wikipedia: economies of community scale, cherish individuals first

Wikipedia is all over the place lately, from the New Yorker to The Atlantic to the Colbert Report [youtube]. Interesting side note regarding scalability of Wikipedia. Major media mention of articles on Wikipedia — particularly in areas known to be frequented by tech-savvy individuals — can result in whole swaths of mentioned articles getting protected status, something that can only be conferred by an administrator. You can trace the history of the Elephant article to see that it was getting a few edits a day until just about the time that the Colbert Report aired and then it began getting several edits per hour. In fact most of the articles mentioned by Colbert are now semi-protected.

This is a dramatic difference between print and collaborative online reference-type works. The transparency of Wikipedia is both a mark in its favor in a Library 2.0ish transparency way as well as a detriment in that it keeps track of every bit of bad behavior as well as every helpful edit. An open question is whether tracking the bad with the good results in less petty vandalism (your jerkishness on display for everyone to see) or more (Wikipedia history = hall of fame for vandals). We deal with this over on MetaFilter a lot, trying to figure out what to do with people who abuse the site and what to do with their contributions.

As a side reading project, I strongly recomment taking the time to dig through Jaron Lanier’s essay DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism and article about Wikipedia and other collaborative sites from the perspective of someone who both realy understands technology and also someone who examines it with a critical eye. I read the whole thing, I suggest you read the whole thing.

The hive mind should be thought of as a tool. Empowering the collective does not empower individuals — just the reverse is true. There can be useful feedback loops set up between individuals and the hive mind, but the hive mind is too chaotic to be fed back into itself.

These are just a few ideas about how to train a potentially dangerous collective and not let it get out of the yard. When there’s a problem, you want it to bark but not bite you.

The illusion that what we already have is close to good enough, or that it is alive and will fix itself, is the most dangerous illusion of all. By avoiding that nonsense, it ought to be possible to find a humanistic and practical way to maximize value of the collective on the Web without turning ourselves into idiots. The best guiding principle is to always cherish individuals first.

4 Responses to “wikipedia: economies of community scale, cherish individuals first”

  1. Mita Says:

    To me, the strongest critique I’ve read about Wikipedia is Jason Scott’s The Great Failure of Wikipedia that I learned about through unalog. After reading Scott’s piece I couldn’t help but think that Wikipedia will eat itself. It will be a victim of its success and turn into Usenet.

    Wikipedia has been nagging at me for sometime now. I love it. I hate it. I’ve been rambling on about it.

  2. jessamyn Says:

    That’s a great article! I did get a little sidetracked in the seventh paragraph or so when Scott said there were two reasons for criticism of Jimbo Wales:

    “Number one: Along the process of putting together Wikipedia, he has put together an excellent vision but in doing so, while he’s given over some of the responsibility to the Wikimedia Foundation and other parts, he has maintained control of Wikipedia.”

    Good point, and then I waited for number two…. Thansk for linking to this (and to unalog!)

  3. Chuck Munson Says:

    Jessamyn: I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with Wikipedia. I’ve blogged about my thought and I’ve participated on the site. Our Infoshop website now has its own open encyclopedia, so I’ve seen all sides.

    I think I’m ready to give up on Wikipedia. The Colbert Report stunt just illustrated the real problems with Wikipedia, which I’ve been experiencing this week as various assholes keep editing the entry on me to include unfavorable content. I could probably write an interesting article on all of the bizarre changes people have made to the Wikipedia entry on me. Wikipedia has no process to prevent anti-social behavior and if one tries to edit entries you just get burned by more assholism.

    The problems with Wikipedia are so massive that I’m sure they discourage people from being involved who have good intentions, but don’t have time for all of the Wikipedia subculture and petty nonsense.

  4. Metametametadata Says:


    Stephen Colbert enlists the aid of wikipedia in making his own reality. Wikiality I wonder if he knows that the process for defining reality that he defines is a true process? For more interesting analysis please see Jessamyn’s post….