Who Decides Who Decides: The Wikipedia Problem Explored

I have been reading with interest the recent discussion about Wikipedia, that great collaborative, free, online and hopefully accurate, encyclopedia. Let me begin by saying that I use Wikipedia all the time and that I think the idea of a collaborative encyclopedia is a great idea- in theory and, perhaps, in practice.


The recent discussion revolves around the issue of editorial checks and balances.

I am convinced the issues arise out of differing views of the meaning of collaboration. You see, when you agree to collaborate, you must collaborate. Which means that, in theory, everyone is free to add to and edit entries on topics that, presumably, they know something about. Some people, however, seem to be taking the term collaborate a bit too literally, thinking that any restriction on a user’s desire to have his or her way with an entry taints the process and constitutes some sort of undesired censorship. This is wrong, and here’s why.

In any online collaborative venture, be it an encyclopedia, a message board or blog comments, there are several kinds of potential content providers:

First and best, there are the knowledgeable and helpful people who try to play by the rules and make an effort to be objective. Objective matters not on a message board which, by design, is to be filled with opinions. It matters greatly when the goal is a shared resource. Even subconsciously, opinion and emotion often creep into writing disguised as facts. There must be some checks and balances, other than the emotional reactions of those who emotionally disagree, to preserve the required amount of objectivity.

So even with people who are trying to play fair, there is a need for oversight.

Then there are the people who don’t know what they don’t know. On a blog, I can talk about politics, curling, why I like David Gilmour better that Steve Gillmor, and anything else I want ramble on about- and if it turns out that I am foolish, wrong or mistaken, my readers will simply vote with their subscription buttons. But if I decide all of the sudden that I am an expert on curling, am I really the right guy to rewrite the Wikipedia page on curling? Of course not.

So again, there must be checks and balances in case people start believing they know more than they do.

Then there are the people who have genuine but differing opinions of how a site should be run. The best example of this at Wikipedia are the people who either enter or edit entries about themselves. If unchecked, everybody and their dog would have an entry. On the other hand if you see something about yourself that is factually incorrect, why shouldn’t you be able to correct it. Again, checks and balances are needed. (As an aside, while I read and like Fred’s blog, Wikipedia is not limited to online or VC matters, so if Fred is suitable for an entry, so are a ton of other educators, business persons, doctors, lawyers, firemen, soldiers etc. who do a lot of good here in the real world).

Finally, there are the troublemakers. I remember the night Mike Arrington posted about a test chat room that had been set up by 3Bubbles to show their new chat application. I wondered over to check it out, and the signal to noise ration was beyond horrible thanks to quite a few chatters who were there purely to disrupt things and create chaos. I can tell you from vast experience developing and operating interactive web sites that disrupters and troublemakers are a constant problem that require constant diligence. Left unchecked, the vandalism that Jimmy Wales calls “a minimal problem, a dull roar in the background,” would eventually overwhelm the legitimate content the way unpulled weeds will overwhelm a yard.

The New York Times article sums up the Wikipedia problem nicely:

“At its core, Wikipedia is not just a reference work but also an online community that has built itself a bureaucracy of sorts- one that, in response to well-publicized problems with some entries, has recently grown more elaborate. It has a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control, delete unsuitable articles and protect those that are vulnerable to vandalism.”


“While these measures may appear to undermine the site’s democratic principles, Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, notes that protection is usually temporary and affects a tiny fraction of the 1.2 million entries on the English-language site.”

All of which leads me to my conclusion.

We shouldn’t be worried about the fact that someone gets to decide what is acceptable at Wikipedia. Instead, we should focus on who decides who decides what is acceptable at Wikipedia.

As long as there is built-in fairness to the answer to that question, the other problems, both from an inclusive and an exclusive perspective, will take care of themselves.

In fact, when people argue about limitations of any kind, they are often not arguing about the limitation so much as they are about who controls the limitation. If we focus narrowly on the real problem at hand, it is easier to understand the problem and to craft a solution that work for everyone.

It’s all about the correct checks and balances.