User:ONUnicorn/The problem with Wikipedia... AND the solution

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This essay in a nutshell This essay in a nutshell:
The problem with Wikipedia is people. The only way to "fix" Wikipedia and all of its problems would be to get rid of all the people.

Everyone knows that there is a problem with Wikipedia. Not everyone agrees on what that problem is. No one seems to know how to solve that problem. No one, that is, except ME!

The problem[edit]

The problem with Wikipedia lies at its heart. See, the problem with Wikipedia is that its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. What is this one fatal flaw that at once makes Wikipedia a giant among encyclopedias and a laughingstock among them?

Wikipedia is the free encyclopedia... that ANYONE can edit. (Emphasis mine)

Yes, Wikipedia is the free encyclopedia that anyone, anyone at all, anyone from your 2-year-old cousin to your 78-year-old Harvard professor has full editorial authority over. Yes, anyone includes that guy who stands on the street corner with the big sign that says, "REPENT!" and it includes that woman who constantly rants and raves in the lunch room about how anyone who believes in God hasn't got a brain, and it includes the teenager with a can of spray paint who just improved your car with an image of his middle finger. It includes the person who can't spell, the person who thinks they are always right, and the person who is always right. It includes people who know what they are talking about and people who don't, and people who can make anything sound good, regardless of the truth or lack thereof in the statement.

Anyone can edit. See a typo? Fix it! Out of date? Not for long! Error? Fix it! Poorly organized? Not once you're done! False info? Remove it! Missing info? Add it! Needs a picture? Take one! Needs a diagram? Draw one! Wrote an article but don't know everything about the subject? Wait a while, someone will add to it. Made a spelling error and didn't notice? It'll get fixed! Anyone can edit, and it's awesome!

Anyone can edit. That guy who improved your car? He just improved your article the same way. Mr. Street Corner and Ms. Lunch Room are having at it on the article about the Second Coming. Your 2-year old cousin replaced the text of General Relativity with "wonnfeo hfor frfhibher frfrufh4 oerv04vr vr fu". And the Harvard professor has had it up to his neck with someone who absolutely demands proof that the moon is not made out of green cheese. Anyone can edit and it's a disaster!

Previous efforts to combat this problem[edit]

From what I can tell (I wasn't around then)...

In the beginning Jimbo Wales created the Nupedia and the Wikipedia. And the Wikipedia was shapeless and without users. So everyone edited from an IP. Then Jimbo said, "Let us create usernames, and separate the anon from the editor." And it was so. Then he said, "Let us further divide Wikipedians by giving a "trusted few" access to special tools. Let them be called, "admins"." And it was so.

Or, er, something like that.

As Wikipedia continued to grow, however, new problems continued to crop up all the time and the division between Admin, Editor, and Anon grew wider. The Admins and Editors didn't trust the Anons and the new users. Most vandalism came from them. The Editors didn't trust the Admins. The Admins had delete and block buttons, and if you crossed them you might be deleted or have your article blocked! The Admins didn't trust the editors. After all, if they were trustworthy they would go through the fire and prove their worth to become Admins! The Anons didn't trust anyone. After all, no one trusted them. Why should they?

Hand in hand with allowing registered users, a great sin entered Wikipedia! It was called, the User page! Jimbo said, "In the encyclopedia, articles must be encyclopedic. On your userpage, you may put anything you wish. Of anything in the encyclopedia you may take of it and put it on your userpage. But of the unencyclopedic you shall not eat."

Or, er, something like that.

And everyone just sort of looked at him and said, "Ooooooookay... whatever THAT is supposed to mean." And then they did whatever they wanted.

Some users used their userpage for the great and noble, "To Do List". Others used it to boast pridefully of their accomplishments. Others talked endlessly about themselves and their interests. Some ignored it. And some committed the greatest sin of all. They confused it with Myspace. Most did some combination of all of the above. Oh, and we mustn't forget the Anons! They were forbidden to taste of the fruit of the Userpage.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, (er, encyclopedia)...

As more and more people discovered the great and wonderful FREE (as in speech AND T-shirt) encylopedia everyone thought that their rock band and software company that just formed last week in Mom's basement and hasn't done a concert, sold a record, or actually written a working piece of software yet should have an article. Likewise for the cool new word that they made up in school with their buddies. Therefore the people of Wikipedia sat themselves down and came up with the Constitution of the United Wikipedians (Often abreviated as WP:NOT, WP:Auto, WP:Notability, WP:BAND, WP:CORP, WP:STUPID, WP:COI, and last but not least, the all-powerful WP:CSD). They also decided to forbid the Anons from creating new articles and uploading pictures.

This FREE T-SHIRT! is clearly of a lower quality than the copyrighted image that I can't put here.

As some people discovered Wikipedia and began exploring it they were (for some odd reason best left known only to them) shocked beyond all reason to discover that certian articles (such as penis) were illustrated with (gasp!) photographs (as an aside, my 1991 paper copy of the World Book Encyclopedia has equivilant illustrations for the equivilant article, as does my parents' 1970 copy of Encyclopedia Brittanica)! After long discussion, they decided that Wikipedia was not censored and they could have any kind of picture they wanted! Oh, er, as long as it wasn't copyrighted that is. Or illegal in the State of Florida. Oh, and as long as "they" didn't include Anons. Oh, but some copyrighted pictures are ok. See WP:Fair Use. But most aren't. Oh, and if a Fair Use image could conceivably by any stretch of the imagination be replaced by an image of a FREE T-SHIRT!, it should be. Unless the FREE T-SHIRT! is of a lower quality then the image, that is. In that case, we have to have a long and drawn-out fight over it.

The lions

Modelling their great and wonderful Wikicivilization after that of the Ancients, they decided that they should build an Arena for Dismemberment; where non-notable Christian rock bands and Anons could be fed to the lions! This spectacle was so entertaining and popular that similar arenas were built all over the Wikiworld. These were named things like WP:TFD, WP:IFD, WP:CFD, WP:MFD, and WP:RFD.

Some Wikipedians overreacted to the amount of cruft in the encyclopedia, unthinkingly pushing for anything and everything to be deleted. Others overreacted to the deletionists, unthinkingly pushing for anything and everything to be kept. Others built a big bonfire and barbecued some Anons. But they had a rule that, while you could feed Anons to the lions, and you could barbecue Anons, neither you nor the lions could bite them. This made the barbecued Anons rather difficult to enjoy.

Due to the wonderous fact that anyone could edit the encyclopedia grew and became a giant among encyclopedias. It became the #1 hit on google for all search terms known to man (though women are rumored to know a few that somehow men don't). It became the first, last, and only line of defense against ignorance in the Civilized World. 78-year-old Harvard Professors everywhere found this immensely disturbing. Everyone else loved it. Hey! FREE T-SHIRTS!!! And Lions and Tigers and Bears and Mastodons, Oh My!

A completely gratuitous image of Wikipe-tan is entirely necessary at this juncture. Ok, so it's not completely gratuitous, as she is mopping, trying to clean up the ever-expanding mess that is Wikipedia.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that Wikipedia was now a giant among encyclopedias, and despite the best efforts of the deletionists, the amount of cruft had grown so great that, when combined with the amount of fighting, lion feeding, and burning going on, Wikipedia was also the laughingstock of the encyclopedia world. Everyone agreed that;

Something Must Be Done

So they armed themselves for war. First was the great Userbox war. Then the deletionists and inclusionists squared off for the War against Hope, and the War against Hope Part II. Next came the Userspace Wars. Oh, and all along there was the little matter of the war against vandalism and the War against the Anons. Oh, and don't forget the war between the people who counted those as one war and those who counted them as two.

In the midst of all this fighting a new wind was about to blow... Someone had found...


So what, you may ask, is the solution to this incomprehesible problem I claim to have identified somewhere in the preceeding gibberish? It's simple I tell you! Simple! Quite simple! Elemetary, my dear Watson! It's a two step process.

Step 2[edit]

Hang on you are saying, shouldn't you do step 1 before step 2? Well, if you insist. However, I guarantee you that Step 2 has already been thought of and fought over. The problem with all previous approaches to step 2 however was that, until now, NO ONE HAD THOUGHT OF STEP 1!!! Ha ha! And step 1 must be undertaken prior to Step 2.

Step 1[edit]

Remember when I said Jimbo decided to seperate the Users from the Anons? Yeah. That was a mistake. DELETE USERSPACE!!! ALL OF IT!!!! Then get rid of Usernames!!! Go back to the beginning when we were all Anons! When we were all = EQUAL! (not that I was here then). Do that, and the problem will be 1/2 solved!

Step 2[edit]

After completing step 1 BAN ANON EDITING!

And there you have it. Problem solved.

Er, sort of.

Ok, so it needs more work.

So sue me.


Yes, the forgoing was and is a humorous essay, but like most pieces of satire, I had a point I was making. We hear a lot about how Wikipedia's problems are "inherent in the system" and "design flaws". People are constantly proposing new rules, software fixes, and forks in an effort to fix the problems we are seeing on Wikipedia.

I studied Political Science in college. Before that I'd spent the 19 years of my existence living among people and observing them (I'm pretty sure you've spent your life living among people also; but observing them is another issue). The problems and issues Wikipedia is facing are not Wikipedia's problems. They do not arise from the design or structure or rules or procedures of Wikipedia. They are people problems. These are the kinds of issues that arise wherever groups of people form, online or off-line, for any purpose.

This essay is a much more serious-minded and articulate look at these sorts of problems when they arise in on-line communities than I could ever hope to write. It clearly and articulately makes the point I was trying, in a tongue-in-cheek way, to make with the above essay. However, it focuses on on-line communities. These issues have been around for all of human existence and have been written about since some of our earliest writings.

Take, for example, the story of the Israelite people contained in the Biblical texts of Exodus through the Books of Chronicles. Look at the big picture there; those books (with some exceptions like Ruth) are less the stories of individual people then the story of a group. The group comes together, forms an identity, has a purpose, falls apart, comes back together, strays from its purpose... It constantly debates how it should be run. "Moses will lead us" turns to "God dictates law, and these Judges interpret law" becomes "We demand a King" and eventually the group's original purpose is forgotten, God forsakes them, and they are carried off into captivity. All the while there are people saying, "hey, this isn't how it was supposed to be!"

The same group dynamics are at work in any and every group including Wikipedia. This isn't something that can be fixed by software changes, or rules. The flaw isn't in Wikipedia - the flaw is in people. It's in human nature. It doesn't make one lick of difference if we ban anons or not - people will still be people and will still act the same way. It doesn't matter if we have a three revert rule or a one revert rule or a twenty revert rule or no revert rule, people will still be stubborn, pig-headed idiots; whether they are right or wrong. We can say, "Wikipedia is WP:NOT Myspace" until we are blue in the face - when you bring people together and say "this is what we are going to do" you have to expect that some people will do something else.

The point of all of this is simply that: People are and will continue to be People, and there is nothing, nothing anyone can do about it (though that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try our best).

Post script[edit]

This essay was originally written in December of 2006. It is now May of 2022. Wikipedia has in excess of 6 million articles. There have been a few more wars, but essentially nothing has changed. The problem is still human nature.

See also[edit]