Friday, March 14, 2008

The Economist on the soul of Wikipedia

Lots of fun stuff in The Economist's technology quarterly, including a piece on "The Battle for Wikipedia's Soul".

Some time ago I came away from a debate with an anarchist a libertarian friend with the conclusion that, for better or worse, government is just something that people tend to do. Wikipedia seems a perfect case in point.

Wikipedia started like any wiki, lean and mean and (pretty much) free for all. Over time, however, it has developed rules, customs, social groupings and hierarchies just like any other society.

Also in common with governmental forms of other societies, these have taken on a life of their own. The article quotes a 2006 estimate that entries about governance and editorial policies were the fastest-growing segment and comprised around a quarter of the total content.

I'm curious as to how this was reckoned. Wikipedia claims over 2 million English articles, and even if most of these are rather small, it's hard to believe the WP: space is as big as half a million randomly chosen articles. I'm guessing the figure includes talk pages. In any case, the larger point stands: The Wikipedia community devotes significant resources to governing itself.

One major point of discussion, probably the major one, is what gets in and what stays out. There are two schools of thought. Inclusionists prefer to include as much as possible. Deletionists try to eliminate frivolous or badly-written material.

The heart of the problem is that there are no hard-and-fast rules for deciding what's worthy and what's not. Bad articles are like obscenity: you might not know what it is, but you know it when you see it. And different people see it differently. In the absence of consensus, judgment comes into play, and with that, the question of who does the judging. There's simply no way to decide that will leave everyone happy.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily. Such imperfection is part of every human system I'm aware of. The more important question is how to deal with that imperfection. If there's an epic battle between inclusionists and deletionists, as opposed to just a normal give-and-take, the question is not who will win, but what damage the battle will do to the system as a whole.

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