Wikipedias “Six Sins” debunked

November 11, 2006

I’m not a reader of The Conservative Voice, but after reading this I think I may stay that way. Sam Vaknin of the Voice speaks from a position outside of Wikipedia itself, and that leads to problems with the “Six Sins of Wikipedia” that the article proposes. Let’s take a look at them, shall we? (I strongly recommend you read this rebuttal, written back when the essay was originally posted at American Chronicle).

The overwhelming majority of contributors to and editors of the Wikipedia remain anonymous throughout the process. Anyone can register and members’ screen-names (handles) mean nothing and lead nowhere. Thus, no one is forced to take responsibility for what he or she adds to the “encyclopedia” or subtracts from it. This amounts to an impenetrable smokescreen: identities can rarely be established and evading the legal consequences of one’s actions or omissions is easy.

This was the criticism originally raised by people such as Daniel Brandt, and it’s worrying that so many people take it to heart. The Wikipedia community itself is well aware of this problem of anonymity, and has responded appropriately: anyone, anyone at all, may edit Wikipedia — but to make factual changes and controversial claims, they need to produce valid sources that verify them. Unsupported claims, especially on biographies of living people, are deleted immediately.

What does this mean? Simply, that Wikipedia outright rejects original research, and demands verifiability from all its editors.

As to the issue of taking responsibility for one’s actions at Wikipedia, Sam is again mistaken. The ability to remain anonymous on the internet allows Wikipedians to edit without the fear of reprisal, leading to as open an encyclopedia as you could ever hope for. The claim that this anonymity prevents them from taking legal responsibility for their actions is, to put it bluntly, crap.

That’s not all, though. This sinning continues:

Everything in the Wikipedia can be and frequently is edited, re-written and erased and this includes the talk pages and even, to my utter amazement, the history pages! In other words, one cannot gain an impartial view of the editorial process by sifting through the talk and history pages of articles (most of which are typically monopolized by fiercely territorial “editors”).

Uh, no. History pages are deleted in only two circumstances: the first, when a previous edit (known as a “diff”) in the history of that page contained sensitive information, and was removed to protect its subject (so, personal information, and so on). This usage was recently superceded by the introduction of Oversight, and no longer exists.

The second is when articles themselves are deleted, because it met on of the community’s criteria for deletion. That’s a far cry from Vaknin’s claims that the editorial process is opaque to outsiders — talk pages are timestamped when users edit them, including their username or IP address, so that specific edits can be tracked to the users that made them. More importantly, though, an article’s history will virtually never be deleted today while leaving the article in place: if you’re reading an article today, the chance that its history was ever deleted is miniscule.

Even then, though, Vaknin fails to realise the power of undeletion. It is entirely common for administrators to recreate articles after they were deleted, complete with their talk pages, so that even if an article is deleted the original is still available. Lastly, you can even tell exactly when a deletion has been made by looking here.

Now for the second Sin:

The Wikipedia [sic] is not an experiment in online democracy, but a form of pernicious anarchy. … The Wikipedia is not conducive to the unfettered exchange of information and opinion that is a prerequisite to both (a) and (b). It is a war zone where many fear to tread. the Wikipedia is a negative filter (see the next point).

First, and most obviously, is that Wikipedia itself does not claim to be a democracy, and the community has never attempted to run it as one. No democracy in the world works on a policy of consensus in the same way as Wikipedia; “50% + 1” victories simply don’t exist there, and for good reason. Decisions are instead made on consensus, when only a small minority are against propositions — from experience, I’d say that threshold is at around 75-80% support for most processes.

This is the kind of claim that can only be supported by evidence, and that’s exactly the thing that Vaknin neglects to provide. Rather than fight rhetoric with rhetoric, perhaps it would be worth pointing to the half a dozen new user accounts created every minute instead. I think that speaks for itself.

As callous and rude as the Wikipedia community can be at times — the tiny minority certainly does give the whole a bad name, at times — it evidently isn’t preventing new users from contributing as much as they’d like to.

3. The Might is Right Editorial Principle

Lacking quality control by design, the Wikipedia rewards quantity. The more one posts and interacts with others, the higher one’s status, both informal and official.

Vaknin clearly hasn’t spent much time at Wikipedia. A user’s “edit count” is the least valuable metric currently used on Wikipedia — “editcountitis” is the common term for people who place the quantity of a user’s edits above their quality, and their opinions are often discounted when necessary because they lack grounding in reality.

That said, Vaknin’s claim here is pretty bizarre. To count a user’s edits is no easy task on Wikipedia: it involves using one of a variety of special tools, such as Interiot’s Tool, to laboriously look through the user’s contributions and sort them. This process takes a great deal of time — try it for yourself by looking at my own statistics — and it’s ridiculous to assert that Wikipedians actually spend the time doing so. We’re a lazy bunch, you know.
Users’ opinions are judged on actual merits: that is, the extent to which they are logical, meet Wikipedia policy, and can be supported with evidence and sources. Vaknin is, again, absolutely wrong on this point.

The more aggressive (even violent) a member is; the more prone to flame, bully, and harass; the more inclined to form coalitions with like-minded trolls; the less of a life he or she has outside the Wikipedia, the more they are likely to end up being administrators.

Actually, the more aggressive a member is, the more likely they are to be hung, drawn and quartered. The difference is small, but significant, and even administrators are subject to such discipline.

The Wikipedia’s ethos is malignantly anti-elitist. Experts are scorned and rebuffed, attacked, and abused with official sanction and blessing. Since everyone is assumed to be equally qualified to edit and contribute, no one is entitled to a privileged position by virtue of scholarship, academic credentials, or even life experience.

This is the one point on which Vaknin comes tantalisingly close to the truth, but just falls short. The problem is one of verifiability, which is where the misunderstanding comes in.

Since Wikipedia is an open, mostly-anonymous encyclopedia that allows absolutely anybody to edit, we’re faced with the problem that anybody can edit. Vaknin is correct in noting that the community absolutely does not trust “experts” on any topic, because their expertise is substantiated only by their claims to it — there is no proof that they are who they say they are, and never will be. Thus, every user must live up to the same standard of verifiability: experts must cite their sources, and use evidence just like the rest of us.

Obviously nobody is entitled to a “privileged position”, because it must be earned through the effective use of evidence. How, exactly, is it a Sin to demand verifiability?

The next accusation is that Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia, a point that Chris Sherlock rebutted nicely here. The more important problem, though, is that Vaknin goes on:

The Wikipedia thus retards genuine learning by serving as the path of least resistance and as a substitute to the real thing: edited, peer-reviewed works of reference. High school and university students now make the Wikipedia not only their first but their exclusive “research” destination.

What?

First and foremost, in no way does Wikipedia force these students to make the website their first port of call. The problem can more accurately be attributed to the increasingly accessibility of information brought on by the advent of the Internet itself — and Vaknin, here, is making Wikipedia a whipping boy for that problem.

Secondly, this problem is a source of constant concern at Wikipedia, leading to the development of Featured Article Review and the policies I mentioned earlier. Moreover, its the responsibility of the students themselves to develop skills that allow them to determine the value of any and all sources that they come across — it’s not unknown for widely-accepted, acclaimed works to be thoroughly debunked decades later, so students inevitably need to take a critical view of everything they read.

This is not a problem with Wikipedia, nor is it a problem with the Internet in general. The fact is simply that students need to be discerning at all times, regardless of their source, and that’s not something you can pin on a project like this.

Finally, we come to this:

6. The Wikipedia is rife with libel and violations of copyrights

As recent events clearly demonstrate, the Wikipedia is a hotbed of slander and libel.

In contrast to what Vaknin would have you believe, libel is a major consideration among the administrators at Wikipedia. I mentioned the Oversight tool earlier, which allows the permanent removal of libel and other sensitive edits; on top of that, accusations of libel are often taken to the Wikimedia Foundation and promptly removed through “Office Actions“. Recent change patrol does an extremely effective job of removing such problems, as does WikiProject Biography, and trouble users are invariably blocked to prevent further damage.

The burden of proof is on Vaknin, to demonstrate that Wikipedia genuinely is a “hotbed of slander and libel”. The fact that there has been no public incident of libel since the Siegenthaler debacle a year ago says some very good things about the website.

The Wikipedia has been legally shielded from litigation because, hitherto, it enjoyed the same status that Bulletin Boards Services (BBS) and other, free for all, communities have.

Vaknin claims that Wikipedia has no effective means of removing copyright problems — denying the existence of Wikipedia:Copyright problems in the process — and fails to realise that the Wikimedia Foundation itself can be found liable if it fails to follow the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act. It really is in Wikipedia’s best interests to remove copyvios immediately, and the existence of software like OrphanBot is testament to the effort put into cleaning up the site.

Disclosure
After the essay was originally posted, he also added a postscript to the bottom:

I was also banned from posting to the Wikipedia – my punishment for what the Wikipedia calls “sockpuppetry” (essentially, editing articles without first logging in to one’s account).

This is a lie, nothing more or less. From Wikipedia:Sock puppet, we get the actual definition of a sock puppet according to policy, and for which Vaknin would have been blocked. He does not disclose his username, however, which makes the task of determing the actual events behind the block — ironically enough, the man that asserts that Wikipedia lacks real openness and is rife with users “rewriting history”, neglects to provide evidence for his own block at that very website. Personally, I’m not going to take this claim on trust.

There is not a shred of proof, of course, that I have edited any article, with or without logging in.

Let’s get this fact straight: a block is a measure that prevents editing from troublesome users. If Vaknin became aware of his block, his would first have to have created a user account in order for someone to be able to identify him; he would then have to have edited, and attempted to edit again in order to discover that he had been blocked. Again, this is another contradiction of reality.

There’s also the fact that Vaknin created the article about himself — but he won’t tell you that — which was promptly deleted as self-promotion.

It is ironic, since the vast majority of Wikipedians – including the administrator who banned me – edit articles anonymously or hide behind utterly meaningless handles and screen names. There is not a shred of proof, of course, that I have edited any article, with or without logging in.

How could Vaknin be so wrong, on so many points? At best, this article is a misrepresentation of reality, and gives readers a totally false impression of Wikipedia. This article really needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and perhaps the author needs to research a little deeper before attacking the site like this.

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One Response to “Wikipedias “Six Sins” debunked”


  1. […] The number of active users appears to be increasing swiftly too, now that Citizendium has lowered the bar for new user applications. People wishing to join now need only provide their real names and a short bio that would be posted on their userpages; Sanger’s project is trying hard to fight the notion that Wikipedia editors are anonymous and unaccountable, by demanding that its own users be accountable in the sense of providing real information about themselves. […]


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