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The Longest Now

On minimalism, by K. Gann
Tuesday May 08th 2007, 2:11 am
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I just finished reading a well-written and thoughtful post by Kyle Gann; which nevertheless contains misunderstandings worth correcting.  I thank the author for taking the time to share it.  I try to address in turn a few of his points below; writing at length to match the precision and detail of the original.  Writing as a long-time Wikipedian, I should start by saying that these sorts of criticisms are taken quite seriously, and that many in the community welcome this input.

Some clarifications, based on quotes from the original:

“The site, with its ever-present Wikimania for lists, lists many scholars who have given up on the site, many more who are discontented, and only two who are happy with the status quo.”

The Expert retention page mentioned is not a list of all scholars who edit Wikipedia. It is rather the short list of scholars who have expressed discontent with the site; including those who left, those who left and returned, and those who stayed despite their discontentment. The list of scholars who edit Wikipedia regularly without discontentment is too long to list on such a page; numbering in the hundreds or thousands.

“Wikipedia is not only amateur-friendly, but expert-unfriendly. They pretend not to be, and give lip service to the importance of expert editors.”

Wikipedia is a community of scores of thousands; not a monolithic entity. From where I stand, it looks as though most of the community truly believe in the importance of expert editors. Perhaps from where the author above stands it looks different. Reality (in, say, a statistically meaningful sense) may be something different again.

“Editors are sympathetic – everyone agreed with what I was saying except this post-pubescent parasite – but rules are rules, and nothing could be done.”

There was no active dispute or discussion about the changes made. There was a fairly low-key and fairly civil discussion among a small handful of editors. The author’s cutting words above are rather more offensive than anything the ‘parasite’ so disparaged or any other contributors to the discussion wrote on Wikipedia itself. As for sticking to rules, people often contravene the letter of the rules [for instance, choosing to add prose to their own biography articles]; another common policy, one of the pillars of Wikipedia, is to ignore all rules… when necessary.

“There’s even an official “Ignore all credentials” policy, which explicitly disallows a writer’s credentials from being taken into account.”

While the policy has a tongue-in-cheek name, like many Wikipedia policies, it is nuanced and not unreasonable. As it explains clearly, ‘Wikipedians should ignore the credentials of self-proclaimed experts who cannot produce their sources, trying to assert their own authority instead, which is equivalent to original research.’ It goes on to warn against appeals to authority.

“When I came to it, one of the definitions given was “From hippie to yuppie[,] minimalism is a drip-feed pseudo-art for cultural bottle-babies.” That no one objected to.”

What is meant here by “when I came to it”? This was not the first time the author had edited that page… The quote listed here was part of the page for 56 hours before the author reverted it; not an eternity by peer review standards. No other serious edits were made to it in the interim. More popular articles are patrolled more regularly; but a moderate pace of editing and review does not mean that ‘no one objected to’ that new addition.

“There is an apparently famous case in which one amateur crank defeated a group of professional scientists trying to describe facts about uranium trioxide.”

There are many cases of a crank trying to push a personal POV, claiming that they are being oppressed by the establishment which isn’t willing to listen to their novel and important theory or discovery. This is one such case; as generally happens, the crank raised some hackles but did not prevail, and has for some time been prevented from continuing to edit that article.

“What was I trying to achieve? I was doing Wikipedia favors. How many bad experiences should it have taken me to no longer want to do things for them?”

Now we’re getting at an interesting facet of the problem – the perception that work is an entity which one is paying favors, or a group to which one does not belong but to which one submits writing. Wikipedians who make peace with contributing to the site see themselves as part of a large ongoing process. Those who feel rebuffed often feel as though they are submitting work for review and lasting inclusion; and expect the personal level of interaction, acceptance, and formality that a submission/review/freeze/publish model offers.

“More pertinently, T-1, who’s some anonymous guy, was extremely rude and broke the rules by deleting my work, and given carte blanche to do it.”

I’m surprised this was put this way, in terms of rules broken and deletion and ‘your work‘ and ‘carte blanche‘, each of which I would take issue with in this case. I hope further discussion will help to get at what the underlying trouble is here. (The ‘work’ in question was a single sentence, referencing the writer’s own publication: ‘No other late-20th-century musical style, outside of pop music, has occasioned so much controversy. >‘, a sentence not deleted, but removed to a discussion on the talk page, with a request that it be more neutral and further sourced.)

Finally, I would like to point readers to a charming essay on the future and state of Wikipedia, entitled Wikipedia may or may not be failing.

[…] I just wrote a page about minimalist music, Wikipedia expert editors, community friendliness, and building things upon the collective unconscious v. contributing to it. […]

Comment by SJ’s Longest Now » On minimalism 05.08.07 @ 2:13 am

I was pointed to this essay again recently. It needs updating with the current state of affairs since organized University Programs began. I have heard more than one person say recently that the Public Policy Initiative and related Ambassador Program “may or may not have been useful”. This view reflects a type of deep, faceted misunderstanding similar to that of Gann’s earlier essay (above), but from the other side: long-time editors not able to recognize a sea change and its impact from within the sea.

The dialogue about engagement of experts, at least in the academic context, has made a complete U-turn in the dozen or so universities and libraries I have visited recently: the typical take on Wikipedia now is that it is pro-professor, and that help is avaiable for any who ask; or even that one presumably needs to have demonstrated some sort of credential to be allowed to edit. (This last is clearly taking the ideal of openness too far… we do not want to be /more/ open to contributions from experts, simply welcoming and appreciative of the experience they have to offer.)

Comment by metasj 11.01.11 @ 1:43 am

It’s the best time to generate a number of blueprints for the future and it’s really time for you to be at liberty.

Comment by Everest B 12.19.13 @ 8:19 pm

Bad Behavior has blocked 150 access attempts in the last 7 days.