Monday, August 21, 2017

Guest Post: Wikipedia is a (Broken) Hippie Commune


by E. A. Barbour

While reading this recent article in Sonoma County’s lifestyle magazine, I realized Wikipedia is running in a similar way to two counterculture communal groups, both established in western Sonoma County in 1966, a year before San Francisco’s notorious “Summer of Love”.

Wheeler Ranch and Morning Star Ranch were among the first "hippie communes" in the world. They were both started by (obviously egotistical) gents with commendable ideas of freedom and love (maaan). What they started, soon attracted too much attention, and then too many people. Some of them proved to be very bad people – petty thieves, liars, sex and drug addicts, the violence-prone, and so forth. The normal “filters” that a human society creates to prevent collapse were not followed in these early communes. I can easily picture Lou Gottleib, sitting naked in a yurt, spluttering “We don’t need the outside world! We don’t need laws and taxes and money!” I can also picture him saying “We don’t need ‘experts’, either”…..
Then both these pioneering communities self-destructed in an ugly and public fashion, as the founders fought with county government and the sheriff’s office over the problems that were denied to be “problems”. Thousands of other communes have been started around the world since then -- and most of them have eventually failed. “The Farm” in Tennessee is one of the very few to survive more than 40 years. Occasional media stories about communal living often mention their economic struggles—the outside world always ends up intruding.

Wikipedia represents a clear online parallel to communes. It is following a similar curve of idealism, massive growth, political problems (and denial thereof), and collapse, although it's doing it more slowly than most 1960s communes. It was also established along libertarian lines, allegedly free of government or taxes or censorship. Most Wikipedia content writers appear to be reasonably honorable people, yet there are unquestionably some troublemakers writing biased content. And their all-volunteer administration has always contained a number of raving liars, crackpots and persons not on Wikipedia for honorable reasons. It started with Jimbo making administrators out of bad people who then installed other bad people. And even after 17 years and numerous scandals, bad people continue to edit and to try to control it. The only things keeping Wikipedia alive are annual infusions of cash from millions of their well-propagandized readers; and ruthless propagandizing.

One thing was most prominent to me: the comment about Kevin Kelly's 85%-15% rule struck a nerve. We kept seeing approximate 85-15 balances in our statistical studies of WP content and the behavior of its "community", and in the comments of others. Allow me to quote an appendix I originally wrote in 2013 for the book I co-authored about Wikipedia’s history. Four major examples of that roughly-85%-15% split are given.

“How do Wikipedia articles break down by size? Since the available WMF statistics do not tell us very much, the authors decided to take a sample of 200 completely random articles and sort them by length, into four categories: stubs, “short” (less than 10k bytes and therefore probably not complete for many academic subjects), and “long” (more than 10k bytes), plus those odd little things called “disambiguation pages”, which are used to cover a name shared by more than one article, and are commonly considered to be “bureaucratic overhead”…...About 39% of English Wikipedia appears to be stubs, 36% are less than 10k bytes (about 1700 words), and 7% are disambiguation pages. So, only 17% of Wikipedia's items (perhaps 650,000 articles) are likely to be of useful length.”

Association football (soccer) dominates Wikipedia. If biographies of football players are included, it appears that football makes up the largest single specific subject area on all of English Wikipedia, a staggering 13% of the entire database of 5-million-plus articles. It is most ironic that the American-invented and American-dominated English Wikipedia is obsessed with the world's biggest non-American sport.”

Because Wikipedia is the “encyclopedia anyone can edit”, inevitably some people will write their own biographies, or hire someone to do so. And they have done so. The biography sample was read, and some rough notes were taken of the bias of each of the living people, positive or negative. This is a contentious area, so these figures can be viewed only as rough guesses. However, it appears that about 15% of Wikipedia BLPs are overly positive, and are likely to have been edited by their subjects or by representatives of their subjects.”

“Finally, in 2010, the nabobs of Wikipedia began to admit they had problems. In November, Wikimedia Foundation director Sue Gardner posted on her personal blog something she had mentioned before: that a WMF study had shown that very few women were editing Wikipedia, only 13% of editors were female. Some media coverage resulted. Yet the percentage of women continued to decline, according to another study in June 2011. By way of comparison, we have estimated that about 95% of Wikipedia's active administrators are men.”

Personally speaking I can’t manage to say anything nice about Kelly. As the founding editor of WIRED magazine, he was a mainspring and cheerleader for the magical purity of the “digital world”. He was previously an editor at the Whole Earth Catalog and Whole Earth Review, two of hippiedom’s primary mouthpieces—so he straddles two very different worlds, that evolved to resemble each other. He pontificated and spewed about the Internet being a “perfectly free cyberplace” and not subject to pesky things like laws, taxes and economics.

Yet only eight years after WIRED started, and six years after the Internet was opened to the general public, the booming dot-com industry melted down in 2000-2001. Later startup businesses (Google, Facebook, Twitter etc.) were far more ruthless and learned from the foolish hippie mistakes of the pioneers. Kevin Kelly, no longer pontificating at WIRED, is currently a “freelance genius” taking fat speaking fees. Just like Jimbo Wales.

Unlike Wales, Kelly enjoys a fanboy-written biography on Wikipedia that is carefully watched and is always totally free of negative information. The Wales bio is currently more than ten times as long as Kelly’s bio, and despite efforts by insiders to keep it happy, it now has two “Controversies” sections. Because not everyone on Wikipedia loves him. And in spite of a 10-year-and-continuing program to hire Wikipedia volunteer insiders at the Wikimedia Foundation to “keep them happy”, squabbling and “purges” are still commonplace. Sex? Ask me about Wikimedia Commons sometime.

They could not escape the “real world”, money, censorship, and other things that cool hippies don’t need, maaan. The freaks in this commune are becoming unhappy. The fires have already started; it’s probably only a matter of time before the bulldozers show up.


  1. Hippie commune is likely too specific, but apt nonetheless. Wikipedia basically resembles what its real world equivalent would be - a 'community' of human beings which has had barely a decade to figure out how to properly motivate, reward, control, police and protect its citizens, as they go about their notional common cause of expanding/improving their knowledge hoard, and/or pursue their individual personal goals, namely that of using their assistance in the expansion/improvement of Wikipedia as a cheap hobby that doesn't sound as lame as playing fantasy football or updating your Facebook status fifty times a day. The learning time, and the culture shocks they would need to go through, simply aren't available to them in their digital world. They will fail, they will be overtaken by the world, they are destined to become an archived junk pile, quickly forgotten, except as a curiosity for historians to marvel at the stupidity of our ancestors.

    There's lots to be written about the true nature of Wikipedia, in ways that would be understood by those poor saps who keep funding it, even though it would be unpalatable to them at first. Some fools however, continue to insist this task requires the involvement and assistance of people who suck at it. Move bitches, get out the way.

    The Dark Knight.

  2. There are a couple of Wikipedia criticism fora that readers might be interested in: and