Wikipedia and the Administrator problem

Last week I had a discussion with the administrator of the Claus Beck-Nielsen memorial who was visiting Belgrade for a lecture and gig.

He was asking me how Wikipedia works because he – the worlds foremost expert on Claus Beck-Nielsen – had tried to update the article on Claus Beck-Nielsen and found his update reversed by an anonymous administrator.

He had of course encountered exactly the problems Carl Hewitt discusses in his blistering criticism of Wikipedia found on Google’s Wikipedia rival Knol. The abstract reads:

Wikipedia’s business model is generating Web traffic (primarily from search engines) for articles on conventional wisdom that are tightly controlled by a commune of mostly anonymous Administrators to motivate (financial) contributions.

However, according to Correa, Correa and Askanas:

“in Wikipedia, ultimate decisions about what constitutes ‘encyclopedic fact’ and what constitutes ‘vandalism’ devolve to a cadre of Internet bureaucrats with no other qualifications than their devotion to Wikipedianism… One of the main problems stems precisely from the fact that Wikipedia’s de-facto arbiters of what constitutes ‘science’, ‘information’, ‘fact’, ‘knowledge’ – those who make it into the ranks of Wikipedia administrators … are Internet technobureaucrats without any actual love of knowledge or any respect for those who spend their life fighting for it.”

The purpose of this article is to explore issues regarding the corruption of Wikipedia. It does not address other Wikipedia issues.

[Corruption of Wikipedia ( by Carl Hewitt]

It came as quite a shock to him that all internet communities (and perhaps all software systems) are governed by an hierarchical whereby internet morals (“users”) are governed (in a given digital realm) by moderators (the “cadre of Internet bureaucrats”) who in turn are subservient to the all powerful system administrator (“God-king”), who may or may not take their orders from the owners (of the hardware, code, business, internet link etc).

There is nothing even remotely democratic about such systems. They are all, ultimately, based on arbitrary power, and therefore dissent and disaffection is ultimately expressed by schism and the setting up of rival communities.

I do not know of anyone who has overcome the administrator problem in a software based community. The fighting and arguments rage on and are considered by many to be toxic and evidence of decline. I see them as wonderful cleaning systems flushing out confusion revealing the fundamental substrates of our cultural systems, acting like radioactive compounds highlighting x-rayed arteries.

To hear more from Carl Hewitt, a fascinating man, expounding on Wikipedia, Cloud Computing and Scalable Semantic, listen to him being interview by John Udel, another brilliant man.

Carl Hewitt on cloud computing, scalable semantics, and Wikipedia

3 Comments Wikipedia and the Administrator problem

  1. Michael Meadon

    I’m not so sure we’d want Wikipedia to be democratic in the sense that article content gets decided my majority voting. So perhaps it’s not really a bad thing that Wikipedia is not democratic. What it is, though, is meritocratic – the barriers to entry are zero (discounting time and the cost of internet access) and people have to earn their Wiki-reputations. People with reputations in the meatspace often find this disconcerting or troubling, but it is, I suspect, a good thing. The person you refer to may know a lot about his subject, but does he understand (and adhere to) the policies – WP:NPOV, WP:CITE, etc. – without which Wikipedia couldn’t function?

  2. limbic

    I think he is being a bit polemical, and perhaps even a bit unfair. Wikipedia appears to work extremely well. It is a system that has arisen from trial and error (Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Tinkering” even) and the real point may be that applying political ideas like “democracy” to systems like Wikipedia may be both damaging and pointless.

    On a side note, I find that NPOV is a superbly useful tool in my own writing, as is CITE. NPOV even made it into the book “Mind Performace Hacks”. I strongly suspect that many of Wikipedia’s criticvs are not aware of the rules or the process by which content is forged and mediated.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I hope you see fit to come back and visit again.

  3. Michael Meadon

    Yeah… I think it’s pretty clear that Wikipedia works really well. When I first heard of it (via, of all things, an Economist article sometime in 2005), I was extremely skeptical and hen my students started citing it, I admonished them. But then I figured I should go see what the fuss was all about… how pleasantly surprised I was. IMHO, Wikipedia is by far the best (general) encyclopedia in history…

    Anyway. Did you get my email? The South African science / rational blogosphere will be organized soon if I have anything to do with it… 🙂


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