Marching Boots Of Mass Psychosis In The Virtual World

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Quick Edit:  This has little to do with the content of the blog you are about to read, other than it involves Wikipedia, but it is a great read none the less.  Enjoy.

Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment” (p. 9).  Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups.  A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making.

Wikipedia, The free online encyclopedia editable by anyone prides itself on being a meritocracy. The site successfully harnessed the wisdom of crowds to build what’s probably the largest, most quickly-constructed body of knowledge ever assembled in human history. Not bad for something that didn’t even exist when the decade began.For much of its content, the model seems to work pretty well. Easily-verifiable facts like names, places and dates tend to be rendered accurately. And when they’re not, they’re easy to fix. With millions of eyeballs scanning everything, errors can be caught quickly.

But when the topic is a subject of debate or controversy, the natural human tendency to want to convince others of one’s rightness can lead to some nasty behavior, as evidenced by your average Trivial Pursuit game. And when that happens in Wikiland, not only is the quality of the product degraded, so is the trust people place in the collaborative editing process.

A spat between contributors that recently became public demonstrated this weakness in the Wikipedia model, The Register reports (in a somewhat sensationalist tone):

Controversy has erupted among the encyclopedia’s core contributors, after a rogue editor revealed that the site’s top administrators are using a secret insider mailing list to crackdown on perceived threats to their power.Many suspected that such a list was in use, as the Wikipedia “ruling clique” grew increasingly concerned with banning editors for the most petty of reasons. But now that the list’s existence is confirmed, the rank and file are on the verge of revolt.

Revealed after an uber-admin called “Durova” used it in an attempt to enforce the quixotic ban of a longtime contributor, this secret mailing list seems to undermine the site’s famously egalitarian ethos. At the very least, the list allows the ruling clique to push its agenda without scrutiny from the community at large. But clearly, it has also been used to silence the voice of at least one person who was merely trying to improve the encyclopedia’s content.

“I’ve never seen the Wikipedia community as angry as they are with this one,” says Charles Ainsworth, a Japan-based editor who’s contributed more feature articles to the site than all but six other writers. “I think there was more hidden anger and frustration with the ‘ruling clique’ than I thought and Durova’s heavy-handed action and arrogant refusal to take sufficient accountability for it has released all of it into the open.”

Kelly Martin, a former member of Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee, leaves no doubt that this sort of surreptitious communication has gone on for ages. “This particular list is new, but the strategy is old,” Martin told us via phone, from outside Chicago. “It’s certainly not consistent with the public principles of the site. But in reality, it’s standard practice.”If you take Wikipedia as seriously as it takes itself, this is a huge problem. The site is ostensibly devoted to democratic consensus and the free exchange of ideas.

But whether or not you believe in the holy law of Web 2.0, Wikipedia is tearing at the seams. Many of its core contributors are extremely unhappy about Durova’s ill-advised ban and the exposure of the secret mailing list, and some feel that the site’s well-being is seriously threatened.

In a post to Wikipedia, Jimbo Wales says that this whole incident was blown out of proportion. “I advise the world to relax a notch or two. A bad block was made for 75 minutes,” he says. “It was reversed and an apology given. There are things to be studied here about what went wrong and what could be done in the future, but wow, could we please do so with a lot less drama? A 75 minute block, even if made badly, is hardly worth all this drama. Let’s please love each other, love the project, and remember what we are here for.”

But he’s not admitting how deep this controversy goes. Wales and the Wikimedia Foundation came down hard on the editor who leaked Durova’s email. After it was posted to the public forum, the email was promptly “oversighted” – i.e. permanently removed. Then this rogue editor posted it to his personal talk page, and a Wikimedia Foundation member not only oversighted the email again, but temporarily banned the editor.

Then Jimbo swooped in with a personal rebuke. “You have caused too much harm to justify us putting up with this kind of behavior much longer,” he told the editor.

If there’s a flaw in the Wikipedia model, it isn’t that the site relies on the wisdom of crowds too much, it’s that the site’s highest-volume contributors and editors—the people who effectively run the place—could succumb to the gravitational pull of groupthink. The irony is that in using this mailing list, the Wikipedia inner circle is guilty of the same behavior they’re trying to fight. When a bunch of like-minded people get together, they’re sounding boards for one another, and they end up getting way off base because there’s not an opposing viewpoint around.

But one can say the exact same thing about this secret email list: a bunch of like-minded people are encouraging each other’s possibly wacked-out views and, in the end, making trouble on Wikipedia. The problem is that it’s difficult to engineer a way to allow for group-driven creation of content while dispersing certain responsibilities and decision-making tasks among the masses. It’s impossible to create a system that’s completely open to everyone without getting overrun by malicious vandals, so it’s hard to see how the site could avoid issuing bans or using some other form of group-imposed censorship.

To whatever extent is possible, Wikipedia would be advised to avoid a greater consolidation of power among it’s editors. Otherwise, it could lead to problems that could cause Wikipedia’s well-earned goodwill disappear just as quickly as it was earned.

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