This piece was written by The Review’s resident Agony-Aunt, Somey, and first published on his Wikiphrenia site in May 2007.
Wikipedia is really, really big.
Impossibly big. So big, in fact, that nobody can really get their head around how big it is. That very bigness tends to cause a few problems. In some cases, big problems.
“When a group grows from dozens of individuals to thousands, it becomes impossible to feel any real acquaintance with more than a fraction of the population. When this happens, community standards and unwritten rules stop working. The group loses focus. Things fall apart.”
What are some of the manifestations of this problem, though? It’s all well and good to say “things fall apart” - it’s a lot like saying “Wikipedia is on the verge of collapse” or “Wikipedia is heading for a massive implosion.” Terms like “lose focus,” “collapse,” and “implode” are very handy - they’re often used by people who can see that something’s failing, but can’t quite explain the nature of the failure, or even the likely result of it. Of course, since this is Wikiphrenia.com, we know that the primary effects of failure are psychological, but the secondary effects are often quite practical - or rather, impractical.
Rules and Regulations
As a community grows and attracts an increasingly diverse base of disorganized users, any appearance of unity it might have once had gradually disintegrates. This is interpreted by some people as a “need for leadership,” which of course must be filled by leaders. And who better to lead the community than, well, me? I’m full of good ideas!
These would-be leaders become frustrated, though, when their well-meaning, innovative ideas are rejected by other would-be leaders who feel that their ideas are better, and aren’t willing to compromise. After all, why should they compromise? It’s not like anyone is physically forcing them to. Compromise doesn’t just make you appear weak, it actually weakens you, in a very real psychological sense.
On Wikipedia, some rulemakers might get frustrated and leave, perhaps never to return - but the rules they make are often left behind. It’s much more difficult to get rid of a rule than it is to make one, because there’s always going to be someone who agrees with the rule and wants to use it to serve their own purposes. The rule becomes an institution. But sooner or later, the rule comes into conflict with another rule, creating more hostility, and the appearance of an even greater need for leadership. Meanwhile, the people who can resist the frustration, and keep going in spite of it, become a kind of informal bureaucracy, or more accurately, part of the machinery.
As the bureaucracy and machinery grows, both in size and complexity, the people inside of it develop a sense of entitlement. This is perfectly natural and expected, even among people with the best of intentions: I’ve worked hard to make Wikipedia what it is today, and I won’t have some noob, some troll, some idiot in need of a “cluesticking” ruin all my hard work.
Unfortunately, on Wikipedia there’s always someone out there who feels that their hard work is more important, if not better, than yours. Whatâ€™s more, they’re not keen on you “owning” that little fiefdom you’ve set up for yourself. Maybe they don’t really want to take it away from you, but how would you know? Can you see the look on the other guy’s face? Check his body language? You don’t even know who he is.
So, to protect themselves, these not-so-easily-dissuaded people form alliances, cliques, and “cabals.” They do little favors for people, so that they can call in those favors when the chips are down. They vote for people they know nothing about, simply because someday those voted-for people might just remember it and vote for them in return. They try to make rules and influence policy specifically to ensure that their worst-case scenario - whatever it might be - never happens. In doing so, they tend to step on a few toes - and the people whose toes are stepped on start to think that someone else feels that their hard work is more important thanâ€¦ well, you get the picture.
Content is Queen
Many Wikipedians have an annoying habit of making a particular statement that goes like this: “Your disruption isn’t helping us build the encyclopedia.” Since the internet doesn’t let you have real, physical objects to use as weapons, you have to fashion them out of mere words. Most people discover fairly quickly which weapons work best. People are very clever that way.
And, in most cases, they’re right about the disruption - it isn’t helping. But this is also part of the fundamental hypocrisy of Wikipedia: Over time, the content itself takes a back seat to the process of creating it. Process is King!
Creation and maintenance of content isn’t an easy job, especially when the standards are always changing - and in most respects, getting higher. People start challenging key assertions, demanding sources, proof, facts and figures… and in some cases, this means doing actual research. That’s not something the average Wikipedian is interested in. Whatâ€™s more, it puts people on the defensive, and even if those people decide that discretion is the better part of valor and spend a few minutes on Google to find those sources, they’re not likely to forget the indignity of having to defend their preferred version of the truth.
But is content really improved by a “content dispute”? In some cases it is, but many - if not most - Wikipedians will tell you, it doesn’t always, and it often makes things worse. For one thing, content has a way of expanding to meet the needs of increased participation and, inevitably, contrary opinions, theories, and assertions. Since it’s rude and inconsiderate to delete things, article sizes increase in order to include alternate viewpoints. In most cases, the increased size and length makes articles less readable. (Take this blog entry, for example.)
Another problem is that content disputes resolve themselves into inaccuracies, undue emphasis, and most common of all, equivocation. People, events, and inventions that changed the world are now “said to have” changed the world. Animals and plants whose extinction would lead to severe consequences for life as we know it are now “believed to be important by some ecologists.” Human activities and ideologies which, if left unchecked, could significantly damage economies, cultures, and even our chances of ultimate survival are now “thought to be of considerable importance by several experts in the field.”
In the end, the process of resolving disputes drives the shaping and direction of content development. Newcomers to Wikipedia can always write about innocuous subjects in order to avoid disputes, but that only serves to keep Wikipedia ideologically safe for those who are already in positions of influence. And for non-innocuous subjects, dispute-avoidance also influences content, often in the same way a dispute would - in the few cases where it’s actually successful.
The Editor as Sociopath
Always remember that the person typing the words you read on Wikipedia is sitting in front of an inanimate machine, an essentially non-threatening object. That person can pour all sorts of nastiness and bile into his computer, and the computer itself will never hit back, at least not in a real, physical sense.
Also, some people are capable of completely ignoring the hurt feelings, anger, and distress they cause in others, even in physical reality. In a purely textual environment, that’s even easier to do. Indeed, many people who would never, ever dream of behaving in a sociopathic manner among actual people can easily do so when the worst likely consequence is a nasty textual message on a screen, easily ignored and quickly deleted.
People like me, for example.