My opinions supported by MediaWiki research [vindication]

I am a user of a fairly large enterprise wiki based on MediaWiki. Recently, a colleague and I were discussing the merits of introducing a graphical editor to our wiki. There are not many options, and the best of these (FCKeditor) is good, but far from perfect. My colleague then referred me to a usability study being conducted by the Wikimedia Foundation (the not-for-profit that serves as the organizer for MediaWiki developers).

This study seems to be focusing on how easy it is for users to edit technically (i.e., using the tool itself). However, one of the results mentioned in a “sneak preview” post jumped out at me. If you’ve read my first few posts on this blog, you’ll know why:

All of our participants are Wikipedia readers, but had little or no experience with editing.  Generally the editing process was not a warm and welcoming one…they voiced concerns about the rules, proper etiquette, formatting, and were naturally conscientious of and inhibited by maintaining the community expectations.  When a few of them attempted to find answers to their questions about rules and etiquette, they were overwhelmed with the amount of information and documentation they encountered.

While I’m not “glad” that other infrequent and inexperienced users are encountering similar frustrations to those I had, I am encouraged to see official research documenting these shortcomings.

In defense of Wikipedia admins and rules [reconsideration]

I initially started to rant about injustices I felt I had received trying to edit articles on Wikipedia (see here and here). This was, in fact, only the catalyst as I’d intended to start a technology-related musings site for quite some time.

However, today’s Dilbert post makes a point about why careful tending of the Wikipedia garden is important to maintain its credibility…

See the comments for this strip at

Banned from Wikipedia: The Aftermath [reconsideration]

As a follow-up to the first post here at, I thought I’d post some additional observations about my experiences with the Wikipedia “admin” community and a “rebel underground” that I learned is moving against the cynical majority. Perhaps there is hope yet for Wikipedia.

reconsidering wikipedia

reconsidering wikipedia

Not one to back down from a confrontation, I continued to press the issue on a Wikipedia administrative page, seeking to get my account unblocked. As I expected, I immediately encountered resistance. What surprised me, though, were how many individuals and how much dialog (mostly rude and condescending) went into my eventual reinstatement (under a new account). However, one (later, two) individuals with credibility within the Wikipedia community had the courage to come to my defense. In conversations with this individual – let’s use the name “Rebel” – I learned that my experience was not unusual and that there are some serious problems with the community.

  • Wikipedians, like many people online, hide behind their virtual identities. The disconnect between a real person and their virtual identity provides a feeling of anonymity which alters behaviors and lowers inhibitions. The Wikipedia gardeners who provided the terse and rude comments I received would likely not have the guts (or good sense) to do so face-to-face. If these same individuals did interact with friends, family, coworkers, or ANYone in the same manner, they would be alienated and/or fired. (Which, ironically, would then support my assertion that they have no life outside of Wikipedia.)
  • Wikipedia senior gardeners should follow their own rules. The hypocrisy I encountered during this experience was perhaps the most appalling aspect of it. Here’s what Rebel had to say:
I believe your experiences are unfortunately fairly representative for quite a few people who try to come here and edit. I think this is a huge problem. It’s gotten very difficult, you’re expected to spend a lot of time knowing tons of policies (our collective policies amount to about 1/4 the size of a bible) before you’re “allowed” (in the social sense) to edit. We’ve in some ways gotten to be a bureaucracy in every sense of the word, often more interested in enforcing the rules than listening to users or even writing the encyclopedia.
At the same time, most of the changes, policies and rules were put there with good intentions: they solve or have solved real problems – but collectively they’re a big burden and drive away tons of interested contributors. 
do i like you? i'm undecided for now

do i like you? i'm undecided for now

I understand the need for rules within a community the size of Wikipedia and the threats that it faces. However, while insisting that I follow voluminous and cumbersome guidelines, the admins/gardeners themselves did not follow the very rules they themselves created. Consider, for a moment, that one of the philosophies is “Don’t bite the newcomer” (I would extend this to cover “infrequent contributors” as well). Or how about “Stay cool” when resolving disputes over articles. How can you expect the less experienced folks to contribute if you are not?

  • The Community is dying. While Wikipedia has grown incredibly for years, that growth has slowed and the number of core users has grown stagnant. According to Rebel:

Wikipedia:WikiProject Editing trends shows that we’ve stopped growing (edits per day remaining constant) and that the number of active admins actually peaked in 2007. The barriers of entry to start editing wikipedia get higher all the time, which is probably one of the reasons for this. I’m interested in finding out ways to become more friendly and approchable [sic] to non-hardcore users.

  • If you’re not “in,” you’re “out.” While being the subject of intense scrutiny, I realized that the admins quickly formed a groupthink about the decision to ban me which was difficult to break. This is typical of old, stagnant groups as evidently Wikipedia has become. Several times, acronyms like AGF (I had to Google that one) and IAR (even Google couldn’t help me figure that one out) were used with no apparent context. Behavior like this is also typical of a close group to “ward off” outsiders; basically, it says, “If you can’t understand our language, you don’t belong here.”From Rebel:

…the insider/outsider problem gets worse with a stagnating userbase in which everybody starts knowing each other and distrusting new users or starting to see them mainly as problems. In some other aspects, it’s a natural sign of an evolving community…

  • Are Wikipedia’s standards for new articles too high? At one point, I read thorugh the notability requirements for Wikipedia articles. These set the bar very high for creating a new article, yet I have since found several existing articles that have not met this requirement since 2007 (as shown by a banner notice). Rebel supported my own hypothesis:

There used to be huge swaths of knowledge missing from wikipedia. Now we’ve covered quite a bit of human knowledge and the focus has shifted from increasing to maintaining it. The likelihood that an edit will improve a well-developed article is lower than the chance it will improve a new stub.

I would recommend that the Wikipedia community rethink its standards. What’s wrong with including knowledge that is peripheral or temporal? Isn’t that adaptability and flexibility partly what sets Wikipedia apart from Brittanica?

So where does this leave me? After much debate (and internal disagreements amongst the Wikipedia admins), I was allowed to start a new account and continue contributing…with Rebel acting as my wiki-chaperone (I did mention the condescension ripe within these folks, right?). So, for now, I will continue to edit periodically. However, I most likely will never start a new page again. The headache and hassle involved in doing it right the first time so either A) my initial hard work doesn’t get destroyed or B) I don’t get in another drag out fight are just not worth it. But I may make the occasional edit now and again to various pages I come across.

As a final thought, I’d like to encourage the admin community to rethink their approach to new and infrequent users. If the community is to continue growing and thriving, long-time editors need to take the time to shepherd junior users like myself. One guideline I push within the enterprise wiki community I help to manage is “garden right or don’t garden at all.” By this, I mean that when editing a new page or leaving messages on talk pages, be courteous, be instructive, and remember that most contributors do not have the expertise and experience of working in the platform as you do. Demanding that every rule be followed dogmatically will only end in Wikipedia’s slow, painful demise as the world’s encyclopedia that, in it’s prime, “anyone could edit.”

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.