Tuesday, October 16, 2007


As the message mutates

Reading the latest Wikipedia Signpost this morning, I found that David Sarno's article on the squabble over the deletion of Mzoli's Meats continues to send out ripples: the Australian newspaper The Age published an article, "Delete generation rips encyclopedia apart". And as a ripple echoes over a pool of water, gradually losing both its original force and indications of its origin, so has this story.

First, I admit I'm peeved that of the three people cited in Sarno's story, I'm the one who is no longer mentioned. Yes, I get jealous over petty things like this. This probably happened because Andrew Lih has the experience to profitably interact with reporters, Kelly Martin can always be counted on to say something worth reapeating -- or both of them write clearer prose with fewer misspellings than me. But what I find ironic is that yours truly is the one who came up with the "generation gap" idea, which is given prominence in The Age article -- yet I'm the one who doesn't get mentioned. Oh well.

But had the reporter from The Age asked me about that idea -- which I created after about 5 minutes of thought -- I would have backtracked from it some, and tried to provide a more nuanced expanation. There are a lot of human dynamics going on here, which I intended to cover with that label. Not all of these dynamics fit under that label.

Rather than a conflict between "generations", Wikipedia is faced with a conflict between a large number less experienced members, who find themselves needing to follow the rules more literally and with less confidence, and a smaller number of more experienced ones who understand the rules and know when to break them. Resolving this conflict is a stressful and exhausting activity, which frequently leads to members quitting Wikipedia and leaving angry messages about treating the troublemakers better than the productive members. I have a suspicion that this is a common problem in volunteer organizations, but I don't know where I would start researching how other groups cope with it.


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Well, the "generation gap" idea isn't original to you; I've been discussing it with James Forrester and others for almost two years now, although mostly on IRC. The psychosocial dynamics of the shift are complex, but also quite predictable, at least to anyone who has read Clay Shirky and Jo Freeman.

I am, however, rather amused that my minirant in the Mzoli's AFD has been picked up and spread far and wide by the media engine. And it's pure chance that I avoided any typos. :)
I am thinking these days about two things which you mentioned here.

1) While it is possible to make some kind of predictions, AFAIK, Wiki(m|p)edian community is the first "general purpose" community of such size. Simply, out of Internet it is not possible to make community with 50.000 members. And I don't know for any other Internet community which has so big variety of fields and (at least nominal) one goal.

To be more clear: For example, Debian community is not such kind of community because they have very small scope of work; Facebook is not such kind of community because it is a network of networks, not a community.

Like with the most natural events, enough of quantity is giving some different quality, better or worst. (For example, if you are driving fast enough, you will go out of Earth's gravity. While it is useful when you want to come out of gravity, it is not so useful if you want just to come faster from place one to place two.)

But, we don't know did WM community pass such amount of quantity. We don't know what what are the characteristics of passing that limit.

So, the answers for your last question are: (1) learn social psychology or (2) find some social psychologist (or sociologist) :)

I am at the same dilemma. And I am glad to see that someone else came to the same position. I'll try to find some scientists interested in this phenomenon. But, I think that we should make some organized effort...

2) I am writing now one (I think not so long) post about similarities between Wikimedian community and military structure. It is sad to conclude that there are a number of important common characteristics.
Kelly: The "generation gap" phrase hasn't been original since I was a kid -- it was first bandied about 40-45 years ago following the discovery that not only did many parents and their children had differences in outlook and opinions, but their children frequently thought their parents were wrong. As if that phenomena had never existed before in history.

Nevertheless, my point was not that I was left out of the article (although I admit again I'm vain enough to care), but that a cliche I threw out in a moment's haste has come to describe the dynamics of this conflict: "older, wiser Wikipedians" versuses "new, immature ones". There have always been insightful members and dicks in each new wave of people joining Wikipedia; the "inclusionist vs. deletionist" conflict itself first appeared in 2003. My post was an attempt to explain another way to look at this phenomena, and not let this phrase trap us into how we should understand it.

Milos: The analogy I would use for Wikipedia is that it is the first online city, with all of the issues that a city has: the decline of the power of peer pressure, crime, an unhealthy environment -- yet also a thriving marketplace, improved access to services, and the creation of the platform that led to the next revolution in technology and culture. Wikipedians need to acknowledge this, and decide which form of civic government they wish to have -- an extreme laissez faire model, like 10th century Cairo which had no central civic authority, a far more regimented and orderly one, like modern Singapore, or (hopefully) something in between.

As for your essay (which I recommend to the reader), I'm surprised at how much alike our thinking has been, although at first glance our posts would appear to be very different. I don't know if I agree with everything you say there (I think your conclusion is more pessimistic), but then where I'm writing has not experienced the history that the Balkans has.

Of course, my allegory is partially a hyperbolic fiction. But, its function is to be hyperbolic because only such may point to the possible hard problems.

Wikimedian community is now somewhere in the middle. We may easily drop into decadency.

I think that I described well lower positions (from recruits to low ranked officers). I know a number of examples for them. But, if we continue in that way, our situation may become completely circled.

And, while my allegory describes a simplified relations, this is not strictly related to Balkans. In a narrower sense, all drafted militaries have similar situation (France, Germany, Russia...). In a broader sense, it may be applied to any empire (cf. Roman empire after August times; late Russian empire, especially Russo-Japanese War; and late British empire).

* * *

We are still not in the "scientific age" of analyzing our community. And as more fiction about our community we have, we would be closer to trigger some scientific researches. (By us or by someone else.)
Has a publicly traded media company ever written an accurate article about wikipedia? The only good articles I remember were in the New York Times, the BBC, etc.

Once you become an expert on a topic (and we're all experts on wikipedia compared to the general public), it's a lot easier to pinpoint the good news outlets.
Milos, the last 50-70 years in your part of the world has had a far darker history than mine; this difference undoubtedly is reflected in how we look at the same problem.

If I were to say that your post is too pessimistic, am I actually commenting on your analysis or inadvertently on unvoiced assumptions that you made from your background? And with these different backgrounds, which one of us is looking at the issue through a less distorted lens?

That was my point. I quickly admit that I don't have an answer, only an admission that I know I can't accurately tell -- which makes our agreement on the group dynamics only the more remarkable. And maybe even right!

Did you know that I had Amstrad CPC 664 in 1985 (I think model was from 1984) and that a lot of my friends had Sinclairs, Commodores and Amigas during 80s and early 90s? :) During 70s situation was, actually, better then in the most of Western Europe mainly because of Oil Peak which didn't affect Socialist Yugoslavia. I had very different childhood then my generation from the countries of the Soviet Block.

90s were, at the other side, much worst then in the most other parts of the world. But, more then seven years passed from the time when Milosevic had been overthrown.

(As we started to talk here before my post, I hope that you don't have anything against using your blog for better explanation of my post :) )

Yes, I made a hyperbola. I don't think that we are in deep shit as it may be concluded from my post. As I am writing much brighter pieces, I am writing pessimistic, too.

I didn't say one more thing which is important for understanding my position: If I think that the situation is so dark, I wouldn't be a masochist. There is a very wide range of possible activities for me. I am not doing anything in which I don't believe.

My last example is Creative Commons: I don't believe in their willingness to do right things (at least "right things" as I see them) and I am not participating there anymore. Yes, there are a lot of good people, I know a number of them, but something is wrong with CC. Maybe I am wrong, but I said this as an example for me, not for them.

If I would think that "something is wrong" with Wikimedia, I wouldn't write anything about her. There are a lot of interesting things in the world and it is stupid to waste time on things in which you don't believe.

But, it doesn't mean that we don't have problems. We have a ton of them. And I see that very small number of Wikimedians are thinking about those problems. It is almost a wasting of time to talk about problems at the lists. And this fact is a huge problem.

So, I switched to the fiction. Sometimes fiction produces better responses then pure facts.

* * *

We need an organized work to solve our problems. Even Blogspot comments are not the best choice, I think that it is good enough for the beginning.

Because of that I propose: (1) We should continue to talk here :) (2) To call some more people to join discussion. (3) To try to start with mapping problems. (4) To think what should be the best place for continuing discussion.
I've started a WikiWorld discussion forum to complement your email list. http://benyates.info/wikiforum

It's plain phbb (and I'll have to move it off my server if traffic gets too intense), but it should be alright for now.
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