On Good vs Evil. And Wikipedia
Writing about web page http://www.wikipedia.org
Man, long time since I'm blogged. Too busy. A mixture of things – assignments, of course, due to my typically crazy selection of every single module available, essays, and applying to endless silly internships. (No offence to whoever writes those websites, but there is too much homogenity within the various application websites. If I have to look at another website talking about development, team working, motivated, goal orientated, competitive, I'm going to scream. Get a thesaurus, guys!)
I guess all the recent silly news about wikipedia managed to flush me out of my hidey-hole, just for now. This post may contain numerous errors, because I'm writing it in a hurry.
The thing everybody forgets is that we're the good guys.
— Jimmy Wales
Hell, I don't believe in good or evil. It's quite possible that no-one believes in good and evil, really, though most people say that they do. We cite all sorts of things about what we believe to be absolute goods or absolute evils, but they never work in practice. Is murder evil? Everyone seems to think it is, but that doesn't stop us making war. Is charity good? Everyone agrees, but I don't see a communist paradise quite yet. Et cetra. More often than not, good and evil are used as verbal bludgeons to eradicate neccessary subtlety.
But I do think Jimbo (as we Wikipedianistas call him) captures an essential truth here. As much as being good makes sense, the only side in all these sorry affairs that are close to good are the wikipedians.
Lemme pause for a bit, to work out what we are talking about. You can't have missed it, can you? The Seigenthaler affair? And numerous anti-wikipedia rantings from the popular press?
We need to work out what the reality is here. People should ignore the crap that's been in the media about this. Even the Guardian is horribly wrong in its reporting of the case. Let's sum up the Seigenthaler affair:
- Vandal posts garbage to Seigenthaler's entry. (It wasn't initially clear in fact that it was a vandal. It could have been just another conspiracy nut who genuinely believed in what he was posting.)
- Someone attempts to remove the information, but does so by pasting in copyrighted information. That's bad. It gets reverted to the vandalised version.
- Seigenthaler finds out, and contacts Jimbo. Immediately, the page is reverted.
- Seigenthaler wants the real life identity of the vandal. Jimbo can't oblige.
The only thing that really went wrong was step 2. Many many articles get vandalised every day on wikipedia. Statistics show no recent rise in vandalism. It's bad if vandalism is left unreverted for a long time, but it happens. Seigenthaler is not a particularly important person, so no one checks his article.
4 is a real problem here. It's the thing that's been siezed on by the anti-wikis. They call it accountability. But they haven't thought through what this entails:
- First, you can't do it to existing edits. Wikipedia just doesn't have that information on file, and if it does, it would be breaching the agreement it made with all of its registered users.
- It's not practical with current technology. IP addresses, email addresses and so on are all unreliable forms of ID on the internet. The only way to make it work is to have a compulsary internet identification scheme on the national/international level, and clearly setting something like that up is not wikipedia's responsibility.
- It's hard to restrict. Granting this 'accountability' would be unparalleled on the internet. Even Brittanica does not provide this sort of information on its authors. If it works with wikipedia, then such legislation is easily extended to internet forums, blogs, personal websites…
- It is horrifically dangerous. Remember how children are taught not to give away emails or home addresses on IRC. Ditto here. Editors are vulnerable, and facing real life threats would be a terrifically chilling effect on freedom of speech. I have spoken to an editor who is scared for his life following the Seigenthaler affair, because a right-wing radical christian group has claimed that his edits to remove bias from an article on Pedophiles makes him a pedophile, and he fears these people can discover his real life identity. This works with politicians too - it is all too plausible in today's society for an employer to fire employees who are percieved to have edited various controversial articles with a bias. This 'accountability' will simply restrict control of knowledge to those who can afford the lawyers. In reality, the system of transparency, and the idea of demanding NPOV and verifiability does work on wikipedia, has worked on wikipedia, and is the only thing that can work with wikipedia.
The thing is, the refutations from wikipedia's proponents have always been rather weak. Why? Because wikipedians are just too nice. The reason wikipedians take part in wikipedia is because they believe in the value of the Project, and buy into the massively optimist view of humanity contained within. (See the wikipedia guideline Assume Good Faith for an example) The reason for opposition to wikipedia, in particular the acidic, misleading, vindictive opposition that appears these days, however, are darker.
Why do these people oppose wikipedia? Because a successful wikipedia threatens their own interests. Media sources, which earn money by controlling information with copyright, fears wikipedia. Encyclopedia Britannica, whose editor has made the most vocal attacks on wikipedia, obviously fears wikipedia. The assorted banned users obviously have a personal vendetta. Neccessarily, those whose livelihoods are based on an information monopoly fear attempts to free this information.
Wikipedia needs to win this war.
To help, see link
Or help edit an article!