Encyclopedia Frown

Wikipedia is amazing. But it’s become a rancorous, sexist, elitist, stupidly bureaucratic mess. 

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

Wikipedia is a paradox and a miracle—a crowdsourced encyclopedia that has become the default destination for nonessential information. That it has survived almost 15 years and remained the top Google result for a vast number of searches is a testament to the impressive vision of founder Jimmy Wales and the devotion of its tens of thousands of volunteer editors. But beneath its reasonably serene surface, the website can be as ugly and bitter as 4chan and as mind-numbingly bureaucratic as a Kafka story. And it can be particularly unwelcoming to women.

Last week, Wikipedia’s highest court, the Arbitration Committee, composed of 12 elected volunteers who serve one- or two-year terms, handed down a decision in a controversial case having to do with the site’s self-formed Gender Gap Task Force, the goal of which is to increase female participation on Wikipedia from its current 10 percent to 25 percent by the end of next year. The dispute, which involved ongoing hostility from a handful of prickly longtime editors, had simmered for at least 18 months. In the end, the only woman in the argument, pro-GGTF libertarian feminist Carol Moore, was indefinitely banned from all of Wikipedia over her uncivil comments toward a group of male editors, whom she at one point dubbed “the Manchester Gangbangers and their cronies/minions.” Two of her chief antagonists in that group got comparative slaps on the wrist. One was the productive but notoriously hostile Eric “Fuck Wikipedia” Corbett, who has a milelong track record of incivility, had declared the task force a feminist “crusade … to alienate every male editor,” and called Moore “nothing but a pain in the arse,” among less printable comments; he was handed a seemingly redundant “prohibition” on abusive language. The other editor was Sitush, who repeatedly criticized Moore for being “obsessed with an anti-male agenda” and then decided to research and write a Wikipedia biography of her; he walked away with a mere “warning.” With the Arbitration Committee opting only to ban the one woman in the dispute despite her behavior being no worse than that of the men, it’s hard not to see this as a setback to Wikipedia’s efforts to rectify its massive gender gap. (After the decision, several editors announced their intentions to resign in protest.) Moreover, it’s reflective of the challenges Wikipedia faces as it attempts to retain and improve its content quality and editing force.

“The encyclopedia that anyone can edit” is at risk of becoming, in computer scientist Aaron Halfaker’s words, “the encyclopedia that anyone who understands the norms, socializes him or herself, dodges the impersonal wall of semiautomated rejection and still wants to voluntarily contribute his or her time and energy can edit.” An entrenched, stubborn elite of old-timers, a high bar to entry, and a persistent 90/10 gender gap among editors all point to the possibility that Wikipedia is going adrift. Because Wikipedia is so unprecedented, I cut it a lot of slack, but precisely for that reason, it faces unanticipated dangers and no easy solution.

I recently delved into the wild and wooly realm of Wikipedia editing, which helped me appreciate just how unique and byzantine its environment is. A controversial edit of a page attributed views to me I would never hold, and when I tried to correct the misinformation, several recalcitrant editors attacked me until Wales himself stepped in and saner editors prevailed and fixed the error. (To them, I am grateful.) As it turned out, I’d run into a couple of what one Wikipedia administrator terms “The Unblockables,” a class of abrasive editors who can get away with murder because they have enough of a fan club within Wikipedia, so any complaint made against them would be met with hostility and opprobrium.

My experience was probably worse than most, but Wikipedia remains daunting to a newcomer. Unlike pretty much every other website of note, Wikipedia really is an experiment in controlled anarchy, and its strengths and weaknesses stem largely from the fact that there is no central authority with its hand on the tiller. Every editor is in theory on a par with every other one, with only about 1,400 “administrators” with the power to sanction and block editors and an overbooked Arbitration Committee for extreme cases of discord. The current governance of Wikipedia is a legalistic anarchy, in which complicated rules, frequently invoked only through arcane acronyms like BLP, AGF, NOR, and even IAR (ignore all rules), are selectively deployed by experienced editors in order to prevail in debates. I am not exaggerating when I say it is the closest thing to Kafka’s The Trial I have ever witnessed, with editors and administrators giving conflicting and confusing advice, complaints getting “boomeranged” onto complainants who then face disciplinary action for complaining, and very little consistency in the standards applied. In my short time there, I repeatedly observed editors lawyering an issue with acronyms, only to turn around and declare “Ignore all rules!” when faced with the same rules used against them.

Wikipedia’s overarching goal is the much-vaunted neutral point of view, or NPOV, which means that an article should impartially reflect the opinions of reliable sources, or RS, on a subject in proportion to their prominence. In practice, this can mean any number of things. In the best case, which does occur reasonably often, spirited debate on the “talk” page of an article results in ongoing negotiations and refinement to an article until it is truly high quality. The editors who can work harmoniously in pursuit of this ideal goal of neutral “consensus” can make editing Wikipedia a wonderful and productive experience. Yet in other cases, it can result in ongoing “edit wars” in which groups of headstrong editors group into dueling factions that duke it out for supremacy of their version of the page—“consensus” achieved not through impartiality but through the greater endurance of one side of partisans. In his book Common Knowledge?: An Ethnography of Wikipedia, Dariusz Jemielniak, a longtime Wikipedia editor and administrator, discusses one of the most epic edit wars of all time, a fierce and unyielding debate over how to refer to the Polish city of Gdansk (sometimes known as Danzig), which went on for four years before being settled in one enormous vote, with no real consensus ever reached. Another long debate ensued over how to name and index leaker Chelsea Manning.

While Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia and head of the Wikimedia Foundation (the website’s nonprofit fundraising arm), still holds sway in the Wikipedia editors’ community, he renounced his formal Wikipedia powers long ago in response to community dissatisfaction with some unilateral actions he had taken. Consequently, he can only exert soft power over Wikipedia through his prestige, as when he raised the issue of female American novelists being removed from the “American novelists” category and relegated to the “American women novelists” category, after the New York Times called attention to the move. The problem was addressed, but not without rancor: Wales is in the difficult position of needing to fundraise for a project over which he at best only has limited control. While Wales himself seems to aspire to a genuinely neutral and restrained attitude toward Wikipedia and its autonomy, some editors still resent even his modest level of influence. (Hence volunteers like Corbett freely saying, “Jimbo Wales is a dishonest cunt of the highest order,” and Sitush inveighing against the “arrogant and incompetent Wikimedia Foundation,” both without much consequence.)

Wikipedia’s users serve collectively as legislature, executive, and judiciary. Because there’s no way to enforce administrator disinterest (administrators almost never lose their privileges), administrator actions generally stand, whether fair or not. The problem is that in the absence of a central judicial authority, law without equality under that law gets you the drawbacks (bureaucracy, legalisms) without the benefits (fairness, disinterest). The administrators are supposed to show restraint and exercise powers that reflect the “consensus” resulting from discussion among interested parties, but since “consensus” is very loosely defined, administrators have a pretty wide berth. In practice, administrators tend to protect those they know and those with whom they agree while disciplining unfamiliar editors and ideological opponents. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just an inevitable consequence of human nature. And accusations of an overall political bias on Wikipedia are, I think, unfair; there is no overarching ideology on the site, just the highly variable ideologies of various sects of editors and administrators.

The problem instead stems from the fact that administrators and longtime editors have developed a fortress mentality in which they see new editors as dangerous intruders who will wreck their beautiful encyclopedia, and thus antagonize and even persecute them. This attitude comes from the fact that some of these intruders are indeed trolls, partisans, paid hacks, or incompetents. Many, however, are not dangerous and run screaming from Wikipedia after receiving a hostile welcome. It is common to accuse a new editor of being a “single-purpose account,” or SPA, focused on one particular issue with a non-neutral point of view. Of course, most new editors look like SPAs at first, so the derogatory term frequently functions as a way to delegitimize newcomers. “Many newcomers experience being bashed and disparaged without good cause,” Jemielniak told me. “Wikipedians are used to hunting trolls and fighting them. It desensitizes them.” You can start to see why Wikipedia has trouble recruiting new editors and how this process may actually select for stubborn and implacable editors. Unfortunately, since the number of longtime, productive editors has continued to drop over the years to 31,000 last year, almost half of what it was in 2007, this problem is becoming more pressing. The drop increases pressure to retain other long-standing editors, even incredibly acerbic ones, reinforcing the fortress mentality.

This attitude also manifests itself in Wikipedians’ general indifference or even hostility to outside opinion. Jemielniak writes that Wikipedia’s “reliance on internal normative regulation naturally exacerbates the tendency to reject all forms of external validations”—or, as he told me, “Wikipedians are allergic to all forms of control.” The Gender Gap Task Force case shows that as long as the Arbitration Committee doesn’t mind that its judgment will alienate women and hurt Wikipedia’s public image, no one else can force them to action.

There still remains the problem of inconsistent content quality. Given the anarchy at work, it’s impressive that article quality should reach as high as it can, even if it’s still not reliable. Yet the nature of the beast makes quality control inconsistent. Recently, an adequate and fairly neutral page on “Cultural Marxism,” which traced the history of Marxist critical theory from Lukács to Adorno to Jameson, simply disappeared thanks to the efforts of a single editor. Rather than folding it into the narrower but deeper “Critical theory” page, the editor replaced the page with one on the “Frankfurt school conspiracy theory,” which obsessively and somewhat offensively dwells on the Jewish presence in these schools of thought and the right-wing and borderline anti-Semitic conspiracy theories around them. (The reason the editor dwelled on these irrelevant conspiracy theories instead of the thinkers themselves is unknown, but the changes are certainly troubling.) After bewildered complaints, Wales restored the original page and asked for an extra week’s debate on the sudden and drastic shift, sparking outrage from a cabal of editors who favored the change. Whether the change will win out will be determined less by truth and more by the stubbornness and comparative popularity of the editors and the administrators backing them.

In spite of all this, Wikipedia remains a seminal, important project, precisely because it has tried—and in many ways accomplished—something that’s never been done before. Few read Denis Diderot’s 18th century Encyclopédie today (even though parts of it remain brilliant and insightful), yet its impact was immeasurable. The question is not whether the experiment is worthwhile—it is—but whether the collective population of Wikipedia will take the steps needed to propel it into the future or whether this particular experiment is coming to an end. I saw a number of inhumanly patient, idealistic, and cautiously circumspect editors during my short time there, Jemielniak among them, but their voices were too often drowned out by the far less civil voices. We can learn a lot from Wikipedia about Internet governance and collective knowledge-building. It’s ultimately up to the site’s editors to choose to learn to temper their fortress mentality, get more outside eyes and ears, listen to the most moderate and reflective among them, and perhaps even entertain the idea that they might sometimes be wrong. Wikipedia’s future may depend on it.