not exactly as I described them – but that’s fine, I’m happy to accept that I made a mistake and will correct it where I can.

So while I wrote that ‘Under the new approach page edits will no longer be immediately applied to pages but will instead have to be approved by an administrator before they become visible. Vandalism or changes which are not approved will not appear.’ It now seems that this doesn’t reflect the plan as it is currently envisaged. Amgine, who kindly responded to my email asking for more details, says that she understands that the plan is ‘to have a flag on one revision in the history of an article which is known to not be vandalised, and readers who are not logged in to the software would be shown this version first, with a link to the “work-in-progress” version at the top of the article.’ The most recently edited and potentially vandalised article may not appear, but it will be there and could be seen by users if they wish.

This is a more subtle and, I’d agree, defensible approach. However it does introduce a new layer of editorial control and so my final point, that ‘putting more and more steps between editing and publishing risks damaging that sense of engagement and, as a result, could rapidly diminish Wikipedia’s usefulness’, still holds. This particular change may not be the one that breaks the contract between contributors and the Wikipedia, but it is definitely a step towards an editorially controlled future, and I think I was justified in pointing this out, not least because it’s a future I want to avoid.

It’s a shame that Kelly Martin and Jimmy Wales couldn’t bother to try to engage with me or offer any feedback to my comments, preferring instead to present me to the large number of WikiEN-l readers as someone who ‘is fond of talking out of his ass’ and a bad journalist. I can take it – I wouldn’t be engaging in a public forum if I couldn’t – but I’m sure that there are a lot of people who would be intimidated by such comments, or by the direct and unsubstantiated criticism from a major figure, and who might think twice about offering even helpful criticism in future.
Fortunately I don’t care what Wales thinks of me. Last time we met, at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia, he was happy to accept a drink from me at the Global Voices party, and keen to hear about the just-announced plans for the $100 laptop. He clearly liked the idea of putting Wikipedia on the laptop which I suggested to him at that party, and he seemed to like me. It seems that he didn’t know that I’d much rather write what I think than be friends with anyone.

After all, I’m a hack – it’s what we do.

7 Replies to “Speaking Truthiness to Wikiality”

  1. As someone who is regularly misquoted, or quoted out of context, and interacting with journalists on a daily basis… Thanks Bill. I do appreciate your concerns-I have them myself-but even more I appreciate your effort to understand what’s going on and to speak your mind about it.

    That’s the wiki model, in a nutshell.


  2. Hi Bill

    I just discovered your blog site through the bbc site. I’ve found your articles entertaining, open-minded, informative and thought-provoking. Keep up the good work!

    It’s a shame that people running a organisation like Wikipedia should be so rude, arrogant and insulting. I commend your gracious reply.

    When people react by personal attacks, my natural reaction is think that they’re creating a smoke screen to hide the truth. Certainly some of the Wikipedia adminstrators appear to have a personal agenda :

  3. So basically, you puke out of your ass?? That’s so rude.

    Whatever happened to “Wikiquette” (assume good faith and be polite and constructive)?

  4. Bit disappointed by the Wikicrew for posting such comments about you. Maybe those guys were having a bad day. This led me to wiki-up ‘bad day’. It links to a great page on Internet Meme and mentions that oh so famous video of an office dude smashing his pc to the floor. Also lots of other funny videos too.

    Don’t worry Bill, I’ll be wearing my ‘Save Bill’ t-shirt (think Ferris Bueller).

  5. Bill, I think your concerns are shared by many Wikipedians, including myself. Even the fogginess in the initial version of your article is the same confusion many of us editors feel when we hear tendrils of discussion relating to this proposal. You raised very good points that I know will continue to be hashed out over the coming months. I only wish some of the senior admins had reacted in a more dignified manner. They certainly aren’t making a good case for increased control, are they?

  6. Sorry to see you were jumped on. I like to think of us Wikipedians as a polite group, even though I know from experience that we aren’t always.

    Some of the frustration is probably directed at the media in general. Considering that Wikipedia is an open community whose administration takes place almost entirely online (making it very easy to learn about us), there has been some terrible reporting at times. The classic was an article that named Howard Rheingold as the founder of Wikipedia.

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