Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Behind the Wikipedia Controversy

Make no mistake about it, I love wikipedia. What makes it work is the passion that people have about their interests, and the general good nature of people. Ironically, that same passion is also its greatest problem.

I've been a part of a similar "experiment" for 10+ years. This experiment is simply a social network originated (and primarily maintained) via e-mail. The basic rules are that there are no rules. It is commonly agreed that we'll not show blatant disrespect for one another, but that occassionally takes a back seat to the passion. The result is an e-network vastly superior to any engineering reference I've ever known. I'd love to discuss the details, but for now it's better to get to the point.

Heaven only knows if there is validity to the Register's article about the secret mailing list of administrators behind Wikipedia , but the comments highlight the pros and cons of such a resource nicely.

Where this all ties together is in the behavior of people and their passions...more explicitly in the comment made by David Wiernicki, which I'll dub my quote of the year.

I am not an expert...
By David Wiernicki
Posted Tuesday 4th December 2007 02:25 GMT
...but my understanding of the Wikipedia project is that its strength comes from a vast number of people making small changes.

However, the process self-selects to self-destruction - to wit, people who have lots of free time get the most power. But those people are usually the ones who are involved in order to gain personal prestige - the antithesis of Wikipedia in the first place. They're experts in the expert-less community.

So the community automatically becomes run by unstable people who care more about their personal power than the results. And this becomes impossible to stop, because reasonable people by definition will not be obsessed enough to fight the tendency.

And therein lies the doom of a good idea.

I should clarify my interpretation of that to say that a passionate person's power and prestige is often simply ego. Eventually the "reasonable" contributor gives up the fight and becomes a foe to the project. It doesn't necessarily ruin the data, but it is a huge distraction. The typical result is division, with multiple that for good or bad.

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