Time Heals All Wounds.. And Then Kills the Patient
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Evening
Evening
Mon Jan 31 16:26:40 2011
Sneezes while Sneaking
Topics:

I recently came across Kat Walsh (a prominent-and-awesome Wikipedian I used to know)'s Women on Wikipedia essaylet. I don't have a lot to add on that topic — I'm sure that the regularly inculturated interaction styles differ between males and females (probably differing regionally and by subculture too), but not everyone shares that inculturation. There is a natural high tension on Wikipedia because of the nature of the project; by being a global context/setting/group where people with a lot of different cultural norms, speech habits, and notions of what an encyclopedia should be must collaborate, there is difficulty in convincing swathes of existing or future contributors to adhere to a set of norms. The mechanisms of consensus, broadly understood to be necessary and healthy for societal self-regulation, are called despotic by some former members of the community (particularly those driven out for their inability to compromise). This complaint is in the extreme minority, but differences of opinion (such as this) are important object lessons in community interaction, illustrative of ideas one could get from a study of political philosophy.

With Wikipedia, I could say that I was there before the start — I was on the nupedia mailing lists and watched that community flounder for a while before turning my attentions elsewhere, and once Larry Sanger started Wikipedia, I lurked and edited anonymously for a time before establishing an identity there. On one hand, Wikipedia has gathered a lot of content, some of it high-quality. It has been interesting to watch power structures evolve within the community, and I believe a very nice encyclopedia-ish thing could be carved out of what the project is. On the other, I think there's been a governance gap between the highest levels and the content-creators, and while it's been interesting to see the community more-or-less fill that gap, I suspect (not sure) that something more structured would've given better results. The problems could either have been dealt with culturally or through the more formal structures (there are formal structures, and I was part of some of them) — I believe that either the existing formal structures are not comprehensive enough or that the informal mechanisms have failed to generate a culture that could adequately handle big decisions and goal-defining on its own. I don't think Jimbo *or* Sanger were the right leaders for the Wikipedia project, and so I ask, with the benefit of hindsight, 「How would I have run Wikipedia differently?」

  1. I believe that there should've been a stronger central discussion of standards and rules for the project, and that very few disputes should've been discussed on a per-page basis. Content-based straw polls should've been rare, and much more comprehensive/tight standards for articles should've emerged. Some of this is for consistency, some of it is to prevent the same issues from coming up in many different places, and some of it is good for the community in that when decisions are reasonably final, people will accept that decision or leave
  2. I believe the initial goals of the project (and cultural guidelines) should've been more clear. Debates over deletionism versus inclusionism were (are?) due to an unclear vision, and these create ill-will. Were I to have managed this, I would've defined an encyclopedia as an effort to codify academic knowledge, and provided the metrics of
    1. The goal of an Encyclopedia is to present academic knowledge to the general population
    2. Any content that is not likely to be relevant in one hundred years should not be included. Any content that is included should take that 100-year perspective.
    3. There are other wikis; when in doubt, information that does not fit with traditions of Encyclopedia can and should be hosted elsewhere.
    4. Verifiability is necessary but not sufficient for coverage.
    5. People with excessive interests in pop culture or OCD can easily derail the project
  3. The product is the goal, not the culture that produces it
  4. There should be formal respect for academic expertise which takes precedence over popular reporting. On matters of truth, we should imagine the following hierarchy (on matters of phrasing/prose/presentation, no deference to expertise is necessary/desirable — experts do not own articles):
    1. Professors with known names speaking within broad academic consensus on their topic of expertise, supported by publications
    2. Other people summarising broad academic consensus, supported by publications
    3. Other experts speaking within topical consensus on their field, supported by nonacademic publications (only when the field is of academic/broad interest)
    4. Other people summarising topical consensus on a field, supported by nonacademic publications (only when the field is of academic/broad interest)
  5. Precedence should figure more strongly into disputes
  6. Leadership should not tiptoe around larger disputes on the project. When a decision is needed, it should be willing to step in impartially, firmly, and with relative finality. This should generally be reserved for matters that relate to project vision or to make sure that topics of contention don't remain damaging in the long-term.
  7. Flagged revisions should've been there from the start, and it should be present on all articles now.
  8. In general, discussions on the project should more resemble juristic reasoning, not democracy. Voting is less valuable than a reasoned discussion that references accepted principles of the project. Policy interpretation should be based on qualified sets of people reading the arguments, not a single person counting the votes.
  9. People new to the project should not be given weight in decisionmaking or disputes — time and an understanding/acceptance of policy should be required for someone to become vested. Likewise, admin rights should not be a standard rite of passage for each editor, nor should it be seen as "no big deal".
In sum, I believe that an excessively egalitarian spirit, ill-defined goals, and hands-off approach by Jimbo have hurt the project.

It is important to note that I would not expect conflict to go away or for the endless stream of malcontents who have left the project to become happy — to do that would be to set expectations far too high. There is no way for reasonable organisations to suffer trolls without causing great unhappiness (are trolls a symptom of undersocialised, excessively individualistic people? How do other cultures deal with them? Could they be "corrected" with "a good talking-to" in-person? What kinds of jobs do they tend to have off-the-network where their tendencies are not a barrier?)

Some of you may not have heard about the murder of David Kato, a gay activist in Uganda. The details of the murder are not clear, although he had recently been targeted by a newspaper that outed many gays and suggested people "hang them". As background, a number of American far-right missionaries have been working with the Ugandan parliament pushing a bill calling for the death penalty for homosexual acts. This murder is a sad act, a sadder one yet if it is in fact related to homophobia in Uganda. Until:

can: there is a fundamental injustice to address in the world. Likewise, we can and should disrespect the portions of any religion, philosophy, or culture that disapprove of homosexuality/non-gender-normativity or would block legal rights for the same. This is our commitment as liberals, and in common with those of whatever other political identities that would join us on the issues.

I believe U.S. Foreign Policy should take an active stance in pushing other nations on this front. Should there be criminal liability for those evangelicans that are either pushing the death-penalty-for-homosexuality bill or contributed to the culture of hate? Probably not, although I believe:

  1. It is an option to ban missionary activity as a reason for travel. This (international travel) is within the realm of reasonable control that states may place on their people, just as they might reasonably not permit someone to leave the country to join a foreign war. People might lie about why they travel, and it's reasonable that the state might apply sanctions for that deception or investigate the reason for travel. (I believe it is also a reasonable option for states not to permit people to enter for missionary activity)
  2. It is desirable to consider any Ugandan lawmakers, judges, or police that supported or enforced anti-gay laws as persona non grata.
  3. It is reasonable to censor broad publication of works that are sufficiently racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise inspire hatred, provided a reasonable metric for doing so can be established.