Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dealing with Jackasses at Wikipedia and Citizendium

Following a comment by one Mike on the XODP Blog eventually took me to said Mike's Modern Dragons Blog, which has a very lengthy post about Citizendium. And while Larry Sanger seems to be quite enamored with Mike's post, I think Mike is making extraordinary demands on his potential blogging audience by using over 5,000 words, not including the footnotes, appendices, and comments that follow the main post. Even so, as Mike's post seems to have drawn the attention of the usual suspects, I made a point of reading through the whole thing, and I was rewarded by the following quotable quote cited by Mike:
"Many experts who have left, or otherwise have expressed dissatisfaction with Wikipedia, fall into two categories: Those who have had repeated bad experiences dealing with jackassses, and are frustrated by Wikipedia’s inability to restrain said jackasses; and those who themselves are jackasses."
I have stated before that Wikipedia has an unfair bias against experts, just as I have stated before that project forking at Wikipedia is long overdue. However, as alluded to by the quote above, experts who have left Wikipedia and jackasses who have left Wikipedia are not mutually exclusive categories. Rather, the jackasses who make contributing to Wikipedia an unpleasant experience form a spectrum that runs from the most ignorant and uninformed contributors to the most educated and biased control freaks. I say this as someone who voluntarily limits the vast majority of his Wikipedia contributions to "Talk Pages" rather than getting into "Edit Wars" with said jackasses. Even then, I often find myself blown away by the recalcitrance of the jackasses for which Wikipedia seems to be an attractive nuisance.

On this note, from the comments section of Mike's blog post comes the following gem from Wikipedian Fred Bauder:
"Most Wikipedians support Citizendium, but, having had experience with Larry, most old-timers are somewhat sceptical[sic] about a project controlled by him. Given a choice, he will nearly always choose a solution which involves top-down control. . . . Another problem, he does not so much respect expertise, as credentials. . . ."
Having had direct contact with Fred Bauder during my early editing experiences at Wikipedia, I can honestly say that he was one of the jackasses at Wikipedia that inspired me to give up the proverbial ghost when it came to quality control. I was particularly annoyed at his penchant for moving forward with dramatic changes to an existing Wikipedia article without bothering to form a consensus. And in all fairness to Fred, there are probably just as many people at Wikipedia who think that I'm a jackass.

Ironically enough, the dispute that I had with Fred involved his revisions to the Wikipedia Law article, and Fred is a retired lawyer, which should give him more than a passing familiarity with the topic. And while I do not practice law, I was a Member of Law Review and a Teacher's Assistant for Legal Writing before graduating from UC Davis Law School. As such, from a Larry Sanger-esque credentials standpoint, I think that I too would have been on pretty firm ground. Even so, the most constructive input regarding the Wikipedia Law article that came during my confrontation with Fred came from Wikipedian Slrubenstein (a very modest professor of anthropology), mysterious old-time Wikipedian SJK, and noted Wikipedian Lee Daniel Crocker (a computer programmer by trade who was the primary author of the current MediaWiki software).

By the time I started contributing to Wikipedia in August of 2002, the writing was already on the wall regarding Larry Sanger's once prominent role as Wikipedia's editor in chief. And having successfully cultivated more than one online community of several hundred members (i.e., Wherewithal and Project Napa) and then having had both of those communities taken away from me and destroyed by the people who hired me to cultivate those communities, I was inclined to feel sorry for Larry. However, the more I came to understand Larry's feelings about what Wikipedia should be, the more I came to realize that Wikipedia was much better off without someone like Larry in charge.

While Fred Bauder may or may not speak for the majority of old timers at Wikipedia, (IMHO) he is spot on in his criticism of Larry Sanger. One need not look far for evidence of Larry's failings: Nupedia failed because it favored credentialism and centralized control over content, and once Wikipedia emerged as a viable replacement for Nupedia, Sanger sought to impose credentialism and centralized content control at Wikipedia. Even now, Larry hopes to use Citizendium to reassert the validity of credentialism and centralized content control as a panacea for what ails Wikipedia.

I mentioned above that during my tenure at UC Davis Law School I was a Teacher's Assistant for Legal Writing and a Member of Law Review. These positions gave me an enormous appreciation for just how difficult it is for most people to produce quality writing, just how defensive most people can be about really bad writing, and just how difficult it can be to reach a consensus on what good writing actually is when more than one editor's viewpoint must be appeased. As a result of these harsh realities, the vast majority of promising law review candidates would wash out of law review before the end of their first semester, and the author of an article that qualified him or her for law review membership was seldom willing to claim the final product as his or her own.

Dynamics similar to those that I experienced at UC Davis Law Review are at work at Wikipedia, but with a rather strange twist: Anybody can put in their own .02 in on a Wikipedia article, and quite a few people do. To wit, while most Wikipedia articles end up having a relatively small number of regular and interested contributors, the vast majority of content on Wikipedia is contributed by the rare occasional contributor. What this means is that the occasional contributor is the key ingredient to Wikipedia's exponential growth but is not even a significant part of Wikipedia ongoing quality control problems. Those problems are caused by biased and/or uninformed experts and zealots -- i.e., jackasses.

Rather than encourage the occasional contributor who has helped Wikipedia grow and prosper and discourage jackasses from asserting ownership over particular articles, Larry Sanger hopes to improve upon the Wikipedia model by excluding from Citizendium the people who provide the vast majority of useful content and forming an enclave of like-minded expert jackasses. It's an interesting experiment, but -- given the enormous barriers to entry at Citizendium -- not one that I or any of the experts that I know are interested in joining. And it's probably just as well: Larry Sanger is apparently moderating all comments and trackbacks to the Citizendium blog, as all the comments appearing there harmonize with his point of view and no trackback reference to my previous blog post has yet appeared.


Anonymous Larry Sanger said...

Hey NetEsq (that's you, right?),

What argument or evidence can you offer to support this silly claim that I wish to establish "centralized content control"? Is it that there are editors at all? That's pretty slender grounds for the claim. Do you mean to say, then, that you can't wrap your mind around the idea that there could be wikis with editors? Why not?

I'm surprised that you have jumped on the bandwagon of those who say, "Oh my gosh, if there are experts involved, it must be Nupedia all over again!"

The Citizendium has editors who can weigh in as "resident experts" as necessary, but for the vast majority of work that needs doing, they are quite comfortable with being rank-and-file collaborators. That's how CZ does work. To suggest otherwise--that they simply insist on their views without argument--is in essence to malign a whole bunch of people you don't know at all. In fact, I think Wikipedia has a lot more dogmatic know-it-alls than does CZ.

Furthermore, credentials are necessary for being an editor. Not for being an author, of course, and most of our registered contributors are authors. But, yes, you have to prove that you're actually an expert. Are you saying that credentials shouldn't be required for editors, or that no wiki encyclopedia project should have editors--which is it, now, NetEsq?

Frankly, we put out on their ear far faster than Wikipedia ever did anyone who actually acts like a jackass. Your own intemperate post, for instance, is the sort of mean-spirited, vicious personal attack that would get you excluded.

Larry Sanger

Tuesday, February 27, 2007 1:31:00 PM  
Anonymous llywrch said...

You wrote: "These positions gave me an enormous appreciation for just how difficult it is for most people to produce quality writing, just how defensive most people can be about really bad writing, and just how difficult it can be to reach a consensus on what good writing actually is when more than one editor's viewpoint must be appeased."

Having taken several adult-level creative writing classes taught by published authors, I can attest to the truth of this statement. If anything, I thought that bad writing was confined to would-be novelists.

Then again, explaining an idea or describing an object briefly & in simple language is a lot more difficult than it appears to those who don't do a lot of writing.


Wednesday, March 07, 2007 10:40:00 AM  

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