Fixing Wikipedia’s public image

October 30, 2006

Please take a moment to digg this post.

Identifying the problem
While there are many problems with Wikipedia, only few of them – as far as I can tell – are really major.

There is the ongoing quest for acceptance among teachers and students as a viable source of information. That battle was won long ago: by the time Nature published their own review of the encyclopedia (so soon after the John Seigenthaler scandal), Wikipedia had already become well entrenched in schools across the Western world. The site’s popularity is unquestionable and its accuracy, while inconsistent, is generally very high as a result of policies such as WP:CITE and the community’s determination to improve the quality of articles.

The website’s administration has also been the subject of debate, and it’s not uncommon for someone to raise the flag of advertising as a means of sponsoring the development of Wikipedia. Fortunately, that will never happen.

And finally, there is the issue of vandalism, which is pretty limited by both the efforts of  just two groups. The first is in the form of automatic software like AntiVandalBot, which sends suspected vandals a nice friendly warning message:

Your recent edit to Petrov Affair (diff) was reverted by an automated bot that attempts to recognize and repair vandalism to Wikipedia articles. If the bot reverted a legitimate edit, please accept my humble creator’s apologies – if you bring it to the attention of the bot’s owner, we may be able to improve its behavior. Click here for frequently asked questions about the bot and this warning. // AntiVandalBot 03:43, 31 October 2006 (UTC)

The second group is a number of devoted Recent Change Patrollers, who spend a huge amount of time manually reverting the bad edits that slip past AntiVandalBot and warning those that make them. You see, that’s where it all goes so wrong.

Recent change patrol, for the uninitiated, involves constantly watching this webpage, which shows every new edit made to Wikipedia at a rate of around 1-200 edits every minute. The sheer volume of editing on the website – which now has over 1.4 million pages in total – is absolutely enormous, and what changes that aren’t automatically detected to be vandalism are then the responsibility of the Patrollers. These users, upon finding an edit that they think reduced the quality of the article, revert to the previous version of the article and place a message like this on the offender’s talk page:

{{subst:test1}} –~~~~

What does that mean? Well, it’s simply a template that copies a few lines of text onto the user’s page, warning them not to reduce the quality of articles and signing with the Patroller’s name, and their signature. For instance, if I were to leave this exact message, it would look like this:

Thank you for experimenting with Wikipedia. Your test worked, and it has been reverted or removed. Please use the sandbox for any other tests you may want to do. Take a look at the welcome page to learn more about contributing to our encyclopedia. –Daveydweeb (chat/patch) 10:18, 30 October 2006 (UTC)

It all goes wrong in one of two places.

1. The problem with zero-tolerance for vandals

Obviously, since this part is all being done by humans, the exact warning they choose is entirely their own decision. Hell, there’s a whole page to choose from (and those are just the most common), ranging from the friendly template I showed you above up to and including extremely terse warnings like this:

{{test4im}}

Which produces:

Welcome to Wikipedia. We invite everyone to contribute constructively to our encyclopedia. Take a look at the welcome page if you would like to learn more about contributing. However, unconstructive edits are considered vandalism. If you continue in this manner you may be blocked from editing without further warning. Please stop, and consider improving rather than damaging the work of others. Thank you.

Because real vandals – the ones that actively seek to damage Wikipedia – have become such a popular target of hatred among Wikipedians, it’s all to common for Patrollers to vent their frustration and hold a zero-tolerance policy against vandals. Even simple tests will often receive a warning similar to the one above, without following a progressively strong sequence of messages and without any proper explanation.

This only breeds the impression that Wikipedia is run by a community of, well, heartless bastards. More importantly, though, users that wish to contribute after a warning like that, but are unfamiliar with the website’s increasingly complex controls and markup language, are just as likely to be blocked temporarily as they are to be scared away from editing entirely. Generally, nobody will offer them help, and they don’t know where to ask for it, because “blatant vandals” don’t receive the {{welcome}} tag on their page.

Making matters worse

Things are far more worrying when we consider blog posts like this, posted just a week ago. In it, “Doug” writes about his loss of respect for Wikipedia, based on the following concerns:

  1. Wikipedia’s 1,000+ administrators are almost all anonymous and hence, unaccountable.
  2. Administrators are never held up for their actions, and are often promoted after just 3 months of activity.
  3. Rogue admins (the concept of a “rouge admin” is a Wikipedia in-joke) are almost never rebuked or have their powers revoked: only about fifteen have ever lost adminship, and there is no place to lodge a complaint against them.

Unfortunately, Doug has misunderstood a lot about Wikipedia – that admins are hardly more important than other users and hence only accountable to the same degree; that a very tiny majority of them ever misuse the tools; that de-sysopping is more common than you’d think – but that’s not the point. What worries me is that he was confused like that in the first place.

Another, far more public example of such a misunderstanding is the case of Wikipedia’s article on the acronym “FTFF” (“Fix The Fucking Finder), a common expletive among Mac-using forum members at Ars Technica, of which I am just one. When the page was nominated for deletion in August 2006, a debate was sparked both at the Wikipedia deletion page and at Ars itself. John Siracusa, a man I admire and respect, took the issue to heart because the perceived injustice – which soon centred itself around a misunderstanding of Wikipedia’s citation policy, which places less emphasis on blogs than it does on, say, national newspapers – and the debate dissolved into an eventual deletion that still inspires some resentment at the forums.

The very first reply in that thread really sums up the attitude we often find:

I love Wikipedia, but I hate hate HATE HATE HATE Wikipedians.

It’s far more common than you think.

Fixing the problems

So, what can we do about this? The problem is obviously a major one, and it saddens me to see new users permanently turned off the website because of the insensitivity of certain users. Civility is paramount at Wikipedia, and user groups like Esperanza put a lot of effort into making users welcome.

What needs to be done? I have a few thoughts.

Every new user to Wikipedia should receive the same benefit under the policy of “assume good faith“. Every Wikipedian must take special care to never bite the newcomers, a guideline which needs expansion to warn users never to assume that everyone has same level of confidence at Wikipedia. Incivility from administrators should never be tolerated, and the processes by which they are both promoted and demoted should be made open for all users, and advertised more in the community.

The Wikipedia community has a lot to answer for, and certain standards that must be maintained to keep itself healthy. New users shouldn’t be forced to go through the intimidation that is currently common among more experienced users.

I call it a “noble dream”.

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3 Responses to “Fixing Wikipedia’s public image”

  1. Richard Says:

    My personal experience of Wikipaedia is one of spending a considerable amount of time and effort on a subject that I know a reasonable amount about, and then having my complete sub-article slowly and covertly nibbled away at until it eventually disappeared.

    Why?

    Because it didn’t fit in with the mindset of those Wikipeadians who are overly scientific. Bad thing? Very bad thing. The neutral POV simply doesn’t exist on this planet. By arbitrarily deciding on a neutral POV and then deleting everything that didn’t fit in with that POV the finished article was determined by those who spend a considerable amount of time hanging around Wikipaedia.

    And such people are ….?

    You tell me, but maybe they’re people who like to belong to a group, who have a lot of time on their hands, who like pedantic editing, who take pleasure in learning and operating the mechanical aspect of the site, who blieve there’s a neutral POV – in other words, all those square pegs who fit in with the square holes of the Wikipedia.

    The solution? Change the psychological profiles of those Wikipaedians who exercise most power simply by being there all the time and making the effort to learn how the system operates.

    And how do you change their psychological profiles?

    Get rid of the concept of the neutral POV for a start. Allow at least two other options, one to the to ‘left’ and one to the ‘right’ of the perceived neutral POV

  2. David Gerard Says:

    Yeah. The principle of a wiki is that you let any idiot edit your site, and then try to set it up so that the good idiots out-edit the bad ones. When you’re #11 website in the world, the bad idiots are of *remarkable* virulence and the good idiots can become a little shell-shocked.

    And, like any immune system under siege, it can get overenthusiastic. If you look at Recent Changes or Special:Newpages, you can see the firehose of spam, crap and toxic waste the patrollers deal with, and you will be unsurprised they can get a little … tense.

    But we’re very aware of the problem as a public-relations disaster and are trying to alleviate it.

    Note by the way that there are a few thousand highly active editors on the English Wikipedia in any given month; it’s not a monolithic ideological bloc by any means.

  3. Billy Bob Bluxo Says:

    The biggest problem with Wikipedia is their obstinate refusal to include any articles about pelican shit. The whole world waits with bated breath for news about pelican shit, and the Wikipedians won’t release it. They are simply pelicanofaecophobic. Kenneth sits upon the rock.


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