Wikipedia through the Looking Glass

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Free as in free-range

Wikipedia through the Looking Glass is the working title for a book about Wikipedia, by Edward Buckner, co-written with Eric Barbour.

I think this is going be a blockbuster, not just because it is the first critical book about Wikipedia to be published, but because it is so well-written and well-researched. It’s going to embarrass a lot of people who richly deserve to be embarrassed. The trouble for the defenders of the Wikipedia establishment is that the evidence itself, the facts themselves, are damning. – Larry Sanger (co-creator of Wikipedia)

It is the story of the dark side of Wikipedia. The book reveals, for the first time, the truth behind the origin of Wikipedia, its spectacular growth into one of the world's most visited websites, the struggles to control it, and the covert agenda and political ambitions of those who now run it, including its relations with vested interests such as the technology and public relations industries. It is more than just a catalogue of the scandals – sexual, ethical and financial – that have afflicted Wikipedia from its beginning. The book aims to explain why Wikipedia is the way it is, through an examination of its origins, its history, its design, its governance and culture.

The book relies on extensive research, previously unpublished archive material, interviews with supporters - including those closest to Wikipedia's co-founder Jimmy Wales - and critics, such as disaffected Wikipedians who lost power in the successive purges of its leadership. The people and the events that shaped Wikipedia are tied together in a fast-paced narrative that takes us from Chicago to San Diego, San Francisco, Tampa and London, England.

Contents

The authors

Edward Buckner (main writer) is a medieval scholar based in London. He no longer teaches, but continues to write – he is the main author of Time and Existence, a book about the life and philosophy of the medieval theologian John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) to be published by the Catholic University of America Press in September 2014. The book received warm praise from the CUA reviewers for the exceptional clarity with which it handled a difficult subject, and for the comprehensive research that underpinned it.

Eric Barbour (researcher and advisor) is the former co-founder of Vacuum Tube Valley magazine, and has won awards for his writings on the early history of electronics. He is the owner and founder of Metasonix, the world’s only company making music synthesizers out of vacuum tubes. He lives in California.

Why did they write it?

Ed: "As a philosopher, I am fascinated by the fact Wikipedia exists at all. It's an incredible thing – one of the largest websites in the world built almost entirely by amateurs. So the purpose of the book is partly to give an explanation of Wikipedia. But I also wanted to entertain. My entire published output has been to a small, specialised audience, and I wanted to write something that would have a broader appeal. Meeting Eric and others with inside knowledge of Wikipedia gave me that chance".
Eric: "I edited Wikipedia back in 2004-2005, and gave up after realizing what a magnet for fools it was. When a cartoonist friend begged me to recreate his Wikipedia bio at the end of 2007, I tried -- and found myself crashing into a dark glass wall made of hostility and madness. This book gives the average Wikipedia user a chance to peer behind the glass."

The market

Sockpuppets

People who liked Andrew Lih's The Wikipedia Revolution and Charles Matthews' How Wikipedia Works, which are adulatory and somewhat uncritical accounts of Wikipedia, will certainly want to read this book out of curiosity. People who bought or viewed the following works, which are critical of the myths of Web 2.0 and the belief in the redeeming power of the Internet, will love it even more.

  • Rob Levine's Free Ride, which makes the powerful and compelling case that culture costs money, and should not always be free.
  • Evgeny Morozov's The Net Delusion, and his more recent To Save Everything, Click Here. Morozov is a sardonic critic of techno-utopianism. His second book is a scathing critique of what he calls 'solutionism' – the tendency to identify simple answers, especially in the technology sector, before the problem has even been properly articulated.
  • Truth In Numbers, which takes a mostly critical view of Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, depicting him as an intellectual lightweight, obsessed with his image as a sort of spiritual leader of Web 2.0.
  • Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur, an extended complaint against the culture of online amateurism, which he believes has had a destructive impact on our culture, economy and values.

Wikipedia Through the Looking Glass will be the first book to take a critical and analytical view of Wikipedia as such, and the first to include material entirely omitted from previous books, such as the influence of the pedophile movement and the pornography industry, as well as archive material once thought lost. Technical details are avoided, and the narrative style is engaging and accessible.

Chapters

"Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them"
  1. 1994 27 year old Jimmy Wales takes his first job as an ‘upstairs trader’ at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The chaos of the trading floor vividly illustrates to him how order can emerge from a system with no centralised governance or design, as well as suggesting a means for ordinary people to acquire wealth.
  2. 1996 Jimmy's Internet startup Bomis is a ‘web ring’, a sort of web directory which will soon be made obsolete by the new search engine Google. The only business model that works is pornography, but Bomis becomes successful enough to support his idea for an online reference work that will attract legitimate advertising. In 1998 he moves from the hated cold of Chicago to set up shop in San Diego.
  3. 1998-2000 In early 2000, Jimbo hires philosophy PhD Larry Sanger to set up the online encyclopedia Nupedia. The project will use academic experts and specialists to build ‘an ever expanding Open Source encyclopedia’. However,the Nupedia review process is long and cumbersome, and there are not nearly enough articles, nor do the academics want to write short informative articles about specific subjects (such as small American towns).
  4. January 2001 At the beginning of January 2001, Larry meets a friend for dinner, who tells him about a new piece of software, a wiki, which allows for rapid open development. Larry suggests the idea to the Nupedians.
  5. March-July 2001 Although the academic specialists do not buy into the idea of the wiki, its openness soon attracts interest from the web community, especially when the project is mentioned in the high profile hacker website ‘Slashdot’. In 2001, the cause of ‘free software’ is starting to turn into an international movement, dispersed across the internet and across the world. Slashdot is its parish magazine.
  6. 2001-2002 After further publicity in Slashdot, Wikipedia attracts increasing attention from the motley bunch of anarchists, radicals and extremists who believe that all knowledge should be free, and who have an obsessive hatred of elitism and of ‘high culture’. Should the article on Harry Potter be longer than the article on Hamlet? "It's not a problem".
  7. 2002 After the dotcom collapse, advertising revenues dry up. Bomis has to lay off most of its workers by the beginning of 2002. To keep Larry, they make plans for introducing advertising on the increasingly popular Wikipedia. However, there is a revolt - 'The Spanish fork' - by the anti-corporate element of the community.
  8. 2002-3 Wikipedia turns into a project for aggregating material from the obsolete 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia, and many other public domain sources. The plagiarised material is amended or augmented by Wikipedia editors, sometimes with disastrous results.
  9. 2003-2012 Why does anyone work on Wikipedia? The core community of ‘administrators’ performs mostly mechanical, repetitive tasks. Typically, such work is associated with low status, low pay and low levels of education.
  10. 2003 Wikipedia is finally monetised, although as a non-profit. With the power to raise tens of millions of dollars, yet with Wikipedia run by volunteers, the problem is how to spend the money. The Foundation is plagued by a series of ‘pay to play’ scandals.
    Edit war
  11. 2003 One of the first edit wars on Wikipedia is a nationalist dispute around the ‘correct’ name for Gdansk. Or should that be Danzig? Official histories of Wikipedia end the story at this point. Yet conflicts flare up every day, in every part of the project, even in parts where an ordinary person would find it difficult to imagine conflict. Wikipedia is in a permanent state of war, with physical violence only avoided by the physical remoteness of the participants.
  12. 2004 The computer has turned out to be the greatest single advance in the history of pedophilia. With the advent of Wikipedia, pedophiles are now able to normalise, to justify and to celebrate adult-child relationships in articles published on the sixth largest website on the planet.
  13. 2005-7 The relationship between the ‘Wikipedian’ community of administrators, and the ‘content creators’ who contribute the actual material to the encyclopedia, has always been strained. In 2007 the first shot is fired: an administrator blocks a high-profile and highly regarded content creator called ‘Worldtraveller’, in real life an astrophysicist who has contributed to many of the Wikipedia articles on astronomy.
  14. 2005 In September 2005, an old friend of journalist John Seigenthaler suggests Googling his own name and clicking on the link to the article about him on Wikipedia, where he will find something disturbing. The problem of malicious and 'revenge' editing on Wikipedia, and how it is another example of how no special theory is needed to explain Wikipedia.
  15. 2007 People taking a critical look at Wikipedia often ask the same question. “How many of these articles are biased by people who are either personally involved with the subjects, are the subjects, or are being paid by a third party?” The question should be, which parts of Wikipedia have not been touched by this kind of bias?
  16. 2006-7 While Jimbo is in a ‘remote part of India’, another major scandal breaks on Wikipedia. It is revealed by The New Yorker that an editor called EssJay, who claims to have no less than four degrees in theology, is an impostor, and is in fact an unemployed college drop-out. Yet the Wikipedia community already knows this. Those who had questioned the deception were met by resistance, hostility or plain obfuscation, and often bullying. Wikipedia’s policy against "harassment", takes precedence over its policy on conflict of interest.
  17. 2007 Many people, astonished by its rapid growth into a comprehensive and organised source of human knowledge in the first decade of the twentieth century, have compared Wikipedia to an ‘emergent system’. But is there actually a group intelligence at work?
  18. 2005-2008 Can volunteers work well online with the mentally ill and the criminally insane, many of whom are drawn to Wikipedia like moths to a flame?
  19. 2008 A British civil servant receives a bizarre letter containing a list of threats, including threats of violence, about what will happen if he does not disclose his alternate accounts on Wikipedia and other Wikipedia projects. Never edit Wikipedia from work, and never make enemies with its administration
  20. 2010 ‘Wikipedia is not censored’ says Wikipedia. Yet practically everyone in the world accepts age restrictions on pornography, especially extreme pornography. “Only Wikipedia pretends that this is somehow some sort of novel idea, created as a special and inequitable imposition on Wikimedia, that threatens the survival of the civilised world – as though that survival depended on people’s ability to upload their sex-tourism porn made in Thailand and images of their inflated scrotums anonymously”.
    Bringing the sum of all human knowledge to every person on the planet
  21. 2011 The war between media and technology spills onto Wikipedia, which with the support of the technology giants blacks itself out for 24 hours, in protest against legislation which it claims will prevent the distribution of free knowledge. Ever since digital utopianism swept through the chattering classes in the early 1990s, the positive view of creators' rights has been replaced by one of 'misanthropy and paranoia'.
  22. 2012-13 Jimbo hears about the Kazakh Wikipedia after Ting Chen, chair of the Wikimedia Foundation, returns excitedly from a trip to Almaty. Wikipedia is the ideal vehicle for the ambitions of the regime. Yet the Republic of Kazakhstan is a dictatorship, and supports censorship, and Jimbo has spoken publicly against censorship. Can good people work with a bad regime?
  23. The appendix includes a statistical analysis of Wikipedia's article database and user base, the first extensive survey of what Wikipedia is actually made of. It includes more than 40 charts. Almost complete

Reactions

"Set to be the Hollywood Babylon of Wikipedia"

Larry Sanger:

The book, from what I’ve seen of it, is FANTASTIC. It’s a page-turner, for me anyway, and it will make a huge splash. The narratives are extremely well-drawn, the points extremely salient. It does not come across as a mean-spirited polemic. It reads more like a somewhat biased but well-written journalistic type piece. It doesn’t lay out a systematic case for anything (as far as I can tell so far). It simply tells a series of stories, each with a moral or two to them. They’re well-researched.
While it is polemical, and has a definite point of view, it is also an excellent piece of research. My general impression is that they do not draw conclusions where unwarranted; they stick to the evidence. The trouble for the defenders of the Wikipedia establishment is that the evidence itself, the facts themselves, are damning.
I think this is going be a blockbuster, not just because it is the first critical book about Wikipedia to be published, but because it is so well-written and well-researched. It’s going to embarrass a lot of people who richly deserve to be embarrassed”.

Andreas Kolbe, longtime Wikipedia editor and critic:

Readable, engaging, makes you want to turn the page and read on ... which is quite an achievement for something about Wikipedia.

Scott "Hex" Martin, longtime Wikipedia administrator:

This book is set to be the Hollywood Babylon of Wikipedia, except the scandalous behavior cataloged within will be unquestionably real.


See also


>*************************************************
>* http://www.nupedia.com/ *
>* The Ever Expanding Open Source Encyclopedia *
>*************************************************


Copyright Edward Buckner and Eric Barbour, 2013

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