Thursday, 11 October 2007

Power! Unlimited Power!

I get a lot of my blog ideas from the Daily Telegraph. I'm not sure why, because I don't really consider myself a right-winger (or indeed any political persuasian, other than perhaps a commonsensist), and the Telegraph is probably the most right wing of Britain's "proper" newspapers. (It's often nicknamed The Torygraph, after the Conservative Party.)

I put it down to a trend I've noticed in popular and intellectual culture: generally speaking, even if you don't agree with their views, conservative commentators usually have much more interesting and thought-provoking things to say about a given subject than liberals, who, perversely (given that they're supposedly the 'free thinkers') tend to tow the party line and say exactly what they're supposed to. You rarely hear a liberal-leaning journalist say anything unexpected. And, worse, because they're so afraid of offending anyone, their views are generally unimpeachably banal and painstakingly anodyne - whereas conservatives are often unburdened by that concern and can rant on in flavourful and interesting ways.

Anyway, that wasn't what I really wanted to talk about, which was an article in the Telegraph today about The End of Wikipedia. There's a war on, you see. Between the Inclusionists (who believe that the point of the thing is that it's organic and created 'by the people', and therefore just about any article is justified) and the Deletionists, who ruthlessly eliminate articles they deem unfit, unnecessary or pointless. Apparently it has degenerated into factionalism, hatred and mistrust, as groups of moderators go around deleting, reinstating, chopping and changing articles at will.

According to the veterans, the flood of new entries has slowed to a trickle as the Deletionists gain the upper hand: whereby the principle was, in the past, to start an entry with a 'stub' article of just a few lines which might then be expanded at a later date, most stubs are now destroyed by over-zealous deletionists before they ever have a chance to grow. (Sort of like North Sea cod.)

"The old timers remember the early days when we used to say 'ignore all rules' and 'assume good faith', but people tend not to emphasise that now," says Andrew Lih, a turncoat from the deletionists to the inclusionists. Nowadays, he laments, the principle for moderators seems to be wielding a machete, not planting trees.

Very sad, but just goes to show that once you extend even a tiny amount of power, like the power to delete encyclopedia articles, to a group of people - in this case, the 1,000 or so moderators of Wikipedia - then a good number will use it in an abusive and authoritarian way. That seems to be one of those Fundamental Truths of human nature. From the Bolsheviks to the Sherrif of Nottingham to the Wikipedia moderators, we see it all through history.

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