Getting into the grime with Wikipedia

I’m a fan of Wikipedia but I’ve been listening to one or two friends lately who aren’t. They’ve encouraged me to look at what goes on in the discussion pages where editors discuss the changes they’re making. Then Dave Snowden posted something about his frustrations there, so I took a look at the discussion page for the entry on Knowledge Management. I must say I found it at times…

delightful: to see the effort and thought editors apply to their contributions. Well, sometimes.

fascinating: to see the controversy bubbling away below the apparent calm of the KM entry itself

funny: to witness the descent into prickliness among participants in the debate

frustrating: to find it almost impossible to understand what people are talking about half the time

I think Jimmy Wales said Wikipedia only works in practice, not in theory. Looking at this page, it amazes me that the whole project works as well as it does. And that’s one of the reasons I love Wikipedia – that it manages to produce worthwhile information by somehow-or-other holding the energies and frustrations of its participants. Although it looks like Dave and his fellow participants may be close to giving up at the moment.

I also love that I can follow the breadcrumb trail of the disputes, even where some participants have rather unhelpfully deleted their comments. I also love that I can quit that trail when it all becomes too crazy making.

My friends think some of the discourtesy and controversy in such discussions diminishes the value of Wikipedia. I disagree. For me, the discussions show me more about the multiple meanings and the politics behind the phrase “knowledge management”; and like anyone else, I can take in as much or as little of that as I choose.

Thus the entry and debate on KM gives some information I didn’t know. Sadly, it also reinforces my prejudice that KM has too many $10 words for 50ยข ideas.

It also provides the slim pretext I need for yet another link to a classic Python scene. This is what I think of when KM people debate what exactly a “school of thought” is. Actually, the best bit is just after this clip, when they start slagging off other revolutionaries, but I can only find that part in German!

6 thoughts on “Getting into the grime with Wikipedia

  1. Dave Snowden


    Every day that goes by – gets me thinking that you hosting the MP MBA School is a better and better idea.

    Now I think of it – could have a wiki – we could all add our faves and make scholarly comments about them!!!


    Some good points Johnnie, but you miss one of the key issues. A page like the KM one needs to have sections like “schools of thought” so that people don’t think there is just one theory. It also needs a list of publications etc. The problem is that technology vendors use the page to promote, minor academics post inconsequential articles. Then every now and then we get something like the current debate where “school” is confused with “contribution”. Maintaining all of this so “it just works” takes a lot of time, emotional energy and resilience. Support would be appreciated if people want the resource.

    So, if you have a predjudice about $10 words for 50c ideas then don’t snipe from the sidelines (especially without any specific pointers on which you could be pulled up) engage. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Johnnie Moore

    Hi Dave. Thanks for dropping by and continuing the discussion. What can I say about my snarkiness and lack of specificity? It’s a fair cop.

    I’d say I have engaged in some degree by appreciating the efforts – both on this page in particular and more generally by wikipedia efforts editors. I stand by my four descriptions of my experience: delightful, fascinating, funny and frustrating. To be delighted, amused, fascinated and frustrated are all marks of engagement, as is taking the time to blog it all.

    It sounds like you’d like me to wade in on the discussion page itself. But at the moment it looks to me like you have succeeded in fending off gratuitous promotional activity which would have been my concern too. Well done for that.

    And as the promoter concerned has so irritatingly removed most of his comments it would be laborious to revisit that issue there now. And probably unproductive.

    You’re right to pick up on the potential for misunderstanding in the notion that “it just works” because (a) it’s not that simple and (b) there’s no “it” doing the work; instead there’s real people spending their time and energy to make it work.

  3. Suw

    Wikipedia is one of those things where it’s a very different experience to observe than to take part. Some of these discussions may be “delightful, fascinating and funny” if you’re observing, but if you’re participating, some are nothing but frustrating. Get into a discussion with one of the admins about something small but important, and you’ll rapidly fall foul of one of the multitude of rules that have sprung up – signs of chronic micromanagement, and interpreted liberally usually in favour of the admin.

    Look at the discussions around Deletionism – the philosophy that poor quality articles and stubs should be deleted rather than improved. Or the rules about how many KB a file is allowed to be before it must be trimmed. I thought that, what with storage getting cheaper and cheaper, these sorts of points would be moot, but apparently not.

    Wikipedia is a wonderful idea, but the social structure that’s built up around it is unhealthy. The sad thing is, it’ll never be healed. No one is in a position to stage an intervention, not even Jimmy Wales, and the community itself is too far gone to recognise that it needs to change.

  4. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks, Sue. I’ve been seeing all this from observer mode and what I’m hearing back in comments is that it’s different as a participant.

    When both you and Dave S raise concerns about the pain of contribution, it certainly makes me think twice.

    I think my post was a bit glib and I’m learning now.

  5. Suw

    Well, I think that from an observers’ point of view, you’re right. I’ve certainly watched discussions on some pages and found them to be everything you say: delightful, fascinating, funny and frustrating. (Try the Cornish language ones for an entertaining discourse).

    But many people I really respect have struggled with the way that Wikipedia has evolved, and the way that the community has deteriorated. It makes me really sad to see what a nightmare it’s become. Is bureaucracy and hierarchy really so ingrained in us human beings that a community conceived to be completely open and egalitarian should wind up so petty and small-minded?


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