Wikipedia: Lord of the Flies [rant]

I have long wanted to disbelieve and dispel the idea that Wikipedia is broken. After all, after over two years as an “enterprise 2.0” trainer and consultant, I have come to firmly believe in the wisdom of crowds and the amazing benefits of social media to improve organizational efficiency.

antiwikipediaBut the Wikipedia community has proved to me that it’s an intolerant environment filled with megalomanical, insecure, intolerant individuals with Napoleonic complexes. And I’m being overly polite to take the higher road (I edited out several names because I felt it was ungentlemanly – my favorite, however, rhymed with “cartouche bag”). I understand as the site started to take off (circa 2004-05) that measures were needed to maintain the quality of the articles. But now the tail is wagging the dog!

If you’ve ever tried to contribute to Wikipedia, but especially within the past year, you can probably identify with the scenario I describe below. Know that you’re not alone!

Here’s the back story: I have been a contributor to Wikipedia for a couple of years. Mind you, I’m not a regular as I don’t have the time to devote to the task. As a husband, father, and full-time worker, as well as having numerous other interests, my contributions have been sporadic, but accurate and well-sourced. I believe in constructive contributions to the space and I was familiar with the high editing standards required by the admins, so I attempted to only create well-formed pages before saving them on Wikipedia. Mind you, this is antithetical to the publish then edit philosophy of web 2.0/social media. Wikipedia was designed to be the opposite of Britannica: anyone can place whatever small nugget of knowledge they have and, in aggregate, the whole becomes larger than any one expert could hope to create.

Recently, I created a page on Wikipedia (I won’t mention which one and I’ll refrain from including the user name I used; I don’t want to leave breadcrumbs to the slander on various pages) I followed a template created for a similar page and did everything I could to create a “good” first page. But my efforts weren’t good enough for the “wiki gods.” Instead, a banner was placed on the page stating that all of my hard work would be deleted quickly unless I managed to appease all of their demands. No comments on the discussion page, no offer to help, nothing to convey any message other than “get out, we don’t want you here.

Wanting to salvage my work (and admittedly with rose-colored glasses masking the ugliness of this first interaction) I made a couple of changes, added an irreverent (but not uncivil) note to the discussion page, and removed a “conflict of interest” comment (because there wasn’t one). Not a good move. I was immediately reprimanded and told that I would be “blocked” if I continued to make “personal attacks.” Again, no discussion, no dialog, no evidence whatsoever that I was working in a social space with a community of users. My ire raised, I made a (somewhat rude) remark in the comments section of my next edit and… I was banned. Mind you, this entire drama played out in the span of just a couple of hours.

still from the 1990 film "Lord of the Flies" (based on the novel)

still from the 1990 film "Lord of the Flies" (based on the novel)

This blow-back astounded and discouraged me. In fact, it reminded me of Lord of the Flies, the famously unnerving book by William Golding in which a group children are stranded on a island, create “tribes,” and devolve into a barbaric state which results in the ultimate death of one of the children. Similarly, those who have risen to the level of admin seem to wield their (somewhat dubious) power to keep others from participating. How is it that a platform originally designed for maximum participation has evolved into a select core of individuals who wield inappropriate levels of technical power? (notice how I carefully avoid the use of words like “leadership” and “authority” as I feel that these folks have none)

To add insult to injury, as I was banned, I could no longer engage in any further discussioneven about my banning – except through an anonymous IP address. Here’s where things got out of control. While I was prevented from leaving a note on the discussion page for the admin who had banned me, I left an entry on one of the help pages to ask for reinstatement. Instead, I was told that even that behavior was considered to be breaking the rules and that my IP (my computer’s “Internet address”) would be banned if I persisted. Persist I had to, as I felt these attacks warrented a response and were, ironically, a personal attack, the very offense I was being accused of. Instead of maturely engaging in a discussion, the admins (as you’ve probably guessed) banned my IP.

So much for “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” My experiences suggest that Wikipedia change their tag line to

the free encyclopedia that intolerant individuals without a life let each other edit; go ahead and read some pages and then go away and let us continue to compile our useless knowledge in utter loneliness and shame as we sit in our parent’s basement.

OK, that might be a little long for a tag line. And I’m certainly not the first to talk about censorship and groupthink presaging the end of Wikipedia. But this personal encounter has certainly driven the point home for me.

In a way, I should be thankful that the Wikipedia admin community has removed a potential source of distraction and time-suck for me. I refuse to be part of a dictatorship masquerading as a democracy. I will also approach all Wikipedia entries from this point forward with a jaded and suspicious eye.

For those who find my linking to Wikipedia ironic, I maintain that the quality of information on Wikipedia for many topics is sound. But the editing community has become a monster that will eventually kill itself in its zeal to keep outsiders from entering its gates.

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6 comments

  1. mrmerlot · April 23, 2009

    Before I write a follow-up “Aftermath” post about the resolution of the situation I described here, I wanted to give a shout-out to one Wikipedia gardener with the cajones (figuratively speaking – I’m not sure if the user is male or female) to stand up for my rights and going against the groupthink displayed by every other gardener who was involved. henrik showed strength of character to go against the grain and recognize that I wasn’t a vandal or jerk, but that the situation had escalated to a ridiculous level. Based on his/her recommendation, the other gardeners begrudgingly saw reason and unblocked my account. Granted, I’m probably on some sort of Wikipedia black list and all of my contributions are being closely scrutinized. I’m not too concerned as the likelihood of my contributing anything substantial at this point is practically nil.

    I do sincerely appreciate someone on the “inside” taking the initiative to speak for someone who was effectively silenced. Thank you, henrik!

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  2. mrmerlot · April 23, 2009

    Another observation from this experience: While the Wikipedia gardeners felt comfy cozy in “their house” to provide personal attacks on wiki pages, none felt bold enough to leave a comment here. That’s disappointing. I would have liked to see some rebuttal to my arguments on “my turf,” but ce la vie…

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  3. Henrik · April 24, 2009

    Thank you, your shout-out is appreciated. No, the problem is that most of the good, friendly guys and gals are part of a silent majority who quietly edits articles that interest them and don’t get involved in enforcing the bus load of policies and rules that have been written. For what it’s worth, I think your essay above is insightful and point out a real problem we Wikipedia insiders have.

    But just so you can see the other side of the coin, see an example of the kind of vitriol you’re likely to encounter as a wikipedia administrator are things like this. Over here, Macedonian and Greek nationalist battle over the name “Macedonia”, a conflict which has been ongoing on Wikipedia for years and have resulted in hundreds of thousands of words of debate and countless bans for simply not being able to take part of constructive debate. It’s not always an easy environment to always be friendly in.

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  4. Mia · April 30, 2009

    I NEVER go to Wikipedia. I have believed it to be irrelevant for a long time. A few years ago I tried to post something or edit something about a particular politician that was unsubstantiated which was presented as fact. It was changed back to the original content, although no discussion was had about it. I forgot about it. It’s just not worth it. If I want reliable information, I would never even dream of citing a Wikipedia article. They often take opinion as fact and fact dismissed out of hand.

    I did have a discussion with some people over at another “Wiki” site regarding something that was posted and was totally false, as I have a lot of experience with this particular subject. and the original entry was nothing more than a rant. So, I signed up and edited the entry. Later on, it was changed back. I made a new entry. After a long, long discussion on the discussion page, and after giving many links to facts proving my position, I found that the whole site was nothing more than a vendetta against ONE PERSON that they disagreed with. Keep in mind the original entry on this particular article was nothing more than an uninformed opinion of people who are doing something that is perfectly legal and normal, but different than what they would like. In fact, one person was frustrated that they couldn’t find anything negativer on the web about people who participate in this lifestyle.

    Silliness and a waste of time, if you ask me.

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    • mrmerlot · May 1, 2009

      Thanks for your comment, Mia. While I agree that Wikipedia should never been cited as a source, I think many pages still have value. I approach a Wikipedia page like any other source (especially web resources) – trust only after verifying the information for yourself. This is a critical skill I intend to teach my kids (once they are old enough). In fact, I typically only read Wikipedia articles seriously if there facts and assertions are backed up and sourced.

      And, while the “wisdom of crowds” is valuable, it’s challenging to harness. I think the experiences you’ve had attempting to engage various wiki communities are certainly not unusual, but they are unfortunate.

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  5. magallanes · May 8, 2009

    Hi there:

    Lol, I saw your post on Dilbert and yes, i agree with you.

    But i think the first problem is who edit what. For example, to left a “stoner” to edit the page of Cannabis is pretty dangerous but when a addict is also the editor is to the extend to be absurd. A drugs relate material must be edited and managed by a competent user, for example a medic, a pharmaceutic and such. Or for example, to left a right-wing to edit the Obama entry is a call for troubles.

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