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Yes, it's that time of year when children eagerly gather round a kindly old man with a beard. He makes great promises to them, if only they just work hard enough. But they just get a load of obscenities back.

Only it's not Santa.

Wikipedia's Maximum Leader and peripatetic salesman Jimmy Wales breezed into London yesterday. This time he's pitching Jimbo's Big Bag of Trivia at teachers and lecturers.

Wikipedia should be permitted as a source in citations he now says, reversing his earlier position that students who cite Wikipedia as an authoritative source "deserved to get an F grade".

Wales' logic is that the students are going to use it anyway, so why not permit them to cite it as a source?

He also claims the site has become more reliable. Under Wales' advice, it's effectively become locked-down, shedding its "democratic" aspirations in all but name. Today, all edits on a topic are sent to a single 14-year old in Kalamazoo, Michigan, whose judgement is final.

"There is no substitute for peer critique," he told a conference.

What - not even people who know what they're talking about?

Fear and Loathing in Trivialand

The project has a febrile, end-of-an-era atmosphere these days, which can't have escaped someone with Wales' fine antennae for public relations.

A Slashdot discussion from two years ago would have seen a vigorous defence of the project - with the full range of excuses being deployed. (You can find a taxonomy of them here - which we need to update). But the discussion in response to Cade Metz's story here about the Wikipedia administrators' death list prompted a full-on comedy festival. There was nary a voice raised in its defence.

So as it gears up to exploit its global brand commercially, Wikipedia is passing into popular culture as a place where strangely obsessive people go to argue the toss and play games with each other. It's a sort of public Milgram Experiment: how cruel can nerds be to each other? How much pointless bureaucracy can they create?

Seth Finkelstein brought out these aspects yesterday in a real savaging at The Guardian, but he expressed it even more succinctly on his blog:

"The problem is that Wikipedia is extensively marketed as some sort of harbinger of novel social organization that produces collective good. The reality is it's just a very old sort of social organization, one that gets people to work for free in part by pandering to their group impulses," he writes.

One source close to the project had this to say of the secret mailing list:

"It's really indicative of the state of Wikipedia. The vandalism IS getting more and more out of control. The wiki way just isn't working anymore."

The huge gap between Wikipedia's aspirations (it's a really fine site for trivia) and the reality is the essence of comedy.

However, it seems the only people prepared to defend the project anymore - or more accurately, choose to overlook this reality gap - are people in media and marketing, and nature's natural bureaucrats.

You can almost forgive the marketeers, that's what they do. And the robo-droids and rule-makers who see in Wikipedia a model for self-advancement through a large organisation will always be with us. But what excuse do journalists have?

It's a great example of what Adam Curtis warned of in a recent interview. Hacks should spend a bit more time reporting the world, he told us, rather than fantasising about it. ®

Related Link

Jimbo's Christmas Message [BBC]

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