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.

Filed Under: controversy, politics, wikipedia

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  1. identicon
    Seth Finkelstein, 6 Dec 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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