Wikipedia Revisited: the Wikipedia Community’s Xenophobia

By Eric Goldman

Regular blog readers know that I have mixed emotions about Wikipedia. On the plus side:

* Wikipedia is a terrific and fascinating resource that I use multiple times a day (Wikipedia remains the #2 visited site in my Google personalized search history).

* I went to Epinions because I am an enthusiast of the “wisdom of the crowds”–that a dispersed community can generate better results than a single designated editorial source/expert. Wikipedia is the flagship website trying to translate that theory into action.

However, I have serious reservations about Wikipedia. On the minus side:

* With high PageRank and visibility, Wikipedia is a juicy target for spammers and vandals. As a result, at any particular time, it’s hard to know if the content on a page is reliable.

* Further, its unlimited editability limits Wikipedia’s utility as an academic resource, and I do not cite it (nor do I not allow students to cite it) for the truth of the matter asserted.

* Spamming and vandalism challenges Wikipedia’s gatekeepers to preserve editorial integrity. So far, Wikipedians have done an admirable job combating these forces. However, the anti-spam/vandal fight has created a major second order problem. Specifically, the Wikipedia community has developed an exclusionary and insular culture that undercuts the community’s ability to deliver on Wikipedia’s mission in at least three ways:

1) Wikipedia Doesn’t Reflect the Wisdom of the Crowds

Wikipedia is an editorially controlled content database. It may have more editors than traditional editorial publications, and those editors volunteer rather than work on payroll, but Wikipedia is effectively indistiguishable from other tightly-controlled editorial publications.

Due to this editorial control, Wikipedia does not internalize the “wisdom of the crowd” effect because the editors prevent the site from actually reflecting the crowds’ input. Sure, the technological tools invite contributions from anyone, but the community members do not. Accordingly, most readers can make contributions that actually stick (i.e., aren’t quickly reverted) only by joining the community–a time-consuming process that suppresses contributions from people with domain expertise who don’t care enough to jump through those hurdles. The community’s xenophobia is completely understandable given the constant attacks from spammers and vandals, but it also blocks valuable contributions from improving the site.

Worse, Wikipedians routinely rely on their own judgments to make editorial decisions, even if they lack the requisite expertise. As a case study, let me describe (with some bemusement) the fate of my own Wikipedia page.

The page was first created in response to my initial prediction of Wikipedia’s demise–IMO not the most noteworthy thing I’ve done in my career, but clearly interesting to dedicated Wikipedians. Subsequent Wikipedians wisely questioned the merit of having a Wikipedia entry only based on the “meta” nature of my prediction, and my page was nominated for deletion. Unfortunately, very few voting Wikipedians appeared to do any independent research to assess my notability (which isn’t a hard thing to do in my case). Instead, they based their judgment on the internal credibility of the content already on the page plus a limited number of external links submitted by other Wikipedians. As a result, the Wikipedian votes were not based on any first-hand expertise or any meaningful infusion of outside knowledge. Even so, the community deadlocked on my notability, which preserved the status quo and kept my page up…until, a half-year later, a single Wikipedian swept through and killed the page anyway. Thus, the editorial process was suspect at every stage: (1) the initial decision to create a page about me based on an unimportant attribute, (2) the assessment of my notability by non-experts who did not conduct outside research, and (3) the post hoc decision of an individual Wikipedian to bypass the community vote.

2) Wikipedia’s Brand Suffers From Its Exclusionary Responses

Wikipedia’s exclusionary nature does more than simply prevent good contributions from improving the site–it may degrade users’ loyalty towards Wikipedia. Consider the following unsolicited email I received in response to my predictions of Wikipedia’s future demise:

There’s another angle you should look at, which may have just been recently emerging: Wikipedia pisses people off.

It doesn’t piss off the regular person who just uses it as a reference, but it pisses of about 100% of everyone who sincerely tries to contribute. Everyone that I’ve met in real life who has tried to edit Wikipedia has had a bad experience editing Wikipedia, and many feel that the people who reverted their edits or deleted their pages were mean-spirited about it.

Wikipedia is a lot more like Microsoft or Wal-Mart, and a lot less like Google. If someone hacks into Microsoft’s system, or Wal-Mart’s system, then they’re going to have friends that say, “Way to go dude!” If someone hacks into Google, they’re going to have friends that say, “That’s not cool, dude.”

For some reason, Microsoft and Wal-Mart have a lot of ill will toward them. At the same time, Google has a lot of good will toward it. Microsoft and Wal-Mart have deep pockets to fend off the attackers, but if Microsoft or Wal-Mart were supported entirely by volunteers and donations, they’d both die immediately. Wikipedia is a Wal-Mart, and not a Google.

Eventually, as part of your prediction, Wikipedia will piss off enough people that it won’t just be gamers or marketers corrupting Wikipedia. It will be people who have been slighted.

I’m not sure about the Walmart-Microsoft/Google analogy, but when Wikipedians brusquely squash people trying to contribute, the contributing individuals may think less of Wikipedia and decrease their willingness to support Wikipedia’s mission. Today, Wikipedia may be so popular that it can afford to lose a few friends; but fortunes inevitably change, and schadenfreude feelings can persist a long time.

3) Wikipedia Will Struggle to Replace Editors Who Turn Over

Hardcore Wikipedians inevitably will check out over time because of life changes, burnout or frustration with the community norms. However, the insular nature of the community makes it hard to join the community, so Wikipedia will struggle to replace departing Wikipedians. Worse, I think there is a tipping point of volunteer editors; below that number, the community will not replenish itself. Instead, the community will enter a death spiral as everyone independently decides to head for the door before becoming the last person standing. There is some limited evidence to suggest that Wikipedia might be slowly declining—the first stage in a possible downward spiral. We’ll have to see.

Is Xenophobia Unavoidable in Wiki Communities?

All of this leads me to a thorny theoretical question that I’ve been wrestling with. Is it inevitable that every mass-market wiki will form a community of xenophobic editors, or is there something unique about this particular wiki’s culture that has caused it to do so? Because of the threats of spammers and vandals, it seems likely that any wiki will need some level of inherent paranoia among its guardians to survive. Arguably, Wikipedia has gotten this far and succeeded as well as it has only because it has vigilant guardians who don’t trust outsiders. At the same time, this insularity sows the seeds for the community’s destruction as the turnover problem reaches the tipping point that leads to the death spiral. So perhaps mass-market wikis are inherently doomed from the outset, no matter how high a pinnacle they reach along the way.