Saving Wikipedia (3): The questionable moral superiority of Wikipedia authorship

If there is one thing the early 18th century has taught me, it is that we are all eventually paid in the same three currencies. Whatever we do, we do it for physical pleasure, social prestige or money. Money is, of course, the most usual currency in modern societies. We are free to convert it into benefits of physical pleasure or into a lifestyle that displays our prestige. It is on the other hand a currency of its own value because we can decide to accumulate it with contempt for anyone who spends it on pleasure or on prestige. Virtue does exist in this scheme as the strength to resist a temptation, to decline a post, and to reject a bribe. We should concede, however, that we are mostly virtuous with the expectation of a later reward in the particular currency we want to be rewarded in.

I unpack Christian Thomasius’s good old Mirror of the Three Ruling Passions whenever I have to listen to a speech of self-proclaimed altruists. They are usually just not ready to speak about the entire table of rewards. Needless to say that I feel particularly uneasy when I am asked to give such a speech. I did this on several occasions in my double role as a Wikipedian and academic author with the aim to turn (selfish) academic authors into (altruistic) Wikipedians.

Our rallies had their pedagogic plot: We would first show our guests how we achieved our high quality standards; they had to gain confidence in us. We would then speak on a more moralistic note about why they should write for us, although we would not pay them. We are altruists, we have adopted the Creative Commons license, so our claim.

Icon Description Acronym Free/Libre
CC-BY icon Attribution alone BY Yes
CC-by-NC icon Attribution + Noncommercial BY-NC No
CC-BY-SA icon Attribution + ShareAlike BY-SA Yes
CC-BY-ND icon Attribution + NoDerivatives BY-ND No
CC-BY-NC-SA icon Attribution + Noncommercial + ShareAlike BY-NC-SA No
CC-BY-NC-ND icon Attribution + Noncommercial + NoDerivatives BY-NC-ND No

We would try to give the impression that we have actually abandoned all the old notions of personal authorship. It is no coincidence that we are happy to stay incognito on Wikipedia; pen names will do. The Creative Commons license stands for the “liberation of knowledge”; and we are ready to give all the knowledge we accumulate to the poor and needy, to people in developing countries, for free.

My academic colleagues would not quite know what to say. All that talk about this new ethos of authorship – do academic authors and journalists publish under their real names because they are not ready to share their knowledge? They would express their admiration but they would not create accounts on Wikipedia. Time then to deflate some of our rhetoric.

Myth #1: Wikipedia is a fair publisher because we have adopted the freest Creative Commons license

The Creative Commons license (in our case “share alike”, that is: anyone may use Wikipedia as long as our work remains as free as we have decided it is) is the license that will guarantee the survival of Wikipedia, it is secondly the only licensing scheme that makes sense on the web, and it is thirdly the best license a scholar can choose.

Why does this license guarantee the survival of Wikipedia? Because it allows any institution to run a copy of the entire Wikipedia compound. We saw link farms that tested this option. A “fork” (a fully operable copy) remains (so the bitter lesson we could teach them) pointless without the community that keeps it alive. Things will, however, be different in any worst case scenario. Should the Foundation collapse under their own agenda, we would see Google, the British Library or Iceland’s government offer us their services, and they would love the site, its traffic, and its virulent community.

Why is Creative Commons the only scheme that makes sense on the web? Because there is not a thing, you cannot copy on the web. You better acknowledge the status quo and go for the new win/win situations the environment will offer.

Why should the scholarly community love Creative Commons? Because most of academic authors are publishing under copyright schemes that are far worse. We are interested in the widest circulation of our work, but we do not get it with books which only research libraries can afford or on websites with obnoxious payment schemes.

The problem about Wikipedia is not the Creative Commons license, it is what Wikipedia does under this license.

Imagine a publisher like Elsevier invited you to write for them. You feel flattered – but not for long if this is the ensuing negotiation:

Elsevier: But we won’t pay you – you know, we have this new licensing scheme…

You: Ah yes, that’s actually OK with me. I am financed by my university. How many pages do you want me to write?

Elsevier: No limit. If you feel like, let it be 30 or 40 in print. Just one more thing: We will put our company’s name on your article – we will be the new author.

You: Hold a minute, that is a bit unusual, and it’s not quite what your license has just told me!?

Elsevier: Well, we have to do this, because we will ask all the world to change whatever you write. That’s our new form of collaborative authorship. It will bring progress into your article. But do not worry, you can undo changes, if you don’t like them – though we hope you will give the community a chance to improve your work.

You: [long pause and long sceptical syllables in the following ] OK…

Elsevier: Believe us, it’s good. Though, one more thing: We would like you to write the article as if it was not yours. That’s our “Neutral Point of View” policy. Sounds awkward, but you will realise, it makes it easier for you to see others change these words.

You: You mean, I write the article as if I was someone else? It will have my knowledge though?

Elsevier: Ah, good that you mention it. Please do not put any “knowledge of yours” into this article. That would what fall under our “No original research” policy. It must just look as if we had written it after reading the best books on the topic.

You: But you have realised that you could not write it. What will happen if people recognise my hand in it?

Elsevier: Well, it is not what we are looking for…

You: I mean, it could be embarrassing for me to be associated with the article after it has gone through so many hands.

Elsevier: Ah, you wonder whether you can withdraw your work and demand that we write our own article if you do not like to be connected with the future versions of your article? No, sorry, that will not be possible – so better do not make it look like your work.

You will have more than mixed feelings after such a negotiation. If the Encyclopaedia Britannica or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy contacted you, they would be proud of your authorship and state it. And why should you allow anyone to turn your text into the text they would like to read? If you are committed to your work, you will be looking forward to a debate, even a debate that will prove you wrong – but you will not play your work into the hands of people who can change it silently into whatever they would love to read.

The scientific community introduced our present authorship statements only in the late 19th century in order to bring responsibility into the field of academic journals. We have constructive debates where we can personally demand the examination of our statements. Pressing the edit button on Wikipedia does not require any such critical controversy. It is just like distributing colours and paint brushes to all the visitors of the Sistine Chapel so that they can improve whatever they see.

Myth #2: Wikipedia is collaborative writing

We might not have any good research on this, but Wikipedia has both: fields of collaborative authorship and a fields of competing authors. Those who write (there are others who hunt vandals or act as judges in internal wars) tend to be immensely proud of “their articles”. They will go to wars over details such as the fundamental question whether you can you call a building that was designed to become a television tower that exactly even if it has never been used as more than a restaurant with a nice observation deck.

The typical Wikipedia account will not give the author’s true name, but it will draw far more of a personal picture than authors tend to give on other media. There are for instance these Babel templates that make it easy to state personal character features such as your favourite food, what kind of spirituality you have developed, what pets you love. The publication list is a must and it can list the articles you have started, those your you brought to internal recognition and those you helped to improve. If you received any virtual medals – show them. State for how many days you have been on board and add an automatic edit count.

User Who, babel, record and awards.
Detail from a user page: babel templates, records and awards.

If you do not want to say so much about yourself, be aware of the tools others can use still to get your profile. These are my data on EN:WP – yes, they include information about my weekly work and sleeping rhythm; and these are my data on DE:WP where it turns out that I am a sys-op and a bit more of a politician, though still mostly an author. The long term record shows that I made most of my edits at the time when Wikipedia was exploding and some in 2010. I contributed to the disintegration since then.

User Statistics, German Wikipedia, Olaf Simons 2015-07-09
User Statistics, German Wikipedia, Olaf Simons 2015-07-09

If you know that we have authorship on Wikipedia you will be able to avoid conflicts with these authors. There are three sorts of articles on Wikipedia:

  1. Articles of an unproblematic collaborative authorship – in all those fields in which collaborative authorship has proven to work: plane crashes, political upheavals, contemporary biographies, tsunamis… These articles are easy to write. If you have new information add it at the appropriate place and give your sources and nothing will happen.
  2. Articles by main authors dominate all those fields where you should have a wider perspective before you start. The author can introduce the topic, he can think of a conclusive structure and his structure will be the most stable thing he can provide. Later users will change words, they add details, but they will not have the patience to devise a new structure.
  3. Articles that have – regrettably – not found their author yet. Most of these articles are somehow dispensable. Russian literature on DE:WP is a good example. People do not need this survey. They need the articles on individual authors and these will be class 1 articles, articles the collaborative can get done. The article that has not found an author is usually an eclectic ensemble of statements written in a tone of adult evening classes. It will be filled with trivia of a strangely pleasing quality.

If you want to interfere – do not hesitate unless it is a class 2 article. We have got tools to determine the author’s account, you can contact him through the article’s talk page. Tell him what information you hoped to get and begin your work only if you do not get a response.

The special thing about Wikipedia authorship is that it is solely satisfied with internal fame – here, however, it is far more sensitive than any other form of authorship. Wikipedians use pseudonyms mostly in order to prove that they could gain their respect solely through the work they do on Wikipedia. We preserve the integrity of the virtual community even with surprising consistency. This page tells you whom I know in person on DE:WP. You will get it with a second list of all those who have allegeldy met me in real life. Yet it is again a page that makes sense solely within Wikipedia: in a world of internal recognition no outsider is supposed to compromise.

Wikipedians do not work for money, yet they expect a satisfaction they could not buy with money: they know they hepled to create this site, they earned recognition of all those on board. The project that is running on an internal currency of social prestige is eventually about social prestige in its purest form. Try to create the article on your person or on your personal project and you will be told what kind of social prestige you or your project must have received before you will be allowed to write this article. Our internal wars between inclusionists and deletionsist reflect the monetary policies we offer in order to regulate Christian Thomasens second currency, social prestige. Our resource would be worthless if we allowed it anyone promote their projects or personalities on Wikipedia. Wikipedia would be equally worthless if we were too restrictive. We strike the balance in our own project attesting notability wherever our articles reflect the wider consensus of what is worthy to be known in our respective societies.

Myth #3: Wikipedia has proven the technical and academic superiority of collaborative authorship

We have but one big story to make this claim: We defeated the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s print edition. It remains, however, difficult to say how we did this. The Britannica had apparently no idea what the crowd could do for them. Nor did they realise why they should invest in fields such as contemporary biography, disasters, political upheavals, major crime cases, new TV shows, movies, or (my favourite realm of articles) subway stations. As strong as Wikipedi is on these new fields, we remain weak in all the fields where authorship seems to be an advantage. The articles on my watchlist have not improved over the last five years. We can hardly claim to have a concept of how we organise collaborative authorship on Wikipedia.

Our biggest software problem is not the visual editor, which we should allegedly have in order to attract women and Africans. Collaborative authorship is the big problem Wikis create – a problem they create with an immense potential to find productive solutions.

If I have to write 15 or 30 pages together with a colleague, I will not use a wiki but Google docs. You get one document and two or more cursors, depending on how many people you involve. You get a separate window to discuss your work in the privacy of a chat. The experience is cool. You will experience these moments when you are stuck in a sentence, and suddenly you see your colleague shifting words in front of your eyes – and voilà, that might just be the text to continue. I have used Google docs with my favourite co-author sitting in front of me. It was faster and cooler then staring at the same screen and using the same keyboard.

Wikipedia is a rather rough ride. You can change whatever you see and the rest of the world will get a message of your change in the article’s version history where the next 100% option is waiting: Anyone can undo your changes. What now? Go to the article’s talk page and complain – publicly: “I tried to revise this article and someone has just undone my edit. Those watching this page might please take a look at my edit and tell me whether I was completely nuts!” Your opponent will now appear in front of an invisible court. Neither you nor he can tell how many people are watching this exchange. He will now make his statement in order to gain support.

Talk-pages are rarely used to devise an alternative structure. You will usually see a power play between opponents until one of them gives in with a sentence like: “OK, go ahead, change whatever you want, and I will see whether I can accept your changes when you say you are finished.” We will see the same practical solution on the article’s page. Two people working on the same section will inevitably cause an edit conflict. He who strikes “save” first, has made the edit. All others get uniform messages: “Someone was faster and this is the new version. Take another look at what you wanted to say and consider whether you still want to say it.” Those who are not prepared for an edit war will again give in. It is the software that creates the strong egos of Wikipedia authors.

And yet: the Wikipedia software is a tremendously productive thing. Yes, and this productivity is partly the result of the tough, yet transparent environment Wikis happen to create. It generates a sense of competition and an urge to become the lead author and to write the article no one would want to write. What is more important: The rough software environment is likely to convince the community of the need to generate rules and strategies. You will either have edit wars ad nauseam or you learn how to create hierarchies and internal authorities.

The environment was hot in 2004, 2005 when almost any activity on Wikipedia had to be either an improvement or an act of vandalism that would secretly advertise our project (“I inserted a dirty word, and, wow! it was actually there until someone removed it – this website is alive!”)

I had incredibly productive phases back then when I would work on articles between my courses. I would leave the office at night with a message to the community that I was now tired; and a US Wikipedian would now do the magic work and correct all my grammar in the Novel article I was writing and leave curious invisible remarks between my lines – overnight. I would start the next morning with a consideration all of the problems I had apparently caused. If ever you have written a book, you know what a lonely affair that is. Wikipedia was inspiring back then.

The challenges of 2005 and 2006 are gone. Why should people still want to become Wikipedians?

The Wikipedia we had in 2004 is no longer the Wikipedia we are trying to organise today. People who open an their accounts in 2015 – what role can they hope to play on Wikipedia? We are almost looking for cheap employees who will preserve our articles. Why should they do that? What is their share of fame if they do?

The software is the same, the articles are ten times longer, the version histories are completely messy, and we continue to look recruit new authors as if we should turn all the world into Wikipedians, people like us.

The step we are afraid to take is the step into the real world. New authors will no longer be interested in becoming Wikipedians. The next generation of contributors will not be interested in patrolling articles, in becoming a sys-op, in making Wikipedia compatible. They will see Wikipedia as the standard source of information and they will expect that they should write here under their real name – not with an interest to get Wikipedia community feedback but with an interest to get regular feedback, the feedback of all those who will read their article – colleagues and critics included. Should we offer these potential authors money? Professor would consider some $1000 for an article a lot of money yet they would offer us nothing but artificial and uninspired work for that money, and we would kill our community with the announcement that others will get money for the very work they should be ready to do for free. Authors from the world outside will write for Wikipedia just to get the prestige they could expect for such work – the external prestige though, and this is the point where we are at a loss. The authorial disavowal we demand is at the moment be the biggest obstacle and it should get separate posting in this series.

Some more links
      Title image: “Creative Commons guidant les contributeurs”. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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