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Wales and Sanger on Wikipedia

Hey, Jimmy. Didn't you just edit me out of history?

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A major difference in the way Wikipedia is perceived is the result of its internal processes being revealed to the world. A new site, Wikitruth.info, consists of Wikipedia administrators frustrated by the current management and direction of the project, and can't be lightly dismissed. Having spoken to the Wikiedpia admin "Skip" (some details here) it's evident he wants Wikipedia to succeed - but no longer thinks it will, under the current regime. (Jason Scott details the arbitary nature of Wikipedia processes in more detail in his talk).

For example, "Skip" finds it incredible that Wikipedia doesn't use a Captcha to deter robot vandalism, while other Wiki sites such as WikiNews do. Instead, he says, 300 or so members of the "Anti Vandalism Unit", most in their teens or early twenties, perform the duty manually.

"Aren't there other things they could be doing with their time?"

We put this to Wales.

"We want to make impairments to access as minimal as we can," he says, pointing out that conventional captchas pose problems to people with sight impairment.

"Vandalism is the price we pay for being open. If the vandal fighters say 'Hey, it's really getting too much, we need to adjust the system,' then we'll adjust the system."

On several occasions Wales disputed the claim of entropy, and stressed that keeping the system open was paramount. As The Times noted in its Education section recently, it takes just a few seconds to create an account, which unlike most discussion sites doesn't even require authentication by email. But he readily admits that "the difference between logged in and not logged in is pretty minimal."

"I'm not convinced we're losing rather than gaining. Far more often, people find it a welcoming environment," he says.

"It depends on what sorts of edits one is making... in some areas you're going to edit that more than others."

"If you're editing fairly arcane articles about statistical theory you're not going to come into 14 year olds, but in pop culture articles you are."

But a significant amount of Wikipedia consists of what is derogatorily called "fan cruft". Every Pokemon character is recorded, a Slashdot poster noted yesterday, as is every object that has ever appeared in Star Wars.

"It's a complex social process. You don't want to block people, you want to empower them."

Much of the time Wales takes the criticisms head on. How can Wikipedia improve the quality of prose which often reads as if it was written in Klingon and translated to English?

"Legitimate questions can be raised," he says.

Jane Fonda's article, which was highlighted by Nick Carr, was "a motley collection of facts", he agreed, characterizing it as "She won an Academy Award and has a dog." Somebody needs to come through after an editing back and forth and improve it.

Does Wales agree if it wasn't called an "encyclopedia" there wouldn't be such concern about its proliferation?

"We have always said Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and that defines what the aim of the project is. But H2G2 also gives you a clear idea of what it's trying to do. Everyone knows H2G2 from the books, and knows that it's tongue in cheek and ironic, whereas an Encyclopedia is a different style of writing and goal."

"If we called it 'Jimbo's Big Bag of Trivia', then it would be written to be a random collection of facts."

Er, and it isn't?

The only time Wales gets heated in our discussion is when the issue of Daniel Brandt comes up. Brandt wanted his entry deleted, and fought a losing edit war to prevent vandals from removing an old, derogatory link from his entry.

Reading some of the comments left by Wikipedia administrators, we suggested, showed some glee at sticking it to Brandt. By contrast Justin Berry, who featured in a recent New York Times article about online sex, had his entry swiftly quarantined - a new rule was created for this purpose by Wales, who deleted the old entry.

Is the message here simply that Justin Berry had a better lawyer than Brandt?

"I'm not sure there's any difference at all. In the Brandt case there was the same sort of question and the same sort of treatment: let's go in and try and work out what's right and what's wrong. Then he launched into his own campaign against Wikipedia, which was very unfortunate."

"There's a lot of discussion about biographies of living people being particularly worth of great care. And one of the positive things about Daniel Brandt is that he was really quite effective in highlighting that issue. Now I have a lot of criticisms about Daniel Brandt - he's supposed to be a privacy advocate but he was posting Wikipedia administrators home details on his site…

But, we interrupted, Brandt was posting the email addresses and IP numbers of the pseudonymous administrators attacking him, to make a point about accountability. Wales passes over this.

Wikipedia seems much more of a success as a social club than a reference work, we suggested. So what's the point?

Wales says most articles are improved from one, two or even five years ago.

But in many cases they didn't exist five years ago - and you really need to know the subject to spot these errors.

Finally, wasn't it obvious that in society the gatekeeping function was there for a very good reason?

"Absolutely," agrees Wales. "And it's the most interesting question. I don't think we're saying we have the right answer," he says. ®

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