Thursday, November 15, 2007



My activities related to Wikipedia involve more than writing articles. For example, I spend probably as much time away from the computer (or at least on the computer, and online, but not at the Wikipedia website) researching information as I do editting. (I have to find content to add to Wikipedia somehow, and its one of the better ways to find reliable information.) Another activity that occupies a sizable amount of time is reading the various discussions on Wikipedia about Wikipedia: Wikipedia:Administrators noticeboards, Wikipedia:Administrators noticeboards/Incidents, fora at the Village Pump (when I remember it exists), the Signpost, talk pages at various WikiProjects, and about once a week I read through the archives of WikiEN-l.

WikiEN-l used to be far more important than it is now, but I still find it useful to read on a periodic basis. Sometimes I find gems like this announcement of another study about the community dynamics of Wikipedia -- but often I read it for the discussion. There are just under half a dozen people posting there whose opinions I respect, many times more people who I don't know but I'm willing to read in any case and allow them to persuade me, and two or three troublemakers. By "troublemakers", I mean individuals who have been banned from Wikipedia and desperate to complain some more about how unfair people are there.

I can't honestly say that the community around WikiEN-l is really any different from other communities around any other mailing list: there are some people worth reading and some who are wasting everyone else's time. It's just that WikiEN-l has a reputation of being a more serious or important forum to discuss issues concerning the English language Wikipedia. So after lurking there earlier this week, spending a few hours reading, I was left with the impression that the mailling list has outlasted its purpose.

Now WikiEN-l has always had a certain degree of venom or bitterness in its communications. People complain or vent there about daily stupidity on Wikipedia. Troublemakers go there to complain that they are misunderstood and should be reinstated -- or that Wikipedia is broken and needs to be fixed. Then, as happens whenever one brings together a large number of people seriously interested in one project, a number of flame wars will break out, and you can have two or more respected Wikipedians calling each other "troll" or "vandal" or worse. However, the atmosphere there has turned far more nasty than can be explained by these causes: its has turned into a cesspit -- okay, maybe I should say "another cesspit" -- where people go to flame each other, everyone and everything. When things calm down a little, someone -- not always one of the troublemakers -- stirs the sewage and another flamewar breaks out.

This is not just a bad day there. I read a week's worth of email, and the last couple of times I've lurked there things have not been much better. I'd read to find the occasional gem that made the effort worth it, but it's gotten to the point where the effort is not worth it any more. One can make a valuable point or win an argument on WikiEN-l, but chances are good no one outside the list will notice as well as few on the list; ideas, both good and bad, are simply being drowned out by accusations, counter-accusations, and more until the original idea is forgotten.

I find this disappointing, if not sad. As I wrote above, there are some bright and articulate people on the list, as well as some people who are eager to show that they, too, are bright and articulate; but all that is happening there is that they are complaining and arguing this point I don't really know, and I'm no longer that interested enough to untangle things. People are unhappy with Wikipedia, but people have always been unhappy with Wikipedia. People make mistakes; good ideas get overlooked; someone who is an asset to the project encounters one failure too many, feels burnt out, and leaves -- sometimes memorably.

Yet if all of this energy led to some goal, served some purpose, maybe it would be justified; as far as I can tell, very few Wikipedians -- even those who might be said to be part of the alleged "inside clique" -- pay any attention to it. It's become one more dynamic in the project community that doesn't further its purpose -- that is, if Wikipedia has a clear purpose beyond "creating an encyclopedia." Even then, what encyclopedia that exists is incomplete and unreliable -- "early beta" as one participant has described its quality. Much -- if not the majority -- of the energy around Wikipedia seems to go into the process of writing an encyclopedia -- fighting vandalism, flagging articles for quality, arguing over guidelines and procedures.

I don't know what the answer is, but I didn't find it reading WikiEN-l. It might be time to simply shut the list down. Doing that won't solve the problem alone, but by removing one outlet for writing about the process of writing an encyclopedia, it might encourage people to simply just write one.


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It's been suggested by others, and I'm increasingly agreeing, that rebooting the list would be a good idea. Remove all users, get anyone foolish enough to be a mod back to be a mod, start over with some considerably harsher rules on behaviour.

That said, while it does smell like a sewer, I wonder at how well it performs the other function of a sewer, i.e. taking the smelly stuff away from other places. It'd be a bad idea to try to get rid of the smell by sealing up all the cesspits.
A reboot would work if (and only if) one thing was done: give the list a specific purpose or goal. Management discussions, policy discussions or research suggestions. Hopefully a purpose that is not already served elsewhere, for example, the Village Pump.

As whether WikiEN-l is "taking the smelly stuff away from other places", I figure most of it will continue to end up in the same place it has been appearing: User talk: Jimbo Wales. Not only is it a kook magnet of the first degree, every disgruntled person who is associated with Wikipedia in some way leaves their opinion there. About the only way anyone could rescue it would be to appoint a moderator, someone like Kibo. It wouldn't improve the signal-to-noise ratio, but I bet more people would enjoy reading it.

A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy, as usual. Mailing list is a "flat" environment, it inevitably degrades as the number of participant grows. The solution is to introduce a structure, build a network, to keep each "flat" piece small and manageable.
Easy to say, difficult to do :)
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