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Secrets and Paranoia at Wikipedia

Posted by on Thursday, December 4th, 2008

You have caused too much harm to justify us putting up with this kind of behavior much longer.–Jimbo Wales

What was the crime that this Wikipedia editor was guilty of? The story reads more like a high-school cat-fight more than the inner workings of the worlds biggest online encyclopedia.

Giano II it seems had provided the damning evidence in the form of a reproduced email that showed

  1. Wikipedia is not as open and free as users are led to believe.
  2. Jimbo Wales is apparently on the side of the paranoid ruling elite rather than Joe User.

Doesn’t sound like the Wiki we all know and love, does it? Well, ok, a growing number of people don’t love it at all, and in fact hold it under a great deal of suspicion, but that is getting ahead of ourselves.

Wikipedia is supposedly a site based on the ideals of cooperation, freedom of speech and friendly collaborative knowledge-building. Great and laudable ideas. The site has been hugely successful. In fact the site is referenced so much that many searches in Google provide Wikipedia as the first result.

Anyone is supposedly allowed to edit the content. The whole idea of a Wiki is that you or I can see something that needs correcting and just do it. No waiting for helplines and support tickets. Which is good because people believe in what is written so much there is a great responsibility on the part of the editors to get their facts right. Wikipedia stories could make or break a reputation.

That’s the idea, but in fact more people are coming out with stories that suggest Joe User has very little ability to do more than minor tweaks and in fact a cabal of powerful users control the site, paranoid and drunk on their own influence.

The quote above was Jimbo Wales attacking a previously respected user for revealing an email proving the existence of a secret mailing list that was being used to wield power in private. So much for “open”, eh?

Basically, Durova’s email showed that Bang Bang was indeed a wonderfully productive editor. She was sure this was all a put-on, that he was trying to gain the community’s “good faith” and destroy it from within. We’re not joking. This sort of extreme paranoia has become the norm among the Wikipedia inner circle.

Just to repeat, it seems Durova believed being a good editor was evidence of evil intent. Yeah, I had to read it twice too.

Where does that leave you and I? Can we trust Wikipedia? In many cases Wikipedia is the best source of information so what choice do we have?

  • Check facts – Wikipedia content is very often gleaned from multiple sources or just plain made up, and by the nature of the type of site is rarely professionally compiled, so you should always check facts anyway
  • Simply human – This argument is no doubt the first and will not be the last. When people get into positions of power they often act like this and get paranoid to protect the power once they attain it. Any other site would have the same issues.
  • We provide the authority – Most webmasters never consider the fact that it is the users and other site owners who make Wikipedia what it is. If we didn’t contribute, patronize and link Wikipedia so much then it wouldn’t hold the power it does.
  • Isolated or institutionalized? – The issue comes down to if this is an isolated case. You can be sure there are a lot of people watching the site for abuse. Once a site is so visible the web community becomes their checks and balances.

Do you trust Wikipedia? Please share your thoughts in the comments …