The Amazing Discussion That Led to the Wikipedia Blackout


At Wikipedia, one of the corest of core values is Neutral Point of View, contributors' collective goal of "representing fairly, proportionately, and as far as possible without bias, all significant views that have been published by reliable sources."

NPOV is the principle that, when realized, allows the millions of articles that live under's massive domain to act not just as freewheeling repositories of knowledge, but as authoritative repositories of that knowledge. And so: NPOV is "non-negotiable," Wikipedia says, "and all editors and articles must follow it."

So! The decision to make English Wikipedia dark tomorrow -- to go from no POV to whoa, POV -- wasn't one that Wikipedians took lightly. It was, on the contrary, like almost everything that happens on Wikipedia, the result of extensive deliberation and debate. It was agonized over. Like, agonized.

The debate started with a straw poll Jimmy Wales sent out to the community back in December, looking at the success of an October blackout protest in Italy and asking whether, in the U.S., the same self-inflicted boycott could make an effective protest against SOPA. The replies to that request reflected the community's desire to explore a blackout in a more structured way, leading the Wikimedia Foundation, on Friday, to launch an official call for comment on a proposed blackout.

Which led, over the weekend, to a conversation conducted among 1,800 Wikipedians -- "by far the largest level of participation in a community discussion ever seen on Wikipedia," Wikimedia's Jay Walsh noted. Their comments explored the nuances of neutrality -- does it apply to Wikipedia's form as much as its content? are some things more important than NPOV? -- and the political role that an encyclopedia can play in a networked world.

Like this:

Support. I thought about NPOV, but realized that NPOV won't matter if Wikipedia becomes too much of a liability to exist anyway. The way the bill is formulated reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how the internet works. The repercussions are global.

And this:

Support. The point of the temporary inconvenience is to raise awareness and therefore political participation. Without the blackout there will be no story, so no awareness. Political participation outside the US will be ineffective, so there is no point in creating the inconvenience for them.

And this:

Support. You can't be neutral when your very fabric of being is under threat of erasure.

Not earth-shattering on their own; taken together, though, and taken as an instance of pseudo-democratic digital collaboration, they're pretty remarkable. A conversation, conducted en masse! And actually resulting in consensus! It's worth browsing through the discussion of the blackout sometime today...or tomorrow. During all that time you'd otherwise have spent reading random articles on Wikipedia.

Image: Wikimedia.