Wikipedia, the balancing act

I've been mostly inactive online lately: tweets here and there, some edits, a few sprees of emptying proposed deletion categories. Amidst all of the lab reports and other frantic work, I've taken little moments to consider a tricky question: Why does Wikipedia work? Why should it work? The oft-quoted "zeroth law of Wikipedia" has long been the following:
Wikipedia only works in practice. In theory, it can never work.
Wikipedia's size and complexity mean that generalizations quickly become over-generalizations, and many of my initial thought experiments had to be discarded. I finally hit on a model for experimentation that works: Wikipedia is a balancing act.

Wikipedia almost always falls between two extremes, at a point where most of the advantages of each can be maximized and the disadvantages minimized. With my chemistry background, I suppose I like to think of it as an equilibrium of sorts: there's a mixture of either "extreme" whose balance can change based on environmental conditions. Heating a chemical solution, for example, can shift a chemical equilibrium to favour an otherwise low-yield product; heating a discussion with a flame war can shift a social equilibrium to favour the otherwise low-use technique of removing members from the community. More seriously, whenever social conditions or attitudes change, any practice dependent on those attitudes will change correspondingly.

Wikipedia welcomes new content, so historically the barriers to creating new content have been low: to this day any registered user can create any page on a whim. Since Wikipedia also wants a certain quality of article, however, those whimsical pages might be deleted mere moments after they are created. This is one of the classic equilibria of Wikipedia, one that's been argued over countless times: inclusionism and deletionism. It's also a good example because it's shifted over time: the early Wikipedia was radically inclusionist, because any content was better than no content. As Wikipedia's content base has grown, so has deletionism: new articles are no longer so highly valued, and quality is increasingly valued, so low-quality articles are more likely to be deleted. Deletionism is entirely a product of a community that does not want to include content below a certain minimum of quality. Wikipedia depends on the balance between inclusionism and deletionism to be maintained: too much deletionism and you lose good content, too much inclusionism and you risk massive amounts of mediocre content.

I've not fully considered what facets of Wikipedia can be considered a balancing act in this regard, but some of the applications of the idea of balance seem obvious:
  • Governance: anarchy (open wiki editing), bureaucracy (wiki policies, the Arbritration Committee), and other systems find a balance (incidentally, it reminds me somewhat of the idea of "sociocracy" I found recently). In general, the anarchism of open wiki editing prevails as the most open, but when problems come up, bureaucracy and such can be used to make a relatively final decision rather than having continuous edit wars.
  • Page protection: open editing generally works, but as vandals arrive or edit wars begin, open editing becomes less tenable. High-profile articles like "George W. Bush", "Pie", or "Abortion" thus tend to end up protected. The forthcoming flagged protection feature will make this balance smoother by providing more layers of possible states of protection between the extremes of unprotection, semi-protection, and full protection.
Ultimately, the idea of equilibrium is too simple: it doesn't answer enough questions about how the balance started in the first place, or how stable each one is at the moment. What it can inform, however, is ideas on how to improve Wikipedia (e.g. the current strategic planning). People looking at problems in Wikipedia can target imbalances in the community, the software, or the available resources, and attempt to compensate. Ideas for optimizing Wikipedia for some desirable trait should take into account that Wikipedia depends on running its high-wire act between openness and standards, inclusiveness and quality, anarchism and bureaucracy—falling on either side would have unforeseen consequences.

1 comment:

  1. Mechanical engineering also has the concept of equilibrium. there it come in three flavours - stable equilibrium, Unstable equilibrium and neutral equilibrium.
    A golf ball in a bowl has stable equilibrium. Jog it and it will roll around for a while but it will always go back to the bottom of the bowl.
    A golf ball balanced on top of a beach ball has unstable equilibrium. Jog it even a little and it will roll away from the equilibrium point and never come back.
    Neutral equilibrium is a golf ball on a flat plane - no one location is preferred over any other.

    Wikipedia appears to be in stable equilibrium. It is easier to fix vandalism than it is to cause it. It is easier to get your way in an edit war if you are reasonable and cooperative than if you are unreasonable. The forces are not finely balanced, On the contrary they are heavily weighted in favour of those trying to create a NPOV encyclopedia.