Why is Wikipedia out of the Content Moderation Discussions?

You need to look at the traits of the Wikipedia Community.

Yesterday, Alec Stapp released a tweet with a very good question:1

To put Alec’s question more directly “Why is the Wikipedia not part of the ongoing fracas about content moderation?”2 This sparked a discussion from the likes of Paul Graham who replied with the reasons they think silicon valley is being targeted by congress and was more insightful about them than Wikipedia. It has nothing to do with money, lobbyists, or making the media unhappy. The Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), the owner of the Wikipedia name, url and servers, is not a shoestring non-profit,3 is involved in national affairs, and the Wikipedia community makes plenty of journalists unhappy.

Instead, I think you need to look to the community of worker bees that build the encyclopedia. What about them makes them different? I would argue it is because the community is filled with faceless, earnest, and hard to control contributors who built a project that is radically slow and open.

Wikipedians are Faceless

If congress wanted to conduct a hearing on Wikipedia who would they invite? The answer to that question is harder than it sounds. Wikipedia and the WMF have no billionaire founder to yell at. The people that you could yell at make for bad TV and campaign ads.

Jimmy Wales founded Wikipedia, but his role in the community is closer to that of the Queen of England than Mark Zuckerberg. Jimmy has no formal power. He is free to suggest things, but there is a high likelihood that they would be rejected because they came from him. He has the tools to block users, but they would be taken away if he used them. I have more formal power in the community than Jimmy does. I’ve met Jimmy and he comes across as a regular middle-aged guy. Not the kind of person to scream at on TV.

Katherine Maher is the Executive Director of the WMF, but she and the rest of the WMF keep the community at arms length.4 This is for section 230 reasons, but also for social ones. For reasons I will get into later, Wikipedians hate being told what to do. Anything she, or her successor, agreed to on the community’s behalf would be rejected out of hand by the community. A lot like Jimmy, she is an ordinary person. I do not think that any member of congress would gain anything from dragging her in front of a committee.

You could ask the Wikipedia community to send a representative or two, but you would probably get nobody since the community would reject the idea out of hand or be unable to come to an agreement on who to send. If the community did come to an agreement, you would most likely get one of these people or one of these people.5 Most all of these names are pseudonyms. None of the listed people are smarmy enough to make for good TV and it would probably backfire. Yelling at a middle-aged New York City lawyer who works mostly on property cases, thinking of the most likely candidate, would not be a great look.

Wikipedians are Earnest

Unlike Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Jeff Bezos who probably believe half of the things they say in front of congress, the average Wikipedian strongly believes in the values of the project. There is none of the talking out of both sides of your mouth that you expect from tech founders. If asked, community members would tell you their opinions about the project relatively straight. There is no 5D chess.

Wikipedians are the first people to criticize the project. We would agree with you that it is not perfect and needs changes. We just can’t agree on what those changes should be.

Wikipedians are Hard to Control

The thing that Wikipedians loathe the most is outside control of the project. The WMF tried to ban a user and it spawned a summer of protest that forced the foundation to fold. Public relations firms try to shape the Wikipedia articles of their clients and they are either deleted or unspun. Attempts to use the courts to force a point of view tend to not go over well. The only way to influence the community is to join it. Even if you do that, if the community finds out that you are on the encyclopedia to push a point of view you are liable to be blocked, restricted, and have all of your work undone.

In the words of Antandrus, in their Observations on Wikipedia Behavior:

A high proportion of Wikipedians have issues with authority. That's why many people are attracted to Wikipedia in the first place.

The US Government can try to follow the Church of Scientology, the Falun Gong, PR firms, the Government of France, etc. but it is a road to ruin.

Wikipedia is Slow

Unlike a company that can pivot with an all-company meeting or email, Wikipedia is slow to the point of fault. Almost every decision involves a discussion. If a decision involves private information, there is a discussion about it over email. Discussions are long-term affairs. At best, they take a week. At worst, they are several months long. Wikipedia sees your request to make a policy change in 24 hours and laughs. It can’t be done; the Bureaucracy of Democratic Anarchy needs time to work.

For any topic, I can find you two Wikipedians who will argue about that topic until the heat death of the universe. If the topic is contentious, the community as a whole has a habit of doing this. It just comes with the territory.

This crushing slowness is a feature, it allows for all of the possible voices to be heard and for other communities and groups to adapt to the changes. There is almost always time for cooler heads to prevail. If a group ingests Wikipedia content for machine learning or analysis, they will know ahead of time that the change is going to happen.

Wikipedia is Open

Wikipedia is radically open. Almost every edit, action and discussion is public. The bar for edits to be hidden is high. If a policy is being changed, it will be discussed in public. Our dirty laundry is public more often than not and the exact reason that an action was taken is shared publicly. When things are private, there is always a network of people who can check if that action was correct. This network of users comes from all over the world and rarely agrees with each other. They were chosen from the community and are editors that have shown that they can be trusted.

This is very different from a silicon valley tech company who makes their decisions internally and simply promulgates policy changes. Nobody knows why the change was made or what reasoning was used.

Wikipedia is So Different

Outside of being on the internet, Wikipedia has very little in common with FAANG companies. Wikipedia is a throwback to a internet of the past. in 2021, it is almost retro. There is nowhere else on the internet where people give so much of their free time to others under pseudonyms and fully in public.

1

Since I am a Wikipedian (one who edits Wikipedia) I understand just how much Alec’s question makes some people twitch. Yes, the Wikimedia Foundation is the nonprofit and Wikipedia is the community. Also, yes, there is no single Wikipedia and instead hundreds of Wikipedias. Give the guy a break.

2

Well the English Wikipedia, but normal anglophones in anglophone countries only accidently find other Wikipedias and “the English Wikipedia” is so much less fun than “Wikipedia.”

3

The WMF brought in $124 million in FY 2019/2020.

4

Also, she is leaving on 14 April 2021.

5

I am on one of those lists and would be unentertaining to have on camera.