Friday, 1 February 2013

On Wikipedia

At uni I wrote my final-year dissertation on Wikipedia - by which I mean I wrote it about Wikipedia (on a word processor), and not that I wrote an unrelated thesis using the self-publishing medium of Wikipedia.

The idea for my subject matter had evolved in the previous years as I had become acquainted with the processes involved in editing Wikipedia. I had noticed that when I explained these processes to others who were unfamiliar to them, they normally elicited extreme interest and amazement, so I thought it would be cool to explain them formally in a thesis and hopefully provoke the same fascination in the examiners (it didn't work, if you're wondering). As one does for such tasks, I wrapped my explanation in thick layers of academic bluster, quoting a range of social scientists and over-complicated theories to support my ideas.

Several months after leaving uni, knowing that there was a considerable amount of research being conducted in similar areas, I decided to stick my dissertation online, in case anyone fancied reading it. It was subsequently picked up by a few bored souls, including one of the academics who the paper itself critiqued. Since I feel that some of the points I made in the paper are in fact quite interesting, albeit written in a "tedious and jejune" fashion, as someone rightly pointed out, I thought I would take a moment to explain them briefly in a more straightforward fashion.

Firstly (and this isn't actually in the thesis), it's very easy to edit Wikipedia. Most non-editors are scared of doing so, but this is because they forget that everyone else on Wikipedia is just as underqualified and moronic as they are. Thus you have just as much right as they do to edit. My advice is to take one of Wikipedia's most quoted (and misquoted) maxims to heart: Be Bold. Make any and all edits you see fit. If anyone removes or disputes your edits, then you must argue with them to convince them that your version is right. You can do this either by stating your argument in the "edit summary" box just above where you click "save page", or if you need more than one sentence, then make your case in the talk page for the article concerned, which you can access via a tab in the top left which says "talk". When making a case, use references and links that support your argument to prove scientifically that you are right, and also show how your version meets the standards of Wikipedia's policies and guidelines, which you can find by searching for policies and guidelines.

On Wikipedia, regular editors are constantly defending their actions and attacking those of others. Everybody thinks that they have the right version and that everyone else is in the wrong. As xkcd just pointed out the other day, Wikipedians are perfectly capable of using over 40,000 words in debate over the capitalisation of Star Trek: (i/I)nto Darkness (and I've seen more pedantic discussions go on much longer than that). Of course, most arguments concern more substantial changes, so editors try to show that their versions adhere closer to the key, eternally worshipped Wikipedian values of neutrality and verifiability than their opponents'. If you can do this, then the much-proclaimed power of consensus would side in your favour, or more likely, a visiting admin would be more likely to rule that your version should be instated.

In my thesis, I showed how Wikipedians used certain discursive tactics to try and make themselves appear more neutral and right. They would use language that was calm and terse to seem like they were academic, detached and generally wise. If they were provoked or challenged by others, their language would become even more emotionless, in order to make their opponent appear opinionated and rash.

This is the bit where I made a fairly obvious but academically "insightful" (ie over-dramatised) point. In  order to know how to use the right kind of language to make themselves appear neutral and verifiable and thus more "Wikipedian" and thus more right, editors had to have experience. They had to be familiar with the way other experienced editors talked. They had to know the forms to take and facades to present that would bring them the greatest success. They had to develop this kind of familiarity and experience in the same way that one becomes familiar or experienced in any community of interacting humans. You simply learn it over time. (In sociology, there's a fancy word for this: habitus).

This helps to explain the point that is always made about Wikipedia - it is hostile to newcomers. This isn't because newcomers are picked on, it's just because they don't know how to operate in a way that allows them to make successful edits. With their work constantly deleted or altered, and their arguments always failing to gain support or consensus because they are presented in the wrong way, new editors often become disillusioned and stop editing.

This picture of how Wikipedia works is admittedly a little bleak. It's kind of like the way economists stereotypically view human motivation as entirely profit-oriented. This is unfair, and if I were doing the dissertation again, I would try to make it more balanced. In fact, Wikipedian culture is rich, collaborative and mostly not at all self-serving.

The reason I gave a lot of space in my paper to explaining the more combative side of Wikipedia was that I wanted to dispel certain myths that have surrounded the site. Many regard the site as a utopian paragon of human collaboration - everyone working together to achieve great things. Some also see it as an absolutely astonishing and unprecedented social configuration - 1) there's no central leadership or coordination (people are just working at random!), 2) everyone's a volunteer (why would they bother?!) and 3) abuse of the free-editing policy hasn't lead to anarchy and collapse (how do they beat the vandals?!).

So I wanted to point out that actually, all these things are perfectly normal, and are common to most societies around the world. On point 1: most of us aren't lead or coordinated in our daily activities, but together we participate in and generate vast and successful economies and nation-states. That's simply what a society is - leadership has never been required. On point 2 - if you're participating in any old community, let alone a communal project that's making a difference to the world, you don't need to be directly motivated by things like money or success - you participate merely because it's your community, and that's where you feel comfortable.

Thirdly, vandals and other evil-doers on Wikipedia are easily defeated, mainly because the software is built so that any destructive edits can be removed basically instantaneously. In fact, I argued in the paper that there was just enough destructive editing on Wikipedia for it actually to be a good thing - it was serious enough that the community noticed it and rallied around it as a common enemy, giving themselves much-needed self-definition as a group, but it wasn't serious enough to actually harm the process in any significant way.

So: there's nothing wonderful or visionary about Wikipedia that isn't already present in most normal real-world communities. People don't magically work together. They argue and insult each other and use tactics and appearances to their advantage - it's a political system, just like any other.

This doesn't mean Wikipedia is flawed, however. It is still the amazing achievement that many say it is - they've created a database of all of human knowledge, for christ's sake. In fact if anything, my argument is even more uplifting and optimistic than those who merely say Wikipedia is a utopian dream-come-true, an anomaly that can never be repeated. In my version, the glory of Wikipedia is entirely to be expected - creating vast common enterprises that benefit everyone is what human societies have done for the last 6,000 years and what they will continue to do for the foreseeable future. This doesn't mean humans are nice or inherently good - it just means that society is wired so that out of the bickering and the infighting, the personal attacks and the demented vandalism, amazing things can still be built.

So it was a little ironic to be congratulated on my thesis by a couple of anti-Wikipedia groups - Wikipediocracy and  Wikibuster, who are among the many who feel that Wikipedia's systems are too elitist (hostile to newcomers), too anti-elitist (hostile to experts) and too easily abused. While of course there are improvements to be made, and genuine issues to worry about, there is no call to criticise the project as a whole. It basically works extremely well. And Wikipedians themselves are the first to agree that there are problems to be fixed - they're their own harshest critics, constantly debating with each other about how to improve things and voting on new measures.

Wikipedia has had its doubters from the start, and every day more people proclaim that the whole thing is doomed to wither away in a matter or months. But in truth there are no signs that it is likely to fail any time soon. The community of editors is too robust. And what they've achieved is too awesome.