Charles Matthews: Evolution, not Revolution?

A guest post by Charles Matthews. See also his previous posts. —Brianna

After a quietish half-year, by the drama metric (one of the two unsubtle ways to talk about the English Wikipedia, the other being article count), July is heating up. The constitutional issue is traditionally one great big grey area with a few livid spots. It may now flare up, with results that are less predictable than usual. Where does this upwelling of political angst come from? And will there actually be change? Successful constitutional innovations are in fact few, and the traditional demand for a new, good-looking-on-paper constitution is equally traditionally disappointed. The wiki technology has seen substantial changes, such as logging in with one username on all the Wikimedia (WMF) sites; there is nothing recent you can point to that has smoothly upgraded the social side of the site. In a startling reminder that those at the heart of the matter, the embattled Arbitration Committee (ArbCom), are anything but complacent about the general direction, stalwart Arbitrator Kirill Lokshin resigned a few days ago over the hostile reception to a plan for a new ‘plug-in’ to the system, taking one of the 2009 intake with him.

The whole business is rooted in events of four or even five years ago: the period in which Jimmy Wales started to pull back from micro-managing the English Wikipedia (enWP). His role in the other language Wikipedias has always been largely symbolic, and one question is, with enWP still the flagship of the WMF, whether Jimbo should simply be a figurehead on the ship? This is not in fact a question the ArbCom has worried about too much about in the past (I should note that I have been out of the loop entirely for six months). If you take the issue of biography of living persons (BLP) as really concerning, much more so than constitutional niceties, the David Rohde story shows Jimbo still has a role as much more than a symbol: the editor of the New York Times phones him. BLP is vexed because there are hundreds of thousands of such articles, each one being a potential problem. When the ArbCom prompted a noticeboard to be set up the site for basic admin policing of BLPs in 2008, there was a predictable onsite row about the ArbCom overstepping its role in dispute resolution. (The OTRS email system gets something like 300 emails a week, typically complaints prompted by BLP troubles, but mere statistics cut no ice.) Jimmy Wales summarily deleted an article designed to attack a journalist writing about enWP: more attacks on him. The Rohde story was by remote control as far as Wales’s involvement went, but controversy raged. Was a life really at stake? Some people seem very certain about the answers to questions so indeterminate by nature.

So Jimmy Wales has pulled back some way, and the real point is not that he is still active on some fronts, but that there is no single replacement. The ArbCom is there to handle the worst disputes, but as an elected body has become the default object of constitutional debate. The politics can look simple, one-dimensional: picture an axis with hard-line administration at one end (people who would talk about “executive decisions” if they could get away with it), and at the other end extreme free-speeches and wiki purists. At first sight this looks no contest: enWP is not a purist wiki, because it has content policy (see On Notability), and if you get out of line, there are over 1000 admins to straighten you up. No one says that Wikipedia guarantees free expression. But once you mix special interests into the brew, you find greater complexity. Divisive talk about admins versus “article people” is one sign of this; fringe science and featured articles generate such strong feelings; such matters can constitute planks in electoral platforms for, what else, ArbCom. The way this all pans out can be sometimes be read in detail on Wikipedia’s criticism sites, if you feel it worthwhile to make it past the sneery misinformation which is their usual stock-in-trade (believe me, unless you have 90% of the story straight already it is essentially impossible to extract value).

What is hard to believe, right now, is that ArbCom+plug-ins, in other words the setting-up of some other bodies on the site to help management, is such a complete dog of a solution. In another part of the forest, there are people questioning Jimbo’s actual constitutional powers, namely (a) appeals from ArbCom decisions, and (b) implementing ArbCom election results by selection new Arbitrators. The scandal of User:Sam Blacketer shows that (b) is not a trivial matter: it’s the Internet, folks, and sometimes we’re in an episode of “House” with Hugh Laurie saying “everyone lies”. But in any case it is hard to see how to move ahead by evolution, not revolution, with (a) or with (b), without some sort of plug-ins. An impasse, and while I regret that Kirill resigned, I know how he feels. Wikipedia is taken seriously, now, something I wouldn’t change; I wish on occasion some of that seriousness would percolate into constitutional discussion onsite.

21 July, 2009 • , , ,

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