How the Wikipedia reputation engine works and why Wikipedia should not allow anonymous edits

Recently, I wrote about Wikipedia and it’s blacklisting of Read write web. I have been interested in Reputation systems and hence it was a good opportunity to look at the Wikipedia reputation system. Specifically, the practice of using anonymous editors in Wikipedia is a concern – and I explain why below

Most people appreciate that Wikipedia is a ‘point in time’ snapshot of i.e. Wikipedia pages are constantly changing and hence any reference to a Wikipedia page can be only meaningful when it is quoted at a point in time i.e. against a certain date.

However, the inner workings of Wikipedia are more interesting

• Specifically, for me the questions:

• Who are Wikipedia editors?

• How are they selected?

• What are their competencies?

• What are their functions?

Why should they be anonymous?

We all know that anyone can change Wikipedia (that’s the whole point of a wiki). So, what is the function of these special ‘editors’ who can blacklist someone? And that too anonymously?

Here is what I found ..

Wikipedia is not a democracy

Wikipedia is not an experiment in democracy or any other political system. Its primary but not exclusive method of determining consensus is through editing and discussion, not voting. Although editors occasionally use straw polls in an attempt to test for consensus, polls or surveys sometimes impede rather than assist discussion. They should be used with caution, and are no more binding than any other consensus decision. Elections and votes are endorsed in some scenarios, such as when electing the Wikipedia:Arbitration Committee.

So, this leads me to question .. What is consensus in Wikipedia parlance?

Consensus is part of a range of policies on how editors work with others, and part of the Fourth pillar of Wikipedia code of conduct. Editors typically reach a consensus as a natural and inherent product of wiki-editing; generally someone makes a change or addition to a page, and then everyone who reads the page has an opportunity to leave the page as it is or change it.

And further

“Consensus” among a small number of editors can never override the community consensus that is presented in Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines; instead, consensus is the main tool for enforcing these standards. The focus of every dispute should be determining how best to comply with the relevant policies and guidelines. Editors have reached consensus when they agree that they have appropriately applied Wikipedia’s policies and guidelines, not when they personally like the outcome.

So, the goal seems to be to appropriately apply (wikipedia’s policies and guidelines)( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Policies_and_guidelines)

So, it all boils down to the ability to apply wikipedia’s policies and guidelines by the editors

Who determines these polices?

Again from wikipedia guidelines page

Policy change comes from three sources:

1. Documenting actual good practices and seeking consensus that the documentation truly reflects them.

2. Proposing a change in practice and seeking consensus for implementation of that change.

3. Declarations from Jimmy Wales, the Board, or the Developers, particularly for copyright, legal issues, or server load.

To be an editor, you have to be a wikipedian – you have to understand the Etiquette with the goal of getting consensus in view of the editing policy which may involve some discussions and arbitration based on a way to resolve disputes

So far so good ..

Now it gets interesting .. the NY times says(emphasis mine)

The bulk of the writing and editing on Wikipedia is done by a geographically diffuse group of 1,000 or so regulars, many of whom are administrators on the site.

“A lot of people think of Wikipedia as being 10 million people, each adding one sentence,” Mr. Wales said. “But really the vast majority of work is done by this small core community.”

The administrators are all volunteers, most of them in their 20′s. They are in constant communication — in real-time online chats, on “talk” pages connected to each entry and via Internet mailing lists. The volunteers share the job of watching for vandalism, or what Mr. Wales called “drive-by nonsense.” Customized software — written by volunteers — also monitors changes to articles.

1000 people are administrators ..

So

a) Who are these administrators?

b) And how transparent is this ‘administrator communication’

c) If anyone can edit BUT some editors are administrators – then clearly some are more equal than others?

d) Can anyone be an administrator?

We get some clues from wikipedia administrators Guide to requests for adminship

>>>

On the English Wikipedia, there are no official requirements to becoming a Wikipedia administrator. Anyone can apply regardless of their Wikipedia experience. However, while adminship is oriented towards community trust and confidence (rather than checklists and edit counts), considerable experience is usually expected, and each editor will have their own way to personally assess their confidence in a particular candidate’s readiness.

Before requesting or accepting a nomination, candidates should generally be active and regular Wikipedia contributors for at least several months, be familiar with the procedures and practices of Wikipedia, respect and understand its policies, and have gained the general trust of the community.

If at this point you are interested in requesting adminship, you should first read the guide to requests for adminship and the nomination instructions. If you feel that you are ready to apply, you may add your nomination to the Wikipedia:Requests for adminship (“RFA”) page, according to the aforementioned instructions.

A discussion (not a vote, sometimes called a !vote from the computer science symbol for negation) will then take place among fellow editors about whether you should become an administrator.

After seven days, a bureaucrat will determine if there is consensus to give you admin status. This is sometimes difficult to ascertain, and is not a numerical measurement, but as a general descriptive rule of thumb most of those above ~80% approval pass, most of those below ~70% fail, and the area between is gray.

Although multiple user accounts are allowed on Wikipedia in general, only one account of a given person should have administrative tools. The sole exceptions are by agreement of Arbcom or the community.

The reality is that adminship is oriented to communal trust and confidence, not percentages and numbers, and each user will have their own way to assess candidates’ readiness for the role. While anybody can apply, a review of failed RfAs will quickly show that members of the community have many unwritten expectations.

Common areas where users may have expectations will usually be those that show:

1. breadth and duration of wiki-experience;

2. appropriate approach and conduct as a community member (quality of interaction and ability to work with others); and

3. understanding of the Wikipedia ethos and its most important norms and policies (their “spirit” and intent, and that you understand the norms administrators must follow).

Evidence of any concerns may also be raised and questions asked, for reassurance whether they will present concerns in future, and any other signs of helpfulness or work undertaken in the community will be seen positively.

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In other words, these people are NOT experts in any field(or they don't have to be). They DO have to be experts on understanding and enforcing Wikipedia policy

While all of the above was a revelation to me – and we may agree or not with the above – the REAL problem is these administrators can be anonymous. Which was the crux of the problem RRW faced.

So .. why is anonymous administrators such a problem?

The reason, in my view has to do with context i.e. you can never trust anonymous administrators unless you know their complete context

Let me explain .. I tried to find the most trustworthy / respected individual I could find and thought of Vinton Cerf – the person most often called “person most often called ‘the father of the Internet’.” Vinton Cerf is truly highly respected doing great work since the 1970s.

In Sep 2005 – he joined Google. This is also great .. BUT my point is – from Sep 2005 onwards – any statement he makes must also be taken in light of Google employee No XYZ. Not that it makes him any less trustworthy – but knowing the context is indeed important for an analysis of any view point – however great

In that context .. I don’t see any reason why wikipedia editors should remain anonymous

Other than that, the above has been interesting for me .. Since I mistakenly thought that wikipedia editors are subject matter experts – it turns out that they are (wikipedia) policy experts(as I understand it).

This means – they can create useful documents where information already exists about a subject but may well struggle if it does not (or is unclear). Also, if only 1000 people can do this – then wikipedia can be emulated .. and nor is it exactly wisdom of the crowds – more like wisdom of a 1000 people(who are by definition do NOT have to be wise in their field of expertise)

But my real(and only) concern is anonymous editors. Rest is all interesting and OK by me

Any comments welcome

Comments

  1. Ian Homer says:

    Great write up – I’ve always been fascinated by the way the Wikipedia content has evolved and especially around the different roles of the people making the content happen – right from the person watching the Oscars as it happens and editing the page with in seconds, all the way to the wiki gnomes keeping the garden clean. The wiki patterns @ http://www.wikipatterns.com/display/wikipatterns/Wikipatterns was enlightening for me on describing the different types of editors and administrators. Wikipedia is most of the time “correct”, but if it were to be a trusted source then there has to be some accountability for the content and that does mean edging away from anonymity and away from the very thing that has allowed it to grow so rapidly. For me, it’s quite a positive sign on the web community that there is a so much stronger force trying to make it “right” as opposed to the minority who mislead or vandalise. I often wonder whether Wikipedia should try to be like a trusted encyclopedia / journal – or whether it is simply a different beast with agile-mostly-correct content. Then I start philosophising on who do I really trust and have to remind myself to always take what I read and hear with a pinch of salt, even from the most trusted of sources.

  2. Ajit Jaokar says:

    Many thanks Ian. All this was a revelation to me as well. Its nice to know how it works. thanks for your comment kind rgds Ajit

  3. Wikipedia is a good place where we get our answers in a good way.
    Thanks for your commentits good to know how it works.