A journey into the bowels of Wikipedia

Most people don’t know what’s going on in the bowels of Wikipedia. Be very thankful of that. For the most part, what goes on in the bowels of Wikipedia is thoroughly uninteresting except to those who are right in the thick of it, in which case it’s certainly the most interesting thing ever (or you would have to assume so, judging by how much time is whiled away on it). So to those looking on from the outside, and want to know what’s really behind this Wikipedia thing, here’s an example.

The English Wikipedia has an Arbitration Committee that is tasked with resolving the most serious disputes between users. Arbitration cases work pretty much like court cases in the real world, including lengthy opening statements and discussion by all parties involved, the presentation of evidence, discussion of said evidence, debating, proposal of rulings, voting on rulings, discussion of rulings, etc. The only difference between Wikipedia arbitration and a real court case is that in an arbitration case, all of the onlookers can get into the discussion too, and they frequently do. Imagine a court case where everyone in the gallery is screaming loudly along with every step of the proceedings and you have an inkling of how chaotic and lengthy this can all be.

The Arbitration Committee has about a dozen sitting arbitrators who are the only ones who can vote on the proposed rulings. Recently, one of the arbitrators broke ranks on a case and said that an agreement had been reached in a case following private discussion by the arbitrators. The only problem is, it hadn’t. Another arbitrator logged on soon after and posted a message saying that this ruling had not, in fact, been agreed to by everyone. Much drama and gnashing of teeth ensued, with the most vocal Wikipedians wailing that they had lost total faith in the Arbitration Committee (one wonders if they thought it had been infallible up until that point).

The controversy surrounding this incident grew so big that a separate process, a Request for Comment, was launched on the topic of the Arbitration Committee’s legitimacy. So we’ve gone from a simple user disagreement, to an argument over the user disagreement, to an argument over the argument over the user disagreement. And keep in mind that the user disagreement itself was pretty far removed from the actual purpose of Wikipedia — writing the encyclopedia — by a good deal. Is that enough levels of meta for you? At this moment, the meta-meta-discussion, the Request for Comment on the Arbitration Committee, is 92,500 words long, or about the length of the average fiction novel. And the talk page of the Request for Comment, which is effectively a meta-meta-meta-discussion, weighs in at a decent 32,500 words, or the size of an average novella.

I’m not going to go into any further detail on any of this, because frankly, my eyes are glazing over at this point. You’re invited to read the links I’ve presented, but honestly, there are so many better things you could do in the same amount of time — like read an actual novel. And I haven’t even searched out all of the meta levels — the administrators’ notice boards, the community notice boards, the village pump, etc. All told, on any major controversial issue, roughly five to ten novels worth of text will be spewed forth by all of the participants involved. It’s enough to make any future historian squirm with glee.

I hope you enjoyed (!!) this look into the bowels of Wikipedia. Just be very thankful that you aren’t involved in any of it (or if you are, I’m so sorry). The next time you’re reading an article on Wikipedia, just appreciate that somehow useful things manage to get done even amongst all of this unproductive chaos. Wikipedia in many respects resembles a supermarket in the Gilded Age. Walking along the clean, lovingly arrayed aisles and admiring the nicely presented canned pork products, it seems like a very pleasant place. But don’t dare inquire about how those products are actually made — there’s a whole jungle just beneath that shiny veneer.

8 Responses to “A journey into the bowels of Wikipedia”

  1. StevenWalling Says:

    Great post cydeweys. I already had seen enough of the ArbCom RFC (we Wikipedian’s love creating acronyms, don’tcha know!) to have my eyes glaze over. But I hadn’t drawn the novel/novella analogy yet. Nice work.

  2. T2A` Says:

    Do they serve Wikipedia Juice down in the bowels?

  3. Cyde Weys Says:

    T2A`: No, that’s where Wikipedia juice comes from.

  4. William (green) Says:

    So is a considered a local delicacy?

  5. Cyde Weys Says:

    Of course not. No one drinks their own shit.

  6. William (green) Says:

    But some species do eat their own shit. You never know.

  7. T2A` Says:

    Some species don’t let it get to shit before eating it.

  8. llywrch Says:

    I’ve been considering an analogy to explain how Wikipedia works is to an old Dilbert cartoon: Dogbert is hired as a consultant to Dilbert’s company, which he proceeds to re-organize along the lines of “battlin’ business units”.

    It would explain a lot more about Wikipedia dynamics than what some new media experts have written.

    Geoff