'Take out a subscription to The Register. Then cancel it, and sign it Disgusted Wikipedian'
Nothing stings like a gift rejected...
Letters "He who feels punctured must have been a bubble - Lao Tsu
A funny thing happened last week.
Author and broadcaster - and veteran OpenOffice user - Andrew Brown wrote a piece in The Guardian a fortnight ago demolishing  some of the more absurd myths around open source software projects. Frustrating bugs went unfixed for years, he noted, giving lie to the myth that simply because anyone could, in theory, make improvements, then improvements that users care most about would actually be made. Brown has written two books using OpenOffice, and performed his duty as a diligent user. If this was commercial software, he'd be a MVC, or "Most Valuable Customer", and if OpenOffice was an airline, he'd be bumped up to First Class every time he showed up at the airport.
But what was particularly interesting was the range of responses to this critique, because they mirrored the responses received by The Register from Wikipedians. I have a theory about why these are similar, but first let's see what people said about Brown's piece. He published them on his blog here  and here .
Here's the typical response:
"You've obviously got in-depth knowledge of the product so why don't you help out?"
As we observed with Wikipedia, passing off the responsibility onto the user for dealing with the inadequacies of the software, or information, is a trait open projects seem to share.
Then there's the age-old response that a deficiency is a FeatureNotABug.
'spaces typed at the end of a line won't show' How is this a bug? It's just a different way of displaying text. Is a printer in error because it doesn't visually show you there is a space at the end of each line? No. There's no reason why it should have to show a space at the end of the line. That's you being very pernickety, not a bug.
Silly Mr. Brown, for not spotting that. More accurately, this response is classified as "Blaming The User For Being Stupid". Again, that's a Wikipedian trait too, and there were plenty more in the same vein.
Note the subtle variations. There's the "Hypothetical Utopia" defense, which ignores the present for an imaginary future in which the FOSS processes work as they ideally should:
So, yes, there is a problem with the open-source model. But I wonder whether things will change if OO is adopted by cities that have skilled IT departments that can be directed to fix THOSE PARTICULAR bugs, or to make THOSE PARTICULAR enhancements, that are of importance to THAT PARTICULAR city? I can imagine city council directing the IT representative to get the bug fixed and to report back at the next meeting. Within a couple of meetings, either the bug will be fixed or the city will drop OO. This is a tight feedback loop that involves skilled workers.
Then there's the "Never Mind the Quality, Feel The Price".
[paraphrased] Any bugs in OpenOffice are counter balanced by the fact that it is free!
And that's one of the commonest defenses of Wikipedia, which imagines a world in which the population is so starved of information (books and libraries don't exist here, for example, nor do wise teachers), that every globbet of information that drips from a computer network must be applauded as an "information revolution". In this world, the speed or price of information trumps all considerations of its quality. But as is so often pointed out, we're hardly living in a world starved of information. We're drowning under vast quantities of ropey information, and none the wiser for the experience.
Back to the onslaught on The Open Office User Who Dared Complain.
There's the parry called "Flood The Area with Improbably Large Numbers", in which downloads (or in Wikipedia's case, the number of articles) are quoted. We shall spare you this.
But a significant proportion of responses take the counterattack, and question the critic's motives, knowledge and quite possibly, moral inadequacies too.
Darryl LeCount's lofty ticking off is typical:
I found Andrew Brown's vitriolic attack on OpenOffice.org to be ill-informed, heavily biased against open source software and extremely inconsistent. He claims to "like" OpenOffice, initially using it out of "a mixture of perversity, stinginess, and vague anti-Microsoft sentiment", before launching into a tirade about how buggy it is and how flawed the open source model is. The author has clearly neither had extensive experience of using Mozilla Firefox, Blender, or Linux, and it is also clear that he has had little involvement with the development of these products despite his vague claims.
So Mr. Brown's critique of one product is invalidated because he hasn't used enough of them. A snobbish variation on "user is stupid".
Finally, there's the kind of response which supposes that the only reason a critique was made was to drive up page traffic.
I think the author of the article has achieved exactly what he intended to do and that is generate traffic to his blog and article. If you were a good objective writer you would not need to resort to this tactic. It's a bit pathetic that you feel the need to be so negative at the expense of something you get for free. Let's face it, this article could just as easily have been positive but that just would not have generated the traffic right :-(
We hate to see a sad face, at this time of year. But we also get the feeling that advocates of this, the Page View Whore counterattack, rarely meet advocates of the Flood The Area With Improbably Large Numbers counterattack, because if the project was as popular as the latter insist, then publishers would write only write nice things about open projects, to drive up their traffic. We'll spare you the rest, but the entire defense is summed up at the end of a tedious "Fisking" delivered by one Dave Lister, who sums up Brown's arguments bafflingly, so:
"I like OpenOffice." translation: I really want Open Source to get better :)
Silly Andrew, for harboring such hopes.
So what are we dealing with, here?
Well, in his Guardian piece, Andrew Brown pointed out that successful open source projects keep their users happy, and if the users share the same background, common goals, and level of technical knowledge as the authors, then the users can indeed contribute to a virtuous circle.
bind and Apache spring to mind.
But when the skills and experience are, to steal a Rumsfeld-ism, "asymmetric", there's friction. Many of Andrew Brown's OpenOffice critics have no idea of what a user really wants to do with the software, and can only cognize he's rejecting their gift of free software. Many Wikipedia defenders have no sympathy for readers who complain about unreliable, or badly written information, and can only cognize a world mocking their careful handiwork, what one critic calls a "defective data device" with "-pedia" in the name.
(One Australian doctor wrote to describe how he'd made just one Wikipedia edit in his life, to correct an entry about a medical procedure, which if carried out, would result in death. Heck, this is an information revolution, and every revolution is going to have casualties!)
So perhaps it isn't such a mystery. Open projects are by nature idealistic, a little gift to the world. When this gift is spurned, the rejection must feel terrible.
Why would an ungrateful world reject this gift?
Let's find out.
Let's start with a celebrity flame - from a Grammy nominated songwriter, no less.
1. A monkey's can't speak or write.
2.No,i meant details.
; 3.The problem is you
Wikipedias looking better all the time; but against me you have no chance at all. Face it andy,you just can't keep up,stop making a fool of yourself. Unless you enjoy looking like a jackass. In that case,bray away donkey boy.
Mr.Pete Holly, President/CEO, Look's Music International.
You can find Mr Holly's entirely sane-and-normal looking website here  - it's highly recommended. While on the subject of canine metaphors:
Wikipedia is not a panacea, but it fits a key role in knowledge access. Whatever we may think about it, whatever our feelings, it has reached a critical mass and it's there to stay. So let's improve it instead of wasting time criticizing it, because any critic today is actually woth a flea bite on a dog : annoying, but useless, and in the end the flea gets scratched away.
All encylopedias are a rediculous joke stuck in the trough of a minor ripple in history. I own a set of pre-WW1 British encylopedias. They're hilarious.
But Wikipedia is also one of the greatest source of FACTS on the internet.
Don't spoil it for everyone becuase you're don't know the difference between fact and truth.
"For now, however, it's the chasm between Wikipedia's rude claim to be an "encyclopedia", and the banal reality of trashy, badly written trivia that causes so many people to be upset about it. It is an unwarranted assumption of authority."
Even if that were true, it wouldn't matter.
No argument should be made from authority. Ever. That means no good encyclopedia should be written from authority.
And, if you think Wikipedia, by allowing anyone to edit, claims authority, you're of questionable mental fitness.
Amazing. Just savour that one for a moment.
This is NOT journalism. This is pathetic mudslinging. I am no wikipedia fanboy but I didn't like the tone of the article at all.
With recent articles by Andrew Orlowski, such as that titled, "There's no Wikipedia entry for 'moral responsibility'", it becomes clear that The Register has lost any credibility whatsoever. The article is strewn with blatant factual errors and FUD fallacies.
Do you have nothing else to do with your life but attack hard- working people groundlessly and stupidly in public?
You're a fucking idiot.
I supose I could continue to mimic your article by blaming the Register for publishing it but I've already lost interest.
Why do you hate Wikipedia so much? Do you think we should have to PAY for access to information like that? That's elitest, that only the rich should have access to information. Do you own a company that requires users to pay for information similar to that of Wikipedia's?
I'm surprised that as a librarian you would hate such a vast knowledge resource like Wikipedia.
Here's one that manages to combine the Flood The Area With Large Numbers counterattack together with the Public Are Stupid If They Believe Us parry.
Take note, and marvel:
At present Wikipedia claims more than 860,000 articles of which I would wager that a relative handful contain either vandalism, errors of great significance or malicious content.
What is truly a sad commentary is that the public at large apparently cannot be trusted to treat such a facility with respect and consideration. A few cowardly miscreants feeling compelled to satisify their juvenile impulses by vandalising the otherwise well-intentioned work of others.
Really it's no different than scrawling obsenities on an overpass or public restroom except that the effect goes beyond mere visual ugliness.
At the end of the day, however, I believe that Wikipedia, for all its warts, does a lot more good than harm.
That's great news, Ben. Maybe email spam has simply been part of the conditioning process, so that we must in future expect all good information to be picked out, like truffles, from a mass of scrawled toilet obscenities?
How ironic that a member of the media (and an online one at that) criticise a project like Wikipedia for lack of moral responsibility.
News publications make their living publishing stories and front page scandals on shock value, and go to little effort to ensure the validity of their sources.
When a particular scandal has to be withdrawn, we find a tiny mention tucked away deep inside a little read section, and the blame falls upon the reader for not reading every word of the publication to locate the retraction.
The media is in absolutely no position to get high and mighty on Wikipedia for their nobel project. Defacement is hard work to keep on top of. Editors have to watch edits to pages they work on like a hawk for vandalism, and suspect information isn't always removed until it's verified to be false.
Which will bring great comfort to everyone.
You don't offer an intelligent debate, you come off as ranting and raving about something that given your point of view isn't that important. After all it is just a website for those who participate in using it. Are you saying that this really is a valid source for resource and that's why you spent so much time investigating it?
Hey, for someone whose vocabulary is as replete as yours, you sure sound as if you've had way too many lattes over in Berkeley. Or maybe you're not on caffeine at all, but some other mind-bending substance. What is it you really have against open-ended encyclopedias? Sounds to me like you're all about political correctness, which of course is simply another name for cultural Marxism. I hate to overgeneralize, but it is tue you folks almost always think that way. fellow who pulled the stunt is the one who was in the wrong, not Wikipedia.
Crawl your way back to your ACLU hole and bury yourself pretentious platitudes. Oh, and enjoy your latte.
We live in a world where you can rarely get three people to agree on pizza toppings, yet you expect the collective contributions of thousands of people to miraculously form The Truth?
Wikipedia, by its very nature, IS NOT a definitive resource. Anyone who looks at Wikipedia and thinks "oh, this MUST be accurate because it has 'pedia' in it" is simply not thinking. The main page for Wikipedia says, quote, "Welcome to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit." How much brain power does it take to make the connection between "something that anyone can edit" and "may not be entirely accurate"?
And here's one left tantalisingly open. In its entirety:
One question: did you use any of your employer's time and resources as well as the public's money to produce your article on Wikipedia? and if so, ....
If so, ... er, what?
Speaking of which, here's a classical refutation of the criticism that WIkipedia is er, rubbish:
I think your article fails to genuinely assess the problem at hand.
The problem here is not 'moral responsibility' per se, but that people make wikipedia out to be something its not. NO reasonable person would ever consider wikipedia a valid source for any research. Its more like a collective knowlege repository, and collective knowlege is by defenition imperfect. Its all based on the idea that with enough people participating the truth will come out.
But the whole analysis that wikipedia is being subjected to focuses on the '[encyclo]pedia' part of its name, leaving out the 'wiki' part of it. The beauty of the system is that if there is something wrong on a bio, or any other article, whoever spots it can change it. For your part, if there is no entry for 'moral responsibility' you have the power to suggest its creation. Locking down wikipedia can only make the problem worse because the universal availability of power over the articles, wikipedia's strongest check, that will be the first to go (Notice, only registered users can now suggest articles, so your check of creating 'moral responsibility' is no longer there, thanks to this misconstrued debate).
I see this debate as going to the heart of the internet. Participation is the key rather than regulation. More opennes and more discussion, even where flaws come out, is preferable to less openness and less discussion where there is more fact checking. We can't go shutting things down because they get something wrong, we should work to help them get it right, ESPECIALLY where, as in this case, the power is right there to do it.
P.S. The accusation that started all this was that he was involved in the Kennedy assassination conspiricy. Come on, what a crazy accusation. How libelous is that? its more like satire than defamation.
It's another universe out there, in Wikipedialand.
The last word on moral responsibility comes from star reader Gerry Steele in Belfast - the chap who at the weekend promised, "May your carear rest in peace Mr Orlowski." (sic)
As with Edward, all Gerry's typos are his own. And he produces the answer we've been looking for on the question of moral responsibility.
Take it away, Gerry:
I do not normally comment on opinion articles in press but I believe your article to be particularly insidious. Your criticism by proxy of belittling is a rather amateur attempt to undermime something that is of use to millions every day.
Whilst the open nature of Wikipedia may allow vandalism by anyone who deems themselves bothered to do so, it is a rare thing. Once you witness how the vandalism works and how the 'many eyes' principle of Open Source philosophy kicks in to rectify any errant modifications, the moral responsibility of Wikipedia becomes inherent in the user network itself.
A non profit organisation such as this must denounce responsibility as it has not the means to indemnify its content as a commercial one might. I note you also question the quality of the writing in Wikipedia; Sir I state that any article to which i refer to (and i refer to Wikipedia a lot) is of a greater quality of writing than any article to which you have put your name that I have read (particularly this one).
I think I trust the community and its unseen masses considerably more than the ramblings and rantings of an unobjective, unprofessional and clearly struggling excuse for a Journalist.
Regards G. Steele Belfast, NI.
Take note: "the moral responsibility of Wikipedia becomes inherent in the user network itself". Which sounds a fancy way of saying, "not here, guv".
We have our answer.
So after that selection, why do people scorn this noble project? If you find yourself slightly incredulous that the venture gets so much adulation, don't worry, you're not alone.
Here we go.
Sensitive Wikipedians should look away now - there's nothing so cruel as a world rejecting this fine gift:
I've figured out what it is I dislike about Wiki - it's like a religion. It's founded on unproven premises; it has become rigidly hierarchical over time and in contravention of its state aims; it vigorously (some would say fanatically) argues it's case with tortuous logic designed to misdirect our attention from its essential logical flaws; it lays claim to properties it does not possess; it's a talking-shop for people more interested in process than product and is devoted to convincing the world that facts which may or may not be true are fact, so there.
In fact, given that the information stored in Wiki is not limited to subjects covered by more traditional reference sources (eg, Klingon ffs), no doubt it will at some point claim to be the "The Truth". There shall be no other reference but We.
Also like religion, it's a load of agenda-driven crap dressed up as respectable thought. Wiki has the potential to be the last nail in the coffin of academic rigour, and the poster-child for the final dumbing down of human existence.
Just like evolution-deniers, we are already seeing the popular movement to sneer at 'experts' and 'academics' as if they've been oppressing us all through history with their malicious insistence on evidence. Might we one day see 'research-deniers'?
It is easy to show that Wikipedia is biased, inaccurate and powerful. The situation is growing more so with every day. Some day somebody at Wikipedia is going to pay the piper on this one but until that day arrives the amount of damage that is going to be done to people and to history will be intensive.
"The first, and the most immediately absurd of these two defenses, is that since nothing at all can be trusted, er, "definitively", then Wikipedia can't be trusted either." So does that mean we shouldn't believe those who make such a statement? Well, that's easy to fix, just delete the wikipedia.org DNS entry and we'll al be none the worse for it. It actually sounds more like the childhood riddle: "If I say "I always lie", can you believe me?"
So now everyone can be an expert in a field they know nothing about without having to back up any facts? What a strange way to create an encyclopedia.
These stories coming out about Wikipedia and how it is compiled make it sound more like a joke every day. Maybe this is just a big conspiracy to dumb down the population in some form of 1984 scenario :-)
PS. My dictionary wants to replace "Wikipedia" with "Wiped" or "Wimped". Seems a close enough match for me....
Reading your article made me think of something that I hadn't thought of in years. When I was first learning to drive at 11 or 12 on the farm back in rural Arkansas, my father's first words about driving, "a car, a tractor, a truck is a machine: it will go in which ever way it is pointed and will run over everything and everyone in its path until it is stopped. Machines don't think. People think."
My suspicion of the Wikipediac, Web 2.0, herd mind, etc crowd is composed of nitwits who have forgotten that it is all about the machines. They conveniently forget about the machines because they don't have any mechanical ability to speak of. When was the last time any of them actually fixed something and didn't "have their guy" fix it?
"It's the Hive Mind wot dunnit. Not me"
The next time the windshield washer fluid on their car needs filling let the herd mind do it. Or let the herd mind put together the Christmas gifts that require "some assembly" with instructions only available in often intelligible English.
The dream of the herd mindians is that they don't want to have do for themselves, and failing that, not have to deal with other people, figuring a machine that could do it, would call their manhood into question for not being able to connect their dvd player to their tv.
And if nothing else, please don't use that nonsensical phrase "hive mind" if nothing else it's an insult to honey bees who can at least make something. A "hive" and a "herd" are not that much different. And "herd" at least has connotations of bovines standing around in an open field staring blankly into space as the world goes by.
There are two sides to Wikipedia:
- Wikipedia as website, which gets used as source of information by people (whether they are right in doing this is another discussion).
- Wikipedia the editing community.
Wikipedia-the-editing-community is just like any community, especially like any community that is enabled by some electronic means. Like any community, it will have outcasts. Like any community (especially the ones that form via some form of electronic communication) it likes to belittle 'newbies'. Like any community, there will be flamewars. Like any community, there will be the right way of doing things, inside jargon, inside knowledge (see/hear Adam Curry's rant about wiki markup and how that kept him from fixing the 'podcasting' entry) inside jokes, things that will improve your standing and things that will get you dropped like a brick. Just like the average web forum, or like a Usenet newsgroup, Fidonet echoes and BBS discussion boards.
But the webforum spits out a newbie, the Usenet newsgroup flames him/her to a nice crisp, and life continues with one irritated person.
Wikipedia-the-editing-community has more effect: they edit Wikipedia. In their style. The thing that struck me is that the line about John Seigenthaler Sr. was in a style that fits with Wikipedia. Hoax or not, writing "was thought to have been directly involved" sounds more Wikipedia than "is a <expletive>". So if you're an expert on a topic, simply writing your expert opinion as truth will get your writings removed fast because that's not the Wikipedia style.
This is why 'if you think it is wrong, just edit it!' will not work out.
Can this change? Probably not without offending a large part of the membership of that Wikipedia-editing-community.
Koos van den Hout
And if Koos is right, Wikipedia is working out exactly as designed.
I'm utterly sick of your publication's continued bashing of the Wikipedia. Truth by committee works god dammit! Just look at government!
The thing that all the techno utopians seem to forget is that not all things are like the Federation. Hell, even the writers of Star Trek weren't as unrealistic as to think that!
What those badger lovers have to understand is that even when 99.999% of your users act responsibly, you still have to act to keep the arseholes in check; and that the definition of an arsehole is not someone who suggests that a warp core breach is imminent... especially not when there are flashing lights and the link confirming the fact.