User:Ta bu shi da yu/Global Politician

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Sam Vaknin wrote the article "The Six Sins of the Wikipedia" on the 26th June 2006. In it he decries our site with the now all too familiar catch-cry that Wikipedia must be about to implode and die because it is Just Too Unworkable. I do seem to remember people saying this about a year ago...

The article states that there are six "sins" of Wikipedia:

  1. The Wikipedia is opaque and encourages recklessness
  2. The Wikipedia is anarchic, not democratic
  3. The Might is Right Editorial Principle
  4. Wikipedia is against real knowledge
  5. Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia
  6. The Wikipedia is rife with libel and violations of copyrights

Let's address each of these in turn.

Allowing anonymous editors leads to recklessness

I really must dispute this assertion. There are a considerable number of anonymous editors who do not act with recklessness or disregard for others. There are a number of mechanisms in place to stop libel, the most effective being the Wikimedia Foundation's board and the Office Actions team. Like any site that is driven by user content, libel does leak through, however it is not accurate to say that because these people are anonymous the content stays for any longer than the time it is taken for it to be noticed.

The belief that Wikipedia is not accountable to anyone is wrong. Though section 230 of the Communications Decency Act states that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider", the Foundation have nonetheless implemented procedures to remove libellous content through the use of Office Actions. The Foundation is clearly making good faith attempts to remove such material, and they are taking responsibility for the site though such actions.

Further, editors who consistently produce offensive or libellous material are tracked down to their IP address (if necessary) and when necessary are blocked by Wikipedia administrators. While it may not be possible to say exactly who they are, administrators and arbitrators have been remarkably effective in stopping them from contributing more information.

Sam Vaknin seems astounded that "Everything in the Wikipedia can be and frequently is edited, re-written and erased and this includes the talk pages and even, to my utter amazement, the history pages!" Firstly, history pages are not edited. At the moment revisions can be deleted and hidden, but this is always done for extremely good reasons, namely to remove libel and copyright violations, something Sam rails against in point 6 ("The Wikipedia is rife with libel and violations of copyrights") — Sam, if you are reading this: you really can't have it both ways. As for articles being rewritten, yes, that is one of the features of the site. In most cases I have seen, articles have needed to be rewritten to improve them or add further information into the article that only a rewrite can effectively perform. As for talk pages being edited: talk pages can be refactored, but it's usually frowned upon. Talk pages are not the main aspect of the site, so I really don't see this as a terribly valid criticism.

Anarchic?

Wikipedia is not an experiment in online democracy. Neither is it a form of pernicious anarchy. There is leadership in Wikipedia, and control. Anarchy would mean that there is no form of government on Wikipedia, yet the site has one: editors must follow site policies which are decided by the community. Site policies are enforced by administrators and the Arbitration Committee. Wikipedia is built by forming articles through consensus and through citing factual material from external sources, and this means that there is a thread of control built into the site. That this most closely resembles a democracy is merely an interesting side-effect of the truly open Wiki mechanism used to allow editors to contribute to the project. Like many others before him, Sam Vaknin has assumed that Wikipedia was and is meant to be an encyclopedia with the primary purpose of creating an experimental democracy. Nothing could be further from the truth. It would be more accurate to say that Wikipedia is an experimental democracy that has the primary purpose of creating an encyclopedia, albeit in an unconventional way.

Sam accuses Wikipedians of espousing misconceptions, but then goes on to espouse his own. Firstly, Wikipedia does not exist in utter chaos. To many outsiders looking in it most certainly appears that way, but then again, to many outsiders it also looks like chaos reigns on the floor of a traditional stock exchange, and to many non-appiarists it looks like chaos when they look on the inside of a beehive. Sam is clearly such an outsider to Wikipedia because there are site policies and there are admins who enforce these policies, so I can assure Sam that the site does not exist in a permanent state of bedlam (incidently, Sam might want to look at our article on the subject of chaos here). I can also assure Sam that it is not a warzone in most places. There are some unreasonable people who come in to edit the site, and try to push their POV to the exclusion of all others, but they don't usually last that long. Once an editor has a proven track record of POV pushing, abusive comments, legal threats and/or vandalism, they are either blocked summarily (if the contributor is a major problem editor), or they are taken to the ArbCom. Sam also says that Wikipedia is a "negative filter". By this I assume Sam means that only bad edits get through to Wikipedia. I feel that there are many controversial articles that disprove this theory, the two most prominent being Intelligent Design and Arab Israeli conflict. Both are fantastic articles on their given subjects, have been neutrally written and are factual; in short they are the very model of a great Wikipedia article. They are also probably the two most fought over and controversial articles on the site.

Rewarding quantity

Wikipedia does not lack quality control by design. As stated above, Wikipedia has editorial controls in the form of site policies. The most important of these are:

  1. Wikipedia:No original research
  2. Wikipedia:Neutral point of view
  3. Wikipedia:Cite your sources

Any article that does not conform to these policies is quickly tagged as an article that may not meet Wikipedia's high quality standard.

Sam's contention is that Wikipedia rewards editors for the number of edits, and not the quality of edits. I would dispute this as I have found that the editors who are most respected on Wikipedia are the ones who contributed to featured articles. However, I would challenge Sam to provide some empirical data to back up his conclusions.

As for Sam's definition of Open Source, Sam is comparing apples with oranges. Wikipedia is not a project to create a piece of software, it is a way of documenting knowledge. Perhaps a look at the definition of Open Source from the Open Source Initiative might be instructive. It defines Open Source as having the following requirements:

  1. Free Redistribution - we are
  2. Source code - doesn't really apply to Wikipedia, though it could be argued that the articles on the site are our "source code", so if that is the case then, yes, we provide access to it freely.
  3. Derived Works - we do allow derived works
  4. Integrity of The Author's Source Code - all edits are kept in the revision history, we satisfy this criteria
  5. No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups - we are documenting the sum total of all human knowledge for the entire world. We don't discriminate against anyone. (cf. such offensive topics as Holocaust denial, and pedophile activism).
  6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor - anyone can use our information for any endeavour
  7. Distribution of License - we license our material under the GFDL
  8. License Must Not Be Specific to a Product - anyone can use our material for any product. We don't require its usage in any one exclusive product.
  9. License Must Not Restrict Other Software - not applicable to us, but if the software is our articles, then we don't restrict any other information from being used with our material.
  10. License Must Be Technology-Neutral - we are technology neutral.

Nowhere in the OSI's definition does it state that open source must be undertaken through top-down heirachical development. The reason that Linux and many other open source software projects are developed that way is because, well, that's the best way to develop software! As it so turns out, often the best way of distributing information is to decentralise it. Wikipedia is not the only organisation to recognise this, Knowledge Centered Support (KCS) also recognises the value of decentralising knowlege and has been used quite successfully by many commercial companies to remove "silos" of information. The irony here is that Sam also recognises this, because he says that "it is far easier to evaluate the quality of a given snippet of software code than it is to judge the truth-content of an edit to an article". Sam, tell us something we don't already know!

Anti-elitist

Larry Sanger is the leading proponent of the anti-elitist school of thought. He believes that Wikipedia's problem is that "as a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise". I must respectfully disagree — many of us do defer to expertise and Wikipedia's site policy of citing verifiable and reliable sources is there to reinforce that. There are certainly some who don't defer to expertise, but I have found that there are not as many on the site as Larry might think. In fact, in my experience on the site I have found that eventually those who don't bow to expertise (i.e. use reliable sources) are taken to ArbCom and their editing ceases. Experts are not scorned and rebuffed, attacked, and abused with official sanction and blessing. To say this is quite ridiculous. This absurdity is exposed by simply asking where in the official correspondence or documentation it states that experts must be ridiculed and put down. The answer will be quite simply that this can't be found because such statements and "official positions" don't exist.

As for the extended rambling by Sam about those on an academic list preferring Wikipedia over the EB, well, firstly I can't read the discussion to see what they are actually saying, and secondly I fail to see how this is a problem that Wikipedia must deal with. Jimbo Wales has stated time and time again that reference works should not be cited in academic work. How many times must we tell people this? We are a first point of call, not a last and only source of information!

Not an encyclopedia

Sam believes that we are not an encyclopedia and "at best it is a community of users who exchange eclectic "information" on a regular and semi-structured basis". Sam could not be more wrong — we are an encyclopedia. Rather than quote from Wikipedia as to the definition of an encyclopedia, let's see what other encyclopedias give as the definition.

  • Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth edition — "compendium of knowledge, either general (attempting to cover all fields) or specialized (aiming to be comprehensive in a particular field)."
  • Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 edition — "means a system or classification of the various branches of knowledge, a subject on which many books have been published"
  • Encarta — "reference work that provides information on a range of subjects. Encyclopedias can encompass many areas of interest, or they can focus on a particular field of study, such as a geographic area, an ethnic group, a time period, or an academic discipline. Most encyclopedias have hundreds or thousands of articles, each addressing a distinct topic"
Sam suggests that every page should have a disclaimer. We already do.

By all reasonable definitions, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia because we are a compendium of general and specialized knowledge, backed by a system of classification. Ergo, we are not misrepresenting anything. For a PhD I would have thought that Sam would at least try to understand the definitions of the things he speaks about with so much authority! Similarly, you would think Sam would actually bother to look for at the site at least a little more when he gives the suggestion "it could post disclaimers on all its articles and not only on a few selected pages". In case Sam hasn't realised this: every page has a disclaimer down the bottom of the article and on the main page a link to an overview of Wikipedia is prominently displayed which spells out very clearly what Wikipedia is and isn't. I leave the reader to decide whether Wikipedia is an "intellectual scam, a colossal act of con-artistry", or whether it is exactly what it says it is.

Sam's conclusion is that,

"The Wikipedia thus retards genuine learning by serving as the path of least resistance and as a substitute to the real thing: edited, peer-reviewed works of reference. High school and university students now make the Wikipedia not only their first but their exclusive "research" destination."

I really must ask Sam directly how we are forcing high school and university students to use Wikipedia as the first and only research destination? Certainly Jimbo Wales has stated several times that we frown on such behaviour and that we actively encourage readers to visit other works after us! (cf. the boilerplate text of MediaWiki:Citethispage-content, part of the "Cite this article" in the Wikipedia site toolbox) I must also ask Sam how this is much different to a high school or university student using a general encyclopedia like Encarta for their assignments?

Most telling is Sam's "It could have been different..." comment and comparison with the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. There is a basic failure here to recognise that Wikipedia is doing things differently than other encyclopedias. The Wikimedia Foundation and anyone officially associated with Wikipedia have never attacked another reasonable encyclopedia or reference work, despite the slings and arrows that sometimes come from that direction, because they know that these works are valuable. Certainly Wikipedia has never claimed, and still doesn't, that we want to be rid of such valuable works. It appears to me that Sam is either afraid of or dislikes anything that is different from the traditional peer reviewed and vetted world of reference and research works, and is unable to accept that Wikipedia is actually quite useful to others.

Libel and copyright infringement

Contrary to what Sam says ("The Wikipedia does not provide any mechanism to redress wrongs, address problems, and remedy libel and copyright infringements.") Wikipedia administrators and the Foundation members do seek to remove libellous material and copyright violations when they are found. I am not aware of Sam's particular circumstances, but I can certainly say that the Board does take libel and copyright infringements very seriously.

With regards to libel, I can say that I was once contacted directly by Jimbo Wales to explain what he believed to be exceedingly harsh comments made by myself. Without going into much detail (with respect to the person who was complaining), I did apologise for the hurt that my comments may have made to the person in question. From direct experience, Jimbo Wales and the Board take hurtful and potentionally hurtful material seriously! They also deal with libel very effectively through Office Actions, in which they delete the article, hide the deleted edits, and then protect the page. This effectively removes such material from the site as soon as it is noticed. I should also point out that the Board has employed Danny Wool a full time staff member to deal with such matters. Danny has been remarkably successful in his role as the public face of Wikipedia.

With copyright violations, it is not accurate to say that Wikipedia does not provide any mechanism to remedy copyright violations. Firstly, there is a place where copyright violations can be reported and removed, at Wikipedia:Copyright problems. Secondly, Wikimedia has a designated agent. By following the normal process specified in the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act (OCILLA) such violations can be removed immediately. It is not accurate to say that there is no legal liability for Wikimedia — if they do not follow the procedures at OCILLA, then they are liable.

I have to say that I started laughing when I read the following:

"Anyone who ever tried to contribute to this "encyclopedia" discovered soon enough that it is micromanaged by a cabal of c. 1000 administrators (not to mention the Wikimedia's full-time staff, fuelled by 2 million US dollars in public donations). These senior editors regularly interfere in the contents of articles. They do so often without any rhyme or reason and on a whim (hence the anarchy) - but edit they do."

Firstly, Sam has flatly contradicted himself. You cannot have anarchy with a government of administrators. Secondly, Sam must understand that administrators are just regular editors with elevated privileges — on Wikipedia, administration should be no big deal. I have never seen an administrator edit an article "without any rhyme or reason and on a whim", I can pretty much say that almost every edit they make has a purpose. I would challenge Sam to provide us with evidence of an edit that shows such behaviour! More than 10 would do, and even then that would be too small a sample size of the literally millions of edits that administrators have made since the project started. I'd also like to mention that it would be very nice if we received $2 million annually, but that is just not the case. Sam can review the books here.

Class action lawsuits

Really, this is going too far. With all the oversight explained above, and given that Wikipedia is protected by the Communications Decency Act and has not violated the Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act, I doubt that a class action lawsuit is going to get too far. Wikipedia does its due dilligence in removing libellous material and copyright violations extremely effectively.

Wikipedia is different from The New York Times in that it is not a news source, and it is hosted and run by an OSP who do not have direct editorial oversight. As for Wikipedia being required to comply with the "minimal norms of responsibility and truthfulness that are routinely expected of less presumptuous and more inconspicuous undertakings on the Internet" - what less presumptuous and more inconspicuous undertakings might Sam be referring to? Certainly the reference is so oblique as to be useless, unless, of course, he is bizarrely referring to the NYT!

In conclusion...

Almost all of Sam's comments are invalid, badly thought through or flatly wrong. Wikipedia is not opaque and does not encourage recklessness. Wikipedia is not an anarchy. Wikipedia does not lack quality control by design. Sam provides us with no evidence to back up his assertion that Wikipedia rewards quantity over quality, and he is unable to show how we are not an open source effort. Wikipedia, despite what Sam says, is an encyclopedia and this is backed up by the definitions contained in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, Microsoft's Encarta and the 6th edition of Columbia Encyclopedia. Further, Wikipedia does not make anyone use Wikipedia as their exclusive mode of research, and in fact encourages them to look elsewhere when doing research for university or school. Finally, Wikipedia deals with libel through the Wikimedia Foundation and Office Actions; it also has a designated agent who can deal with copyright issues, along with a mechanism for the community to catch copyright violations before it gets to that point.

Footnote

I sent a response to Global Politician through their feedback form, and someone called David passed it on to Sam Vaknin. Here is the response in all its ad hominem glory:

From: "Sam Vaknin" <vaknin@gorgelink.org>

To: <globalpolitician@yahoo.com>
Cc: <ta.bu.shi.da.yu@gmail.com>

Subject: Re: GP - Chris Sherlock from ta.bu.shi.da.yu@gmail.com

Thank you, David.

Boringly predictable responses. Utter lack of grasp of any of the arguments I made. Juvenile presentation.

I expected nothing more of an anonymous Wikipedian (statistically, an obese and schizod teenager with no life and grandiose compensatory fantasies).

I can't wait til the Wikipedia is hit with the twin class action lawsuits now being put together in Canada and the USA. To my mind, the Wikipedia is a pernicious enterprise, best dissolved.

I will continue to do my best to expose it for what it is.

Sam

----- Original Message -----

From: Global Politician
To: Sam Vaknin
Sent: Tuesday, June 27, 2006 3:19 PM
Subject: Fwd: GP - Chris Sherlock from ta.bu.shi.da.yu@gmail.com

Subject: GP - Chris Sherlock from ta.bu.shi.da.yu@gmail.com
Date: Tue, 27 Jun 2006 03:22:28 -0400

I have responded to Sam Vaknin's article "The Six Sins of Wikipedia" on Wikipedia.

The link can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Ta_bu_shi_da_yu/Global_Politician

My response was as follows:

From: Ta bu shi da yu
To: Sam Vaknin

Subject: Re: GP - Chris Sherlock from ta.bu.shi.da.yu@gmail.com

By all means, go ahead. I wish you all the best in your efforts, I'll be watching with interest!

Chris