The vigilance of the Wikipedians

On: October 17, 2009
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About Sander Leegwater
Hi, I'm Alexander (or Sander for friends) Leegwater – a Multimedia Designer, Bachelor in the Interactive Media at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam – and currently working on my Masters of (New) Media at the 'Universiteit van Amsterdam'. Besides schooling, I'm working as a part-time 'front-end' web-developer at www.digital4u.nl.

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In the last couple of weeks I got some responses to my post concerning the revisitation of my Wikipedia article about Richard A. Rogers – in which I told that I was stupefied by the speed with which I was blamed for ‘self-promotion’ and ‘bias’ and about the fact that the original article was removed immediately after creation – these developments didn’t do any good to my mood or opinion of Wikipedia. In class there was a lot of discussion about the so-called ‘democracy’ of the encyclopaedia, which in our opinion was near to zero, after experiencing the fate of our well-made articles. Boldly I decided to copy-paste my PDF version of the article in a new article page to be able to show what I did for the assignment that week – fully expecting it to be deleted again within minutes – but strangely this time the article survived, for weeks even, so I was completely baffled. In the comments it was suggested that I had to clean-up the grammatical and formatting errors for the article to survive – but this was already the ‘second’ version in which I didn’t care about the format any more – my Dutch grammar, as my English, might not be perfect but still in my opinion it was ‘okay’. Of course I did use a translator for some specific words, but I would never use an automatic translation software for the entire page and just copy it, as was suggested.

A little later I received an email from Richard Rogers himself, responding to the article made about him, in which he asked what my plans were with the article. I responded that I wanted to keep the article, although I was growing tired of the Wikipedia after seeing my own article – and most of my fellow master classmates – rejected so soon. I really began to feel annoyed after going to all the trouble of creating the article in the first place but still I decided that I would like the article to be kept, since I took the effort creating it and I really felt the article was an addition to the encyclopaedia. My main argument for this was that Rogers is teaching in the Netherlands for quite some time now – he is mentioned frequently in the Wikipedia (on pages such as Media studies and New Media) – but he himself didn’t have a Dutch Wikipedia article. Luckily this made some sense to the Wikipedians who where interested and discussing deletion, so this time the second version of the article was going to stay, at least for a little while.

I registered at Wikipedia (under the name Xan82) and became an Wikipedian, this has the extra advantage of creating a discussion page for topics related to you and very soon I got some messages about the article of Richard Rogers. There were some tips concerning the discussion of deletion for the article – on which I was encouraged to participate and defend my views on why it should be preserved – but mostly there where tips on the protocols of Wikipedia itself which I’m expected to follow if I want to keep participating; you can read through these remarks at my discussion page. It is true that I’m still learning but I prefer to do that as I’m going, since there is no way of getting trough all the rules for content and formatting, remembering them, or let alone know how to use them! Eventually I did do some extra work on the article; I cleaned-up the formatting (again) and made some revisions, especially grammatical, to improve the overall quality of the article. And since I had asked Rogers, in my reply to his email, for comments/additions on the article and a recent picture to add – on which I got a quick response with lots of improvements for the article – I decided to make those additions too.

In retrospective our attempts to make an addition to the well-known online-encyclopaedia maybe started of a little to naive, for the Wikipedia is already nearing its tenth year of existence (the Dutch version was introduced a few months after the English version) and therefore has core-groups at its communities, which decide ‘what goes’ in their environment. These groups are relatively small but hold the daily reign over the encyclopaedia – and so it should be, as Shirky argues in his presentation ‘A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy’ – although it is frowned upon to be a ‘vigilante’ in our society, in a lawless space as Wikipedia it is necessary for participants to take the ‘law’ into their own hands. “.. Rules of Order are necessary. Constitutions are necessary. [..] Group structure defends the group from the action of its own members [1].”

If we would have read Rogers oration ‘The End of the Virtual’ before we started editing – we might have picked-up on the existence of the Wikipedians ‘vigilance’, which means: ‘the action or state of keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties’ – as he writes that although “.. the editors are unpaid, [they are] committed and highly vigilant. The vigilance of the crowd, as it is termed, is something of a mythical feature of a quality-producing Web, until one considers how vigilance is performed [2].” A fairly strong point of the encyclopaedia, for without ‘vigilance’ how would for example vandals be kept at bay indeed? It is by the grace of the new technologies that this is even possible, or as Rogers and colleagues have termed, because of “networked content [3]” which “refers to content held together by human authors and nonhuman tenders, including bots and alert software which revert edits or notify Wikipedians of changes made [2].”

This is of course an explanation of the speed with which we attracted reactions from the Wikipedians; “Indeed, when looking at the statistics available on Wikipedia on the number of edits per Wikipedian user, it is remarkable to note that the bots are by far the top editors. The contention, which is being researched in the digital methods program, is that the bots and the alert software are significant agents of vigilance, maintaining the quality of Wikipedia [2].” We will probably get further acquainted with these ‘quality control mechanisms’ and other methods in our course by Rogers after the school-break, but I do feel that the hands-on experience so far has taught us a lot and can give further insights during the classes. Because after the reading of these theoretical backgrounds, I now might have an better understanding of what has been going on – but I still feel the immediate deletion of my article was a bit harsh – I really tried to make an good addition to the encyclopaedia and with some help from other Wikipedians I’m sure the vote for deletion would have been gone within a few weeks. Still it seems that you can’t count on ‘help’; you should try to do a job completely or not at all and if you really need help with something, ask for it! That has seemed to work for me so far..

[1] Shirky, C. ‘A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy’, A speech at ETech, April, 2003. http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html

[2] Rogers, R. ‘The End of the Virtual’, Digital Methods. Amsterdam University Press, 2009. http://www.govcom.org/publications/full_list/oratie_Rogers_2009_preprint.pdf

[3] Niederer, 2009. Note #59 taken from ‘The End of the Virtual’.

One Response to “The vigilance of the Wikipedians”
  • October 18, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    The Wikipedia editing scene can be pretty weird.

    I do agree that it’s an environment that requires one to learn some things before one can successfully participate.

    That said, I was posting links to some material on a hip hop blog with which I’m involved because it was the only source that covered and linked out thoroughly to a particular topic.

    My additions kept getting deleted and I assumed it was because the material exposed a company that was up to some shady business and that they were deleting them.

    When I finally decided to go under the hood and find out what was going on, I discovered that it was a very active Wikipedia editor whose slogan was “I’m always watching” or something to that effect. He seemed to think I was self promoting and didn’t see why I was linking out to my site.

    So I reposted everything, explained why these links were to the best source available and that’s the last I heard of it. The links remained.

    Personally, I think he should have reached out and apologized but whatever. That was enough of a glimpse to convince me to stay away from active involvement with Wikipedia.

    I could tell from that experience and related tales that the same overly rigid, ego-centric editing environment had emerged that helped doom the Open Directory, dmoz.org.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of great people editing at Wikipedia but such environments are ripe for the emergence of petty tyrants and I just don’t have time to help build an always already inaccurate information source.

    Then again, I use Wikipedia regularly so I’m glad it’s around!

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