Back in the old days, when Wikipedia was new, there were just a handful of rules, and one of the key ones was “Ignore all rules.” Or, more specifically:

If a rule prevents you from working with others to improve or maintain Wikipedia, ignore it.

Wikipedia has changed a lot since then. Just read Andrew Lih recount his efforts to understand why a new article was rejected from Wikipedia:

Within one hour, a User:Chris9086 came by and slapped a “speedy delete” notice on the page. The “pink slip” read:

This page may meet Wikipedia’s criteria for speedy deletion. The given reason is: It is a very short article providing little or no context (CSD A1), contains no content whatsoever (CSD A3), consists only of links elsewhere (CSD A3) or a rephrasing of the title (CSD A3). Speedy concern: It is a very short article providing little or no context (CSD A1), contains no content whatsoever (CSD A3), consists only of links elsewhere (CSD A3) or a rephrasing of the title (CSD A3). If this page does not meet the criteria for speedy deletion, or you intend to fix it, please remove this notice, but do not remove this notice from pages that you have created yourself.

So we’ve gone from the days when people were encouraged to create stub articles just to mark a subject as worthy of further work, to the automatic deletion of articles based upon a lengthy list of criteria for speedy deletion, each marked with its own code number.

Another example of the complicated bureaucratization of Wikipedia can be found in this article about the correct procedures to follow in order to fix inaccurate Wikipedia articles. What ever happened to the Encyclopedia that anyone can edit?

This subject came up during Wikimania 2007, on a panel that Andrew hosted entitled “The shifting nature of the community.” There is no official transcript yet, but there is a rough one on the talk page. As I listened to the Wikipedia old-timers (most of whom are still quite young) talk about these changes there were three points that stood out.

The first was that these problems are particular to the English language Wikipedia and the experience of the various other language wikis is quite different, in part because many of them are much smaller and the community of editors is also much smaller.

The second was that, as Joseph Reagle pointed out, what Wikipedia is going through is quite similar to the process of bureaucratization described by Weber. He also pointed out the man behind the “ignore all rules” rule, Larry Sanger, distanced himself from it, and with the creation of Citizendium, is looking to limit some of these problems by keeping the community much smaller [see Larry Sanger's comments below]. For Reagle it makes sense that over time Wikipedia will need its own Roberts Rules of Order and the solution is to think seriously about what those rules should be.

A slightly different take on the same argument was put forward by Wing, a Chinese Wikipedia administrator. Wing approached the topic not from the point of view of the organization, but from that of the references themselves. When Wikipedia first came along there was no entry for dog, so someone could come along and write stub article saying “A dog is an animal with four legs who goes ‘bow wow.’” and that was fine. Now, however, the Wikipedia page for dog is so detailed with contributions from experts in a number of fields, so we don’t necessarily want just anyone to edit it without thinking seriously about the impact of those changes.

The third point had to do with the user interface, and was raised both by Anthere and myself (although my contribution didn’t get recorded in the transcript) during discussion, as well as by Andrew during his initial presentation. Andrew had shown how in the early days the markup for Wikipedia was quite simple, looking mostly like plain text with a few added asterisk, brackets, etc. for bold, italics, and links. Now, however, the complicated tables and templates which people use makes it very hard to edit wikipedia if you haven’t carefully studied the code.

It was suggested that some of this might be fixed with a WYSIWYG Wikipedia, but I think that this is thinking too small. One of the presenters at the panel was Mike Godwin, who back in 1994 had written an article entitled “Nine Principles for Making Virtual Communities Work.” In presenting them he glossed over the first one as “obvious” but I don’t think it is. That rule was:

Use software that promotes good discussions.

What should be obvious to anyone who has used social software extensively is that the social tools aspects of Wikipedia are grossly underdeveloped. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t solutions out there. Already people are developing software to color code edits based on reputation. And since a lot of the problems are related to worries about SPAM (a problem which has led me to abandon using wikis for my own projects), better spam controls are essential for the survival of Wikipedia. One interesting tool is Wikiscanner, “a new Wikipedia search tool … [which] scours all the IP addresses associated with Wikipedia edits and attempts to figure out which edits have been made from within government agencies, corporations, ad agencies, political campaigns and so on.”

The future of Wikipedia will clearly require both better social organization and better software, and the two are likely to develop in tandem with each other. Despite its growing pains, there is nothing quite like Wikipedia and I’m sure it will only get better.

Related Post: The User Elite

UPDATE: Fixed the opening and one other section in response to Larry Sanger’s comments (see below).

UPDATE: Added info about Wikiscanner (meant to put it in originally).

UPDATE: This post has been translated into Italian!

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