The Hive

Can thousands of Wikipedians be wrong? How an attempt to build an online encyclopedia touched off history’s biggest experiment in collaborative knowledge
Setting the Rules

Wikipedia’s growth caught Wales and Sanger off guard. It forced them to make quick decisions about what Wikipedia would be, how to foster cooperation, and how to manage it. In the beginning it was by no means clear what an “open” encyclopedia should include. People posted all manner of things: dictionary definitions, autobiographies, position papers, historical documents, and original research. In response, Sanger created a “What Wikipedia Is Not” page. There he and the community defined Wikipedia by exclusion—not a dictionary, not a scientific journal, not a source collection, and so on. For everything else, they reasoned that if an article could conceivably have gone in Britannica, it was “encyclopedic” and permitted; if not, it was “not encyclopedic” and deleted.

Sanger and Wales knew that online collaborative ventures can easily slide into a morass of unproductive invective. They had already worked out a solution for Nupedia, called the “lack of bias” policy. On Wikipedia it became NPOV, or the “neutral point of view,” and it brilliantly encouraged the work of the community. Under NPOV, authors were enjoined to present the conventionally acknowledged “facts” in an unbiased way, and, where arguments occurred, to accord space to both sides. The concept of neutrality, though philosophically unsatisfying, had a kind of everybody-lay-down-your-arms ring to it. Debates about what to include in the article were encouraged on the “discussion” page that attends every Wikipedia article.

The most important initial question, however, concerned governance. When Wikipedia was created, wikis were synonymous with creative anarchy. Both Wales and Sanger thought that the software might be useful, but that it was no way to build a trusted encyclopedia. Some sort of authority was assumed to be essential. Wales’s part in it was clear: he owned Wikipedia. Sanger’s role was murkier.

Citing the communal nature of the project, Sanger refused the title of “editor in chief,” a position he held at Nupedia, opting instead to be “chief organizer.” He governed the day-to-day operations of the project in close consultation with the “community,” the roughly two dozen committed Wikipedians (most of them Nupedia converts) who were really designing the software and adding content to the site. Though the division of powers between Sanger and the community remained to be worked out, an important precedent had been set: Wikipedia would have an owner, but no leader.

The Cunctator

By October 2001, the number of Wikipedians was growing by about fifty a month. There were a lot of new voices, among them a user known as “The Cunctator” (Latin for “procrastinator” or “delayer”). “Cunc,” as he was called, advocated a combination of anarchy (no hierarchy within the project) and radical openness (few or no limitations on contributions). Sanger was not favorably disposed to either of these positions, though he had not had much of a chance to air his opposition. Cunc offered such an opportunity by launching a prolonged “edit war” with Sanger in mid-October of that year. In an edit war, two or more parties cyclically cancel each other’s work on an article with no attempt to find the NPOV. It’s the wiki equivalent of “No, your mother wears combat boots.”

With Cunc clearly in mind, Sanger curtly defended his role before the community on November 1, 2001:

I need to be granted fairly broad authority by the community—by you, dear reader—if I am going to do my job effectively. Until fairly recently, I was granted such authority by Wikipedians. I was indeed not infrequently called to justify decisions I made, but not constantly and nearly always respectfully and helpfully. This place in the community did not make me an all-powerful editor who must be obeyed on pain of ousting; but it did make me a leader. That’s what I want, again. This is my job.

Seen from the trenches, this was a striking statement. Sanger had so far said he was primus inter pares; now he seemed to be saying that he was just primus. Upon reading this post, one Wikipedian wrote: “Am I the only person who detects a change in [Sanger’s] view of his own position? Am I the only person who fears this is a change for the worse?”

On November 4, the Sanger-Cunc contretemps exploded. Simon Kissane, a respected Wikipedian, accused Sanger of capriciously deleting pages, including some of Cunc’s work. Sanger denied the allegation but implied that the excised material was no great loss. He then launched a defense of his position in words that bled resentment:

I do reserve the right to permanently delete things—particularly when they have little merit and when they are posted by people whose main motive is evidently to undermine my authority and therefore, as far as I’m concerned, damage the project. Now suppose that, in my experience, if I make an attempt to justify this or other sorts of decisions, the people in question will simply co-opt huge amounts of my time and will never simply say, “Larry, you win; we realize that this decision is up to you, and we’ll have to respect it.” Then, in order to preserve my time and sanity, I have to act like an autocrat. In a way, I am being trained to act like an autocrat. It’s rather clever in a way—if you think college-level stunts are clever. Frankly, it’s hurting the project, guys—so stop it, already. Just write articles—please!

The blowup disturbed Wales to no end. As a list moderator, he had tried hard to keep his discussants out of flame wars. He weighed in with an unusually forceful posting that warned against a “culture of conflict.” Wikipedia, he implied, was about building an encyclopedia, not about debating how to build or govern an encyclopedia. Echoing Sanger, he argued that the primary duty of community members was to contribute—by writing code, adding content, and editing. Enough talk, he seemed to be saying: we know what to do, now let’s get to work. Yet he also seemed to take a quiet stand against Sanger’s positions on openness and on his own authority:

Just speaking off the top of my head, I think that total deletions seldom make sense. They should be reserved primarily for pages that are just completely mistaken (typos, unlikely misspellings), or for pages that are nothing more than insults.

Wales also made a strong case that anyone deleting pages should record his or her identity, explain his or her reasons, and archive the entire affair.

Within several weeks, Sanger and Cunc were at each other’s throats again. Sanger had proposed creating a “Wikipedia Militia” that would deal with issues arising from sudden massive influxes of new visitors. It was hardly a bad idea: such surges did occur (they’re commonly called “slash-dottings”). But Cunc saw in Sanger’s reasonable proposition a very slippery slope toward “central authority.” “You start deputizing groups of people to do necessary and difficult tasks,” he wrote, “fast-forward two/three years, and you have pernicious cabals.”

Given the structure of Wikipedia there was little Sanger could do to defend himself. The principles of the project denied him real punitive authority: he couldn’t ban “trolls”—users like Cunc who baited others for sport—and deleting posts was evidence of tyranny in the eyes of Sanger’s detractors. A defensive strategy wouldn’t work either, as the skilled moderator’s tactic for fighting bad behavior—ignoring it—was blunted by the wiki. On e-mail lists, unanswered inflammatory posts quickly vanish under layers of new discussion; on a wiki, they remain visible to all, often near the tops of pages. Sanger was trapped by his own creation.

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Marshall Poe is the founder of MemoryArchive, a universal encyclopedia of memories.

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