April 10, 2008

Joe Reagle’s Dissertation

Category: Academic,Politics,Tech,Web 2.0,Wikipedia — Biella @ 8:58 am

Wikipedia, though increasingly becoming an everyday fixture for many in the Wired World, means a lot of different things to different people. If you want to take a fascinating look into what one person, Joe Reagle has written about this unwieldy project, community and encyclopedia, take a look here. He recently defended his dissertation and I have read it through and through a couple of times. It has some great insights about the significance and culture of Wikipedia by laying bare its cultural dynamics as well as putting it in historical context with similar encyclopedic endeavors.

August 26, 2007

The problem with presentism

Category: Debian,Tech,Wikipedia — Biella @ 7:04 am

A few days ago, Joe Reagle was telling me about the rise of (sometimes very arcane) policies and bureaucratic imperatives that now characterize Wikipedia. A few days later I stumbled across a few interesting posts on the topic, posts (especially Nick Carr’s) seeping with almost celebratory gloom and doom:

‘But, given human nature, is it really so “incredible” that Wikipedia has evolved as it has? Although writers like Yochai Benkler have presented Wikipedia as an example of how widescale, volunteer-based “social production” on the Internet can exist outside hierarchical management structures, the reality is very different. As Wikipedia has grown, it has developed a bureaucracy that is remarkable not only for the intricacies of its hierarchy but for the breadth and complexity of its rules. The reason Deletionism has triumphed so decisively over Inclusionism is pretty simple: It’s because Deletionism provides a path toward ever more elaborate schemes of rule-making – with no end – and that’s the path that people prefer, at least when they become members of a large group. The development of Wikipedia’s organization provides a benign case study in the political malignancy of crowds.”

It is without question that a problem has arisen in Wikipedia, a problem composed of a thick web and net of rules that can be helpful as guidelines but often are often confusing and clearly work to ensnarl new users.

But can we so quickly put blame on so-called human nature? Or is it not a problem of human organization, which as the anthropological and sociological record shows, can take many forms? And is it not just that: a problem begging for a solution instead of an opportunity to declare the fundamental nature of wikipedia (and that of human nature?). Not only may history prove him wrong, other large scale collaborative projects at least prove that solutions can be found to deal with problems of growth and scale.

It is as if Carr just wants to see a project like Wikipedia fail, which somehow, this morning hit a raw nerve. What I find exciting about large scale projects of (at times unwieldy) collaboration are not just the explicit outputs of the projects (an encyclopedia or operating system) but the social worlds they create. And there is no inevitable path they *must* follow. These groups have a choice to react to and respond to these sort of problems and enact solutions that will hopefully solve them and allow these projects to change.

Debian, a slightly older project than Wikipedia, has gone through many growing pains and there was even a period when the the whole process of integrating new Debian developers was shut down and if my memory serves me correctly, for 2 years! At the time, it could have been possible to say: “This signals the end of Debian” but eventually a solution was found, the New Maintainer process, which while not perfect (what is?) allowed the project to grow and produce a great operating system for years to come.

Debian today faces new problems and is working to find solutions. I hope that Wikipedia can and will do the same. And instead of declaring its death, why not wait and see, and offer something a little more constructive and illuminating, than destructive?

June 30, 2007

The Worst of the Web: Punditry 2.0

Category: Academic,Tech,Wikipedia — Biella @ 6:04 pm

Tonight, instead of minding my dinner, which did burn, I was drawn into and extended a pretty fiery IRC conversation on debian-devel on a topic that does not like to die: the merits and demerits of Wikipedia.

It is not worth summarizing the conversation here for it followed a pretty predictable arc. There were those who thought Wikipedia was novel and valuable, others who saw it as a pit of bad facts, and inaccuracies and a few others who saw it in ways negative and positive. I found the conversation somewhat ironic, because I usually find myself defending free software to outsiders much in the same way I was defending Wikipedia to free software developers.

I tend to be in the camp of admirers, and for many reasons, although, of course, I also was arguing that it is too early to judge the value of Wikipedia as it is in its infancy. Like Debian, since Wikipedia is an institution that has changed *a lot* in its short history, it is hard to make any hard and fast conclusions about its worth, impact, etc, although more modest and qualified claims are certainly in order.

The only reason I feel like I can argue anything about Wikipedia is because I am currently reading a dissertation on Wikipedia by Joseph Reagle. He not only has really insightful things to say about the collaborative culture driving the online encyclopedia, but also about the prolific commentary that has closely followed the heels of Wikipedia in the last few years.

Just today, he wrote a blog entry entitled, Punditry and The Web 2.0 debate, which so hit the nail on the head on the problems–not with Wikipedia–but with the peanut gallery (commentary) on Wikipedia.

As he notes, the problem is often not with the so called correct or incorrect judgments on Wikipedia (or other Web 2.0 phenomenon) but with the very debates themselves, because many of them are built on a shaky foundation of sand, but this punditry, as Joe rightly calls it, is nonetheless worthy of critical examination:

.. while I follow the discussion with interest, I actually don’t find it substantively engaging. Many of the arguments, particularly Gorman’s, tend to be characterized by unsubstantiated claims and the purposeful construal of nuanced issues as extremes — propping up strawmen for subsequent potshots. As I’ve already indicated, while it might bring pundits a sense of righteousness and attention, in the end “Time, not arguments, will utlimately tell.” (And, for this reason I appreciate Larry Sanger’s continuing efforts to implement his vision.)Why, then, do I find this discussion of interest? Punditry, communicative disorders, and history. First, I’m trying to come to an understanding of “punditry,” and I think Gorman’s recent bloggings is an exemplar. My sense is that sometimes people argue for arguments’ sake. That is, even if they genuinely believe the thing they are arguing for, attention, not persuasion, is the goal. (In a sense, perhaps it is a high-brow, and perhaps more genuinely held, form of trolling — another interesting phenomenon.)

While punditry has always existed, there is no doubt that the Internet has accentuated and facilitated this form of (often male) communication and it is great to see someone tackle this topic. Because let’s face it, there is a lot more “garbage” spewing from Web 2.0 or Wikipedia commentary compared to than the actual Wikipedia articles themselves.