Five years of editing Wikipedia

August 12, 2011

At 1401 on the 12th August back in 2006 I made my first edit to the Wikipedia, all to the knowledge management article. Five years later I have made over twenty thousand edits to over six thousand articles, the best part of eight thousand article talk pages, four thousand user talk pages and just over a couple of thousand to project pages. Templates and images also but in much smaller numbers. Its become a daily addition and I have made friends and enemies in the process.

Its been an interesting experience so I thought I would take the anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on the last five years and also attempt to answer the “Why” question.

I thought I would do this as a set of fragmented memories by way of some of my other posts on the subject:

  • Firstly in Tales of a Wikipedia virgin I recounted the experience of being told I didn’t understand my own work, and the thread which followed that was interesting to say the least
  • In the early years I didn’t really understand how it worked (you really have to be involved with it to do so) so my first encounter with what I called the Geography Fascists was interesting, but I was a bit naive back then. That said there is a constant problem between editors who are obsessed with order who look after templates and policies and the rest of us who deal with the messy coherence of life.
  • Dealing with NLP cultists who don’t like the fact that they are supporting a pseudo-science has been an ongoing issue which flares up from time to time. The South Australian NLP community (or a part of it) even have a web site devoted to dealing with me. I did get very angry when one of the editors involved in that site was punished by Wales himself for trying to prevent WIkipedia being a means to promulgate pederasty. I’m still in touch with the editor concerned who is a good philosopher with his own interesting blog, but who never had the patience to handle people who were not concerned with content, only behaviour (see later).
  • Gaining more experience I started to realise that wikipedia works precisely because it is governed on behaviour alone, and that produces some interesting phenomena. I reflected on that in a post titled Good, Bad and Ugly.
  • Two years on in my editing career and I was starting to appreciate the emergent nature of constraints and the way they worked. I could also see why the Citizendium initiative was doomed to fail in the main because it didn’t follow the obliquity principles that is key to complex adaptive systems. Knol never stood a chance. You can’t resolve content issues by adjudicating content, behavior can be managed.
  • In dealing with controversial issues I found that I was closing off my listserv participation. In a real sense WIkipedia was more fun because of the constraints. Argumetns took place within formal and informal rule structures with larger numbers of people from very different backgrounds. listservs started to look and feel like provincial backwaters. Controversy does bring its own issues with the Cynefin article and as well as the Dave Snowden one getting hit from time to time. I also learnt to be very careful not to fall foul of meat puppetry rules and used the blog and twitter either in a neutral way or to report something after it had happened, not during the conflict.
  • Its been frustrating at times. Dealing with BRINT’s attempts at self promotion. Then there was the whole evil woman period which ended up with a three month ban on editing the Ayn Rand page although I was allowed to contribute constructively to the talk page. The Randinistas involved got a year so it was an acceptable sacrifice but it did teach me a lot about these communities. The issue raised was a very real one – how do you prove a negative? Supporters of the minor, twisted character wanted to call her a philosopher on the basis of an odd citation mainly linked to institutions funded by her supporters. In general mainstream philosophy simply ignores here. I and others argued that the lack of mention in the main directories and references mean that she isn’t. Interesting one that still comes up from time to time, and her page says she is a philosopher as WIkipedia has no rule or process for dealing with negative evidence.

I could go on and mention the multiple ongoing wars over if Wales is a country (now resolved it is) or the correct use of British Isles. To some extent as my son pointed out forcibly a year or so ago WIkipedia is the intellectual or polemicists equivalent of an online multi-participant computer game. I enjoy it as it keeps the brain alive, allows for debate within interesting constraints and is genuinely educational.

Above all it matters what Wikipedia says. Its the first hit for any google search. So while my main goal was to understand a complex adaptive system through participation I also believe that it matters that people of good will prevent the far right from changing reality to match their ideologies and that we don’t allow ignorance however well intentioned to triumph. Five years down, and its back to dealing with an attempt to use the London riots to support EDL and BNP propaganda.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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