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Coming Soon: Crowd Control

Wikipedia’s existence has always depended upon a surprisingly small group of volunteer editors/obsessives, and, increasingly, it’s them against the world.

Wikipedia’s existence has always depended upon a surprisingly small, self-selected group of volunteer editors/obsessives, and, increasingly, it’s them against the world. Sure, in theory, anyone can propose a Wikipedia edit or suggest a new rule. In reality, though, Wikipedia often acts like a closed society. Always on guard against incursions, Wikipedia regulars rely on procedural knowledge and passive aggressive resistance to deter outsiders. These habits safeguard the entries on Wikipedia, but they also make the organization far less responsive and nimble than it often should be. If Wikipedia ever fades away, it will be because its genius got stifled by its fears.

Virginia Postrel’s Pacific Standard culture essay is available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—now, and will be posted online in full on Monday, November 17. Until then, an excerpt:

In theory, anyone can contribute to Wikipedia articles and anyone can propose a new policy or rule. In reality, Wikipedia functions as a largely closed community, using procedural knowledge and a sort of passive-aggressive resistance to deter outsiders. Wikipedia’s professed egalitarianism means that status in the outside world, including deep subject expertise, counts for nothing. But an internal hierarchy still exists. Status comes from mastering Wikipedia’s ever-increasing rules, engaging in community debates, and earning a reputation as hardworking. Racking up sheer numbers of edits matters a great deal, and Jemielniak laments that “a thousand minor corrections help raise organizational standing more than creating a perfect one-thousand-word article does.”

Official policies tell editors to tolerate newcomers’ innocent mistakes (“Please do not bite the newcomers”), but active editors often reverse newbies’ contributions without explanation. “Activists have been at it five and 10 years and don’t tolerate little mistakes,” says Jensen, an editor since 2005. He recalls running a workshop in which a well-known expert on Montana history tried to add a paragraph to the site, only to see it immediately erased.

Editors distrust newcomers for a reason: bitter experience. “Trolls come,” Jemielniak tells me in an interview. “If you spend time reviewing recent changes, after an hour or two you will have a feeling that the world is composed mostly of primary school students and cranks.” Some vandals simply replace an article’s text with random characters: destruction for its own sake. Instead of improving article content, editing often means acting as a human spam filter. Jemielniak and others may decry Wikipedians’ emphasis on edit numbers, but valuing lots of small changes, even out of testosterone-fueled competitiveness, has an unsung benefit: It encourages editors to discover and repair damage. Eternal vigilance keeps the site’s contents from decaying.

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