05 July 2007

Who, What, and Wikipedia Editting Paradigms

One of the major themes in my life has been to explore the difference between "who" and "what." Where last I left off, I had:

What I am is based on what I have.
Who I am is what I do.

Everyone starts out in life with a certain set of assets and flaws (a "hand one is dealt"). What one does with them is how "who" is defined ("how one plays that hand").

Recently on Wikipedia, a controversy of monumental proportions was sparked by Fred Saberhagen's death (Fred Saberhagen's Talk page and Scalzi's Whatever entry).

How it all started: Editor A put the date of death into the article with very poor sourcing for their information. Editor B (rightly) removed it and questioned the sourcing on the Talk page. So far so good.
After that: everyone was in the wrong.

What should have happened? First, Editor A should have let the article stand as Editor B left it. Stepping back is always a good first step in a disagreement with another editor. Approaching the disagreement respectfully is a good second step. Editor A should have said on the Talk page "here are my sources with links." Whereupon Editor B would have looked them over and said "okay." Editor A could then put his edit back in, and Editor B would have left it alone thereafter. The End.

Instead, Editor A threw a fit laden with many insults of Editor B in particular and Wikipedia in general, which included some vague pointing toward some sources, sans links, that were not at all clear. (I tried to look them up so I know how unclear they were.) Editor B countered by pointing to a rules page that was also not at all clear. (I went to look those up too.) Things rapidly went downhill from there, until we had enough of a circus surrounding the edit war that the whole thing got Farked.

In the end? The date of death still got included with all the proper sourcing it needed. The article got essentially the same improvement to it that it would've either way. The journey in between? -.-

Anyway, in the wake of that whole debacle, I've noticed a key philosophical difference in the ways people approach Wikipedia editting.

The ones who don't understand Wikipedia are focused on individual editors. They consider it important to look at the qualifications of each person who makes edits. From that standpoint, you want to see the input of professional editors weighted more heavily than the input of the average teenager with a lot of time on his/her hands. You want to see the input of actual scientists have more weight on science articles than someone from the general public. People who have professionally prepared encyclopedias should be weighted heaviest among the admins. And so on and so forth.

But that's not how Wikipedia works. Wikipedia focuses on individual articles. Articles are the starting point from which everything else arises. The identity of any specific editor doesn't matter. Anything else that that editor might be or know in "real life" or elsewhere is irrelevant. You, the editor, are not important. Only the article is.

Any editor can contribute to a given article. Some of those contributions will be of higher quality than others. One of the tools used to assess the quality of an editor's input is by looking at their past contributions to past articles. From such information, along with how well one plays with others while contributing, Wikipedia reputations arise.

Some have noted that it appears circular when Famous Person has a reputable website and wants to cite it in a Wikipedia article on something in their field of expertise. By the first paradigm, Famous Person is "citing him/herself." But that's not what actually happens, because anyone can claim to be any name - their own, someone else's, or something completely fictitious. The end result is that when Famous Person is on Wikipedia, s/he becomes a number. "Anonymous Editor 24601" for example. So it isn't "Famous Person cites Famous Person", it's "Anonymous Editor 24601 cites Famous Person."

So I come back to my theme.

Everyone starts out in life with a set of assets and flaws. As life progresses, everyone tends to acquire new assets and flaws. Those that were earned by doing things (which defines "who") eventually become part of the "what."

What I am is based on what I have and who I was.
Who I am now is what I do now.

On Wikipedia, who I am right now at the point of editting an article, as defined by what I'm doing, is the only part that is relevant.


Jim Wright said...

Heh, I missed this when you posted it.

But, I'm glad you pointed it out to me. I learned a lot from your explanation, thanks.

I think, as you said, most people simply don't understand how Wikipedia works - I know I didn't (and now only understand what you've put in this post, not the minute details and understanding that comes from experience). I see it as the ultimate peer reviewed entity - where everyone is a peer.

Interesting, I'll have to pay more attention to the process from now on. I'm a big user of WP, but now I'll look more to the underlying process.

Thanks, MWT, you've taught me something today.

MWT said...