The problem with Internet-based projects is that they form groups of humans, and a group is its own worst enemy. That’s a marvellous essay by Clay Shirky, who’s on the Wikimedia advisory board for good reason. When I read it I was just nodding my head and going “yep” over and over. A community (Internet or not) has a life cycle. It starts, it’s good for a while, it chokes itself or falls away. I’ve seen this time and time again.
On Wikipedia, the community is not an end in itself but has grown around a purpose. The English Wikipedia’s interesting community problems are an emergent phenomenon, not Wikipedia or Jimmy Wales doing something wrong.
(Not to mention the flood of people for whom this is their first online community, who haven’t experienced the cycle even once. We have enough trouble enculturating Usenet refugees and their robust interaction style.)
Larry Sanger is trying to work around this on Citizendium, as advised by Shirky’s main source, Wilfred Bion‘s Experiences In Groups: group structure is necessary. Robert’s Rules of Order, parliamentary procedure and so forth. The obvious risk is killing the best in favour of steadiness.
Shirky notes: “Constitutions are a necessary component of large, long-lived, heterogenous groups.” I’ve long spoken of Wikipedia’s fundamental policies — neutrality, verifiability, no original research; assume good faith, no personal attacks, don’t bite the newbies — as a constitution, and said that any process that violates them must be thrown out. The catch being there’s not yet a way to enforce that.
One thing Shirky strongly points out: “The third thing you need to accept: The core group has rights that trump individual rights in some situations. This pulls against the libertarian view that’s quite common on the network, and it absolutely pulls against the one person/one vote notion. But you can see examples of how bad an idea voting is when citizenship is the same as ability to log in.” You would probably believe the outrage when I applied the phrase “one moron one vote” to Requests for Adminship, the prime example on English Wikipedia at present of a group that’s being its own worst enemy. Worse than Articles for Deletion. (The reason people form into insular groups that defend one moron one vote is that the groups then attain local “core” status and feel they can get some work done. This is why new committees keep popping up.) The trouble is then squaring this with not being exclusionary toward the newbies.
(And you’ll see Shirky’s 2003 essay speaking of Wikipedia as a project that’s dodged that one. Whoops.)
The Tyranny Of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman is one of my favourite essays on emergent hierarchies: if you pretend there’s no hierarchy, one will emerge out of your sight and bite you in the backside. (I’m unconvinced its solutions, particularly electing everyone, are directly applicable here — just about every process on English Wikipedia even resembling a vote rapidly turns into an insular committee or a lynch mob.)
Some consider cabalism on English Wikipedia the source of all problems. Unfortunately, with 4330 frequent editors and 43,000 occasional editors each month, no-one is going to know everyone. So people will cluster with those they do know just to get anything done.
The people who do work on a project will usually ignore idiocy until it gets in their face. In the Linux world, the kernel.org lists resolutely ignore the baying fanboy cat piss men, and Linus Torvalds remains project leader by acclaim. The LambdaMOO solution in Shirky’s paper may be the best option: the wizards return and lay the smackdown. Let’s start with shooting all rules that violate the above six constitutional basics. So who are the wizards?
How to keep the community focused on the point of the exercise? What level of control does one apply to keep the project on track without killing off the liveliness? How would you apply Shirky’s findings?
Is there a sociologist in the house?
(Other useful responses on the social networking site. From people I mostly know from Usenet.)