Bottom-up Processes are Messy

Bill Zeller points me to this rant by Jason Scott about Wikipedia. Scott basically tried being a Wikipedia editor, didn’t enjoy the experience, and concluded that it was “a failure.” He has various complaints about the way the Wikipedia process works, but since he doesn’t offer any specific examples, it’s hard to evaluate his complaints. He is, by his own admission, a “moody loner,” which is probably not the kind of person best suited to be a Wikipedia contributor.

What I found particularly interesting is the comments:

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that your definition of Great Failure doesn’t really mean very much. I’ve avoided doing any “work” for wikipedia because, well, I have a life and a job and my own weblog, and much prefer to focus my energies there. But as a -user-, I’ve found it to be an invaluable resource. So as a -user-, I call it a success. I could care less whether there was lots of “lost energy” in creating the articles I used, as long as in the end they’re accurate, and as long as they keep coming.

And Scott basically agrees:

You are correct; from the outside, to someone who is looking for basic information, a lot of Wikipedia will be ‘good enough’. Mistakes made will not be any more intensely different than anywhere else, that is, shallow take on the topic, common misperceptions (that are in a lot of sources) and so on.

I think Scott’s mistake is failing to distinguish between the micro and macro perspectives of the Wikipedia process. At a micro level, a lot of what happens on Wikipedia looks wasteful and irrational. Smart people sometimes contribute good content and their contributions are screwed up by idiots. What Scott fails to appreciate is that guaranteeing that no good edit is discarded would be vastly more expensive than the edits themselves. Rather than having an expensive process in which every edit moves in the right direction, Wikipedia has a dirt cheap process that moves things in the right direction on average. That obviously works in the aggregate. But if you look at it up close, it’s not hard to find examples that seem grotesquely irrational.

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11 Responses to Bottom-up Processes are Messy

  1. Wilson says:

    This is the complaint liberals have with many market processes–that it looks like there is waste. Marketing, management, even competition itself can look like waste when you’re in a services industry: we have Google, why do we need Yahoo? Now of course, this is the theme of this blog; these type of processes yield results. Yet you see this type of thing in the health care debate all the time. Obviously the health insurance market is flawed. Look at the amount of money they waste on screening customers, marketing, etc…this isn’t to say that the health insurance market isn’t flawed, just that this argument is really depressing.

    This blog is a noble endeavor.

  2. joe says:

    Although, I must admit, wikipedia edit wars are more about being persistent really than being rational or reasonable… I suspect things don’t move in the right direction as nearly as well as they could (if an “optimal” amount of edit inertia exists). There are amazingly frustrating examples that have lead me to limit my editing to simple corrections or, my favorite, adding citations. (Not a lot to be argued with there!). A classic wikipedia inability to deal is with danah boyd’s entry (she graduated from phd school with me and is a good friend). Danah spells her name all lower case… her birth certificate says this and when she changed her name she did so paying attention to her mother’s wishes to keep it lowercase. However, the lion’s share of journalists don’t know this, don’t care or, often, have style guides that insist on capitalization of proper nouns… so, there’s a ridiculous amount of wheel-spinning on the talk page for danah’s article about this. (As another quick one: I once had someone write to the Dean of my school about a dispute I was *mediating* in wikipedia!)

    What I’d like to see is something more like judicial precedent in wikipedia process… that is, cases that can be cited as edge cases or clarifications of the extensive wikipedia editing process. Right now, it’s more about who’s persistent enough or knows the right admins to put teeth in their assertions.

  3. Joe,

    The question is what’s the alternative? Obviously, in an ideal world it would be great if everyone could agree on a neutral editor who would arbitrate these kinds of disputes. But if Wikipedia actually tried to implement a system that involved more oversight, then the argument would shift from whether to capitalize danah’s name to who’s going to arbitrate the dispute over danah’s name. And those disputes will likely be a lot nastier (because the stakes are higher) and they won’t necessarily settle anything because people will still disagree with the arbitrator’s decisions.

    The Wikipedia process actually does have elements that are strikingly like judicial review. The arbitration committee serves the same function as the Supreme Court, and WP policies serve a role similar to judicial precedent. The problem is that WP is so vast that the arbcom only has time to review a tiny fraction of the editing disputes.

  4. Jason Scott says:

    I spoke a lot more about wikipedia than just that essay.

  5. You wrote 3000 words in that one essay, and I read a couple of other ones you wrote as well. It seems like that should be enough space to provide a specific example. Is there one you think makes the argument particularly well?

  6. joe says:

    (hoping this won’t get lost in the spam…)

    Yes, Wikipedia has elements like judicial review… but it’s much more like having only the Supreme Court and no other subordinate courts. Anyway, +1 for evolving wikipedia policy… although it’s a lot farther from “anyone can contribute” these days (and I’d love to see some good research about people that should be contributing that choose not to or have been disillusioned by the wikipedia editor culture).

  7. Rhayader says:

    Tim I’m not sure, but I think you might be getting spammed. Just a hunch.

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