Thursday, November 12, 2015

Going Meta: Trying to Save Wikipedia From Itself

Because there is so much scandalous bullshit going on with Wikipedia, we've gotten away for the airy-fairy theorizing about Internet information theory I was doing in October last year. So let's play an extremely distaff version of Plato's Republic and try to design a better version of Wikipedia.


Wikipedia is built on the idea of human goodness and altruism, but as ninety percent of this blog has shown, it is easily gamed by assholes, especially assholes who form into tribes. The best way out would be to take the English-language Wikipedia (so we have a prototype) and split it up into separate sections based on broad topics. So there would be a Wikipedia of History, a Wikipedia of Philosophy, a Wikipedia of Science, a Wikipedia of Indigenous Cultures, a Wikipedia of Popular Culture, etc. There would be a Meta-page with a search engine to direct people to the articles they are looking for, and all the wikipedias would have links to each other (which would have to have those popup windows warning them that they are going from article A in Wikipedia B to article B in Wikipedia X.)  The major purpose of breaking en-Wikipedia apart is to keep "brigading" from happening; I am not a fan of the "Guerrilla Skeptics" and all the drama Rome Viharo ran into. Jimbo Wales knows, but will not say that his project is a haven for jerkoffs, sperglords, the power-mad, and all the flavors of social media idiot - so we split the place up, give each separate wikipedia it's own administration (elected to two year terms with term limits after the fourth year so they can't serve another four year block, assuming anybody survives the second election) and task them to keeping the bullshit to a minimum. The next thing that would change is the markup language; the hardliners will never give it up, so you take it away and give them a more modern system to work with. I know people will be lost, but it will open up the place for users who were intimidated by the previous system. Paid editing should be allowed BUT paid editors need to register that they are paid editors, they will have a small superscript green "P" an the end of their handles. Any articles with paid editing will be marked with red-and-white barberpole striping at the top and bottom of the page to warn readers that paid edits happened. MastCell is a dickhead, but he is right about one thing: disclaimers on Wikipedia medical articles are a must and should be implemented on the presently-existing Wikipedia as well as this model we are building. God knows how many people were mangled following medical advice on the site.

There are claims that putting YouTube/Vimeo/Dailymotion links and hiding the hypertext links in the documents like I do will make Wikipedia friendly to the kids and I would be willing to experiment with that; it would also help to experiment with the layouts, because the standard Wikipedia page is ugly as hell now compared to corporate webpages or personal weblogs. The other, more important thing is that the science wikipedia, the philosophy wikipedia, the medical wikipedia, and (possibly) the architecture and fine art wikipedia must let experts in so that the articles can be checked for accuracy, comprehensibility, and complicated hoaxes/inside jokes. Why those? Because they aren't arguing about which episode of Steven Universe came first; they are trying to teach through writing/editing/cross-checking online encyclopedia articles, which is the true purpose of Wikipedia, not all the BLPs, news articles rewritten into "recent history" pages, etc.


One of the long-buried bodies is the fact that Wikipedia in the early years was beefed up with articles from the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911), the 1899 Encyclopaedica Biblica, and the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia. All of which were good examples of scholarship before World War One occurred, but are now so obsolete as to be laughable. And yes, I did steal that list of publications from myself. There is a book, The Myth of the Britannica by Harvey Einbinder (1964), which discusses the various problems with the 1958 and 1962 editions, the one most important to this post being obsolete material. The "great EB" reused material for years after it was rewritten in the late 19th century, and Einbinder found reams of the 1890s-1911 material still sitting inside the 1958 Britannica, a lot of it stylistically mutilated to fit size constraints. If the Wikipedians lied and used the 1911 EB but also later Britannicas, who knows how much of this obsolete, mangled junk was transcribed into Wikipedia? This is why the Wikimedia Foundation needs to hire copy editors; if they want to be the "sum total of human knowledge" or some other monomanical piffle, then it all needs to be sourced correctly, stylistically uniform, and encyclopedia-like. Right now it's lumpy, uneven, full of linkrot, (sometimes not so) hidden bias, and crappy stub articles.

Not a Conclusion

We know Wikipedia (including all the foreign language versions) is dying, the number of editors fading away to a pitiful remnant by 2020 or so. Changing the rules of the game might breathe new life into the project. Even if nothing like what I have roughly outlined ever happens at Jimbo's Jungle, something like it could be used in the next online encyclopedia project, assuming anybody gives a damn to try again. In either case, this subject will be brought up again in the future, because I know there are angles I'm missing.


  1. I agree a comprehensive, general purpose encyclopedia of everything should not be attempted again. It was a pipe dream that grew into a nightmare.

    I also agree with your suggestions for requiring experts on important topics, employing copy editors, recognizing paid editing, and providing a user-friendly markup language. Also, MediaWiki is obsolete; good software engineers would need to start over.

    Your suggestion for reforming dispute resolution isn't convincing, though I agree term limits could help. Keeping the bullshit to a minimum is a tough nut to crack. Mark Devlin's critique is persuasive: using a crowdsourced wiki necessarily creates nonproductive conflict. Even if real names were required it wouldn't sufficiently ameliorate the problem. In smaller, specialized encyclopedias flagged revisions combined with topic experts might stave off the brigades, the power-mad, and Web 2.0's "Emperor's New Clothes" fad of publishing every voice, including varieties of social media idiot.

    German Wikipedia has markedly lower conflict levels than English Wikipedia. Their user base is more unified, homogenous, and organized and less volatile. Many cultures communicate in English and U.S. society is polarizing.

    1. All of that is true, but the English Wikipedia isn't shot through with the nationalistic goofiness that the Eastern European Wikipedias allegedly are. Germany has a tradition of respect for scholasticism, that and I would guess the real drama is hidden on German-language IRC channels, email lists, letters, and angry phone calls.

  2. Not bragging but long ago I said basically the same things: they should let actual experts have special editing privileges, and split the unwieldy mess up into subject areas. Even just using pending changes, the way German WP does, would improve things quickly.

    But as I keep saying, this will not happen. Jimbo installed assholes who installed more assholes. And the assholes will drive off the cliff before any "reform" happens. And they will blame everyone else whilst the shaky brick edifice collapses and crushes them.

    1. How's that for a mixed metaphor for Friday the 13th?

    2. Fitting day for WP commentary.

      I thought you might have been the first to express nearly the same reform suggestions, but I can't search for who wrote what. (As in I am not allowed to search for such information.)

      So, thanks again, EB, and sorry you're not usually credited for your intellectual property.