Harnessing Status Competition On Wikipedia

from the positive-spillovers dept

After writing yesterday's post about politics on Wikipedia, I came across a copy of the actual email Durova sent purporting to demonstrate that the Wikipedia user she subsequently banned was a "troublemaker." What it boils down to is that the user in question was too good at contributing to Wikipedia, and so must not really have been a new user when she signed up in July. Basically, Durova thinks that she's made a suspiciously large number of helpful edits, including familiarity with relatively obscure Wikipedia features, and so she must be an experienced user creating a "sock puppet" to help unspecified co-conspirators gain control of the site. Now, it's pretty clearly paranoid to think this proves there's some kind of conspiracy going on; there are any number of reasons an experienced Wikipedian might want to start a new account, and as long as the new account isn't being used as a "sock puppet"—and Durova offered no evidence that it was—it's not really a problem.

But at the very least, Durova is right about one thing: the way you gain power and influence within the Wikipedia community is by making thousands upon thousands of helpful edits to Wikipedia articles. To the extent that there are competing factions battling for control of the site, they conduct their battle by competing to make the best contributions to the site, thereby earning the respect of other Wikipedians and enabling them to win election to leadership positions like the site's Arbitration Committee. If you peruse the comments people make when they're voting, you'll see that a lot of people vote against individuals because they haven't been on the site long enough or haven't made enough contributions. What this means is that it doesn't matter very much how paranoid, vain, or power-hungry the senior leadership of Wikipedia is, or that there might be factions plotting to seize control of the site away from the current leadership. In fact, it might actually be good for the rest of us if that's true, because it will spur each faction to re-double their efforts to do more editing in the hopes of earning the support of rank-and-file editors.

There's an obvious parallel to real-world human societies here. People often criticize capitalism for promoting greed, but that's not quite right. Greed has always existed in human societies. In pre-capitalist societies, the way greedy and ambitious people got ahead was largely by conquering new countries, enslaving their inhabitants, assassinating political rivals, lobbying the government for monopolies, and engaging in other wasteful and destructive activities. The rise of capitalism didn't abolish greed and ambition, but it harnessed it for the public good. Now, if you want to become rich and powerful, one of the best ways to do it is by creating a company that produces goods and services consumers want. (You can also still get ahead by lobbying the government for special privileges, so the system's not perfect) The better you are at serving your customers' needs, the richer you get. In a competitive market, it doesn't really matter if our elite businessmen are nice people, the system is set up so that they're driven by their own self-interest to do things that benefit their customers. By the same token, it doesn't matter if, as critics claim, Wikipedia is run by a paranoid cabal; the system is organized so that they have to continue contributing positively to the site in order to maintain their positions of authority.



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  1.  
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    Seth Finkelstein, Dec 6th, 2007 @ 9:43pm

    Liberbabble triumphant!

    Ah, Tim, the fallacy of your reasoning should be so obvious that I'm tempted to cite this as another example of why Libertarianism Makes You Stupid.

    To wit, you said (my emphasis) "by making thousands upon thousands of HELPFUL edits to Wikipedia articles"

    But there is no rule that the edits be "helpful" in any objective sense - indeed, there is a great incentive to find reasons to make edits which might be very unhelpful. And thus, similarly, with capitalism - Libertarian mental blocks hinder thinking about the exploitative and repressive actions that are nonetheless PROFITABLE.

    So you've demonstrated something, but almost the exact opposite of what you intended.

     

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    Mike (profile), Dec 6th, 2007 @ 10:07pm

    Re: Liberbabble triumphant!

    Nice work Seth. You took Tim's "helpful" edits totally out of context and pretended it was the key to the rest of his post, when it was not. I'm surprised you would do such a thing.

    Even though it's not the central point of his post, whether or not the edits are "helpful" by themselves doesn't specifically matter if the end result in most cases is helpful. And I think even you would find it hard to argue that, on the whole, people are better off without Wikipedia than with it.

    This is true of capitalism as well. Not every action will be "helpful," but the idea is that the incentives are in place such that across a wide array of actions, some of which are helpful, some of which are not, the overall direction of change will be helpful. As for whether or not that actually happens, it's not hard to point to much of human history to support it, or if you want to go into the economics of why it makes sense, we can do that too.

    I have to say that, on a personal level, I don't even use Wikipedia very much and I don't find it all that useful for things that I do. But, I do recognize how it is an amazingly useful resource for some. However, I can't understand the people who seem to have visceral hatred towards it for no good reason.

     

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  3.  
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    Seth Finkelstein, Dec 6th, 2007 @ 10:28pm

    Re: Liberbabble triumphant!

    Mike, in fact, I would argue it IS the central - wrong - point of his post, in that he's making the same simplistically inaccurate argument that can be found in both Libertarianism and Wikipedia evangelism. The incentives are not always positive, and as any society scales up, in fact the incentives can become more and more negative. Since this is a little comment-box, not a book, I cannot go over the history of capitalism here. But the era of robber-barons shows exactly where that went wrong, and the New Deal demonstrated raw capitalism needed to be restrained by at least some minimal social justice. The Wikipedia parallels from recent events might be that there needs to be some sort of check on the administrative groupthink to keep it from tearing itself apart in scandals.

    I don't think I have a visceral hatred towards [Wikipedia] for no good reason. I think I have a dislike that Wikipedia is a cult, which is a very good reason.

     

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  4.  
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    anonymous coward, Dec 6th, 2007 @ 10:33pm

    I have noticed over the years

    that as wikipedia has gained more and more popularity, the editors have become more and more petty and elitist. If as much concern was placed on getting the content correct instead of waging petty editor battles wikipedia might be able to get back on track with its mission.

    Otherwise, wikipedia will no longer be relevant, which from my point of view is coming sooner not later.

     

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  5.  
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    anonymous coward, Dec 6th, 2007 @ 10:33pm

    I have noticed over the years

    that as wikipedia has gained more and more popularity, the editors have become more and more petty and elitist. If as much concern was placed on getting the content correct instead of waging petty editor battles wikipedia might be able to get back on track with its mission.

    Otherwise, wikipedia will no longer be relevant, which from my point of view is coming sooner not later.

     

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  6.  
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    Mike (profile), Dec 6th, 2007 @ 10:45pm

    Re: Re: Liberbabble triumphant!

    Mike, in fact, I would argue it IS the central - wrong - point of his post, in that he's making the same simplistically inaccurate argument that can be found in both Libertarianism and Wikipedia evangelism.

    I'm not going to speak for Tim, so I'll let him handle that -- but I certainly don't see it as being central to his argument at all, and I'd be somewhat surprised if it were. It DOES seem to be central to the strawman you want to destroy -- but Tim doesn't seem to be saying what you think he's saying.

    But the era of robber-barons shows exactly where that went wrong, and the New Deal demonstrated raw capitalism needed to be restrained by at least some minimal social justice.

    That's an interesting and not particularly accurate interpretation of both history and economics. I don't consider myself libertarian, so I'm certainly not going to defend the libertarian position on this -- but I will suggest that you are placing the blame on capitalism where it is not deserved.

     

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  7.  
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    Seth Finkelstein, Dec 6th, 2007 @ 11:46pm

    Re: Liberbabble triumphant!

    Quote: "because it will spur each faction to re-double their efforts to do more editing in the hopes of earning the support of rank-and-file editors".

    Were the topic government, I suspect Tim would immediately perceive the empire-building problem (creating things which are not all that productive but boost edits), and denounce the bureaucratic incentives there. I doubt Tim would say that democratic government works overall, despite the occasional misstep, "because it will spur each political party to re-double their efforts to do better public programs in the hopes of earning the support of rank-and-file voters". Though that is as valid as simple argument as what he offers.

     

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  8.  
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    Kevin, Dec 7th, 2007 @ 3:50am

    Rice?

    The rice of capitalism didn't abolish greed and ambition, but it harnessed it for the public good.

    Especially when combined with a plate of General Tso's.

     

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  9.  
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    Tim Lee, Dec 7th, 2007 @ 5:26am

    Re: Liberbabble triumphant!

    Seth, Mike is right. Not every edit has to be helpful. They just have to be helpful on average. And given that helpful edits are no more difficult to make than unhelpful ones, editors aspiring for greater power on Wikipedia have every incentive to make them.

     

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  10.  
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    Tim Lee, Dec 7th, 2007 @ 5:27am

    Re: Re: Liberbabble triumphant!

    The difference is that government bureaucrats "empire build" at taxpayer expense. The only think Wikipedian waste is their own time.

     

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  11.  
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    Sean, Dec 7th, 2007 @ 5:52am

    Re: Re: Liberbabble triumphant!

    "and given that helpful edits are no more difficult to make than unhelpful ones"

    This is a given? If one is more concerned with the quantity of edits over the veracity of them, your given could not possibly be.

     

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  12.  
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    Tim Lee, Dec 7th, 2007 @ 6:08am

    Re: Re: Re: Liberbabble triumphant!

    Well, obviously unhelpful edits aren't going to get you anywhere, because others will quickly notice they're unhelpful and revert them, and after a few dozen of those someone will notice and ask you to knock it off. So to gain the requisite brownie points, you at least have to make edits that look helpful at first glance. That requires some thought to pull off. On the flip side, genuine edits generally aren't rocket science. It's not difficult to find obvious typos, formatting problems, entries needing standardization, etc.

    Moreover, keep in mind that editors do scrutinize one another's edit histories, especially if they're seeking leadership posts. If an editor has made thousands of quick but useless edits that superficially seem like real edits, he's running a big risk that someone will notice his strategy and point it out to other voters, thereby wasting all that effort. It makes a lot more sense to just do real edits, which individually aren't that much work, and avoid the possibility of someone noticing.

     

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  13.  
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    AC, Dec 7th, 2007 @ 6:36am

    So what is the big deal with being a 'higher-up' Wikipedian? Other then stroking thier already too big E-peen? I guess I just don't get it.

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 7th, 2007 @ 12:41pm

    In a competitive market, it doesn't really matter if our elite businessmen are nice people, the system is set up so that they're driven by their own self-interest to do things that benefit their customers.

    They are driven by their own self-interest, true enough, but that doesn't necessarily coincide with benefiting their customers or anyone else but themselves. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't.

     

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  15.  
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    Petréa Mitchell, Dec 7th, 2007 @ 4:20pm

    Garnering support

    Some people are impressed when you perform good works. Others are impressed when you join their gang and help beat up their enemies.

    There's no basis to assert that the only thing that attracts the support of an editor looking to be part of the ruling faction is "positive" or "helpful" editing (at least from the point of view of the outside reader).

    This is not to say that there is a power-hungry shadowy cabal pulling all of Wikipedia's strings from behind the scenes, just that this post was not a convincing argument that there isn't.

    What do you make of this in terms of status competition?

     

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  16.  
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    Doug, Dec 7th, 2007 @ 4:57pm

    Problem though

    Sorry, I'm still pretty concerned about the elite at the top. I agree that a meritocracy makes sense, but if those at the top have the ability to thwart their competition, the meritocracy breaks down. If you can ban any account that starts gaining popularity, then you no longer have to do anything useful to stay at the top. In fact, doing something useful is likely to get you banned. That's not good for Wikipedia or the world at large.

     

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  17.  
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    Bah who needs one, Dec 11th, 2007 @ 1:34pm

    "In pre-capitalist societies, the way greedy and ambitious people got ahead was largely by conquering new countries, enslaving their inhabitants, assassinating political rivals, lobbying the government for monopolies, and engaging in other wasteful and destructive activities."

    And it's changed how, exactly? Let's look at that list of misbehaviors again, and try to name recent/extant corporations that engage in or sponsor each nasty activity for profit...

    Conquering new countries: Blackwater.

    Enslaving their inhabitants: Nike and just about the entire rest of the fashion industry.

    Assassinating political rivals: During the Cold War all kinds of fascist putsches were fomented by the US in small countries, often violently overthrowing pro-democracy, non-explicitly-communist forces, to create banana republics, foils for communism but also friendly to US business interests.

    Lobbying the government for monopolies: Disney, Big Pharma, telcos, and others.

    Engaging in other wasteful and destructive activities: Exxon comes to mind, and there are plenty of other notorious corporate eco-villains. Copyright and patent bullies again too, since they promote wasteful duplication of effort whenever they oppose copying and reuse, which is to say constantly.

     

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