Wikipedia liars – this is a social software flame war with a KNOWN solution

FlameIt is nice to run into a problem where the solution is known and easy to implement.  It is frustrating to watch others not taking the obvious steps and instead choose to relearn lessons from history.  Jimmy Whales of Wikipedia needs to stop looking at this as a religion but rather as a social trust of information that must be protected to ENSURE free speech, not to block free speech.

The NYT is running an article called "Rewriting History: Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar" about someone making up some random stuff about a retired newspaper editor.  It was an edit on his bio page that was clearly random and wrong, posted by an anonymous user.  Easy to fix, and it has been fixed.  Read the article for more, my post is on the fact that allowing truly anonymous editors is not sustainable for popular social software.  Shirky wrote about this:

Group as User: Flaming and the Design of Social Software – Clay Shirky

<snip> Yet despite three decades of descriptions of flaming, it is often treated by designers as a mere side-effect, as if each eruption of a caps-lock-on argument was surprising or inexplicable.

Flame wars are not surprising; they are one of the most reliable features of mailing list practice. If you assume a piece of software is for what it does, rather than what its designer’s stated goals were, then mailing list software is, among other things, a tool for creating and sustaining heated argument. </snip>

From the NYT article here is Mr. Whales’ plan of action:

"We have constant problems where we have people who are trying to repeatedly abuse our sites," he said.

Still, he said, he was trying to make Wikipedia less vulnerable to tampering. He said he was starting a review mechanism by which readers and experts could rate the value of various articles. The reviews, which he said he expected to start in January, would show the site’s strengths and weaknesses and perhaps reveal patterns to help them address the problems.

In addition, he said, Wikipedia may start blocking unregistered users from creating new pages, though they would still be able to edit them.

The real problem, he said, was the volume of new material coming in; it is so overwhelming that screeners cannot keep up with it.

This won’t work.  Clay Shirky said it best in this hilarious segment from the article above:

And for roughly thirty years, almost any description of mailing lists of any length has mentioned flaming, the tendency of list members to forgo standards of public decorum when attempting to communicate with some ignorant moron whose to stupid to know how too spell and deserves to DIE, die a PAINFUL DEATH, you PINKO SCUMBAG!!!

Yet despite three decades of descriptions of flaming, it is often treated by designers as a mere side-effect, as if each eruption of a caps-lock-on argument was surprising or inexplicable.

In short, you have to have some level of public exposure to stand behind your words or there are problems in society and in social software.  Requiring registration to edit is minor, easy, doesn’t even prevent the entire problem but does create some friction.  The best editors ARE registered because they want credit for their contributions.  So the bad edits are anonymous.  Why isn’t this solution put in place?  Duh.

Note that four of the five top wikipedia editors are bots.  They apparently log in to the system.

Rank User Bot? Total Edits Edits in the past 30 days
1 Rambot bot 131511 0
2 D6 bot 86832 531
3 Pearle bot 69497 2316
4 SimonP 67849 4398
5 Bluebot bot 67621 60889

In closing, you have a social software application, wikipedia.  It has an accuracy and flame problem.  There is a known solution to the flame problems of social software.  The problem is exacerbated by the ease of scripting edits on wikipedia as evidenced by the four of the top 5 editors being bots.  And they need to require login to solve the problem.

Unless Jimmy knows all of this and is just doing it for the public relations value of getting press coverage.  Nah, he wouldn’t do that.