Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2012, Timothy Messer-Kruse described his failed efforts to penetrate Wikipedia’s gravitational field. He begins:
For the past 10 years I’ve immersed myself in the details of one of the most famous events in American labor history, the Haymarket riot and trial of 1886. Along the way I’ve written two books and a couple of articles about the episode. In some circles that affords me a presumption of expertise on the subject. Not, however, on Wikipedia.
His tale of woe will be familiar to countless domain experts who thought Wikipedia was the encyclopedia anyone can edit but found otherwise. His research had led to the conclusion that a presumed fact, often repeated in the scholarly literature, was wrong. Saying so triggered a rejection based on Wikipedia’s policy on reliable sources and undue weight. Here was the ensuing exchange:
Explain to me, then, how a ‘minority’ source with facts on its side would ever appear against a wrong ‘majority’ one?” I asked the Wiki-gatekeeper. He responded, “You’re more than welcome to discuss reliable sources here, that’s what the talk page is for. However, you might want to have a quick look at Wikipedia’s civility policy.
(You can relive his adventure by visiting this revision of the article’s talk page and clicking the Next edit link a half-dozen times. You have to dig to find backstories like this one. But to Wikipedia’s credit, they are preserved and can be found.)
Timothy Messer-Kruse’s Wikipedia contributions page summarizes his brief career as a Wikipedia editor. He battled the gatekeepers for a short while, then sensibly retreated. As have others. In The Closed, Unfriendly World of Wikipedia, Internet search expert Danny Sullivan blogged his failed effort to offer some of his expertise. MIT Technology Review contributor Tom Simonite, in The Decine of Wikipedia, calls Wikipedia “a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers” and concludes:
Today’s Wikipedia, even with its middling quality and poor representation of the world’s diversity, could be the best encyclopedia we will get.
That would be a sad outcome. It may be avoidable, but only if we take seriously the last of Wikipedia’s Five pillars. “Wikipedia has no firm rules,” that foundational page says, it has “policies and guidelines, but they are not carved in stone.” Here is the policy that most desperately needs to change: Content forking:
A point of view (POV) fork is a content fork deliberately created to avoid neutral point of view guidelines, often to avoid or highlight negative or positive viewpoints or facts. All POV forks are undesirable on Wikipedia, as they avoid consensus building and therefore violate one of our most important policies.
That policy places Wikipedia on the wrong side of history. Not too long ago, we debated whether a distributed version control system (DVCS) could possibly work, and regarded forking an open source project as a catastrophe. Now GitHub is the center of an open source universe in which DVCS-supported forking is one of the gears of progress.
Meanwhile, as we near the 20th anniversary of wiki software, its inventor Ward Cunningham is busily reimagining his creation. I’ve written a lot lately about his new federated wiki, an implementation of the wiki idea that values a chorus of voices. In the federated wiki you fork pages of interest and may edit them. If you do, your changes may or may not be noticed. If they are noticed they may or may not be merged. But they belong to the network graph that grows around the page. They are discoverable.
In Federated Education: New Directions in Digital Collaboration, Mike Caulfield offers this key insight about federated wiki:
Wiki is a relentless consensus engine. That’s useful.
But here’s the thing. You want the consensus engine, eventually. But you don’t want it at first.
How can we ease the relentlessness of Wikipedia’s consensus engine? Here’s a telling comment posted to Timothy Messer-Kruse’s User talk page after his Chronicle essay appeared:
Great article. Next time just go ahead and make all of your changes in one edit, without hesitation. If you are reverted, then make a reasonable educated complaint in the talk page of the article (or simply write another article for the Chronicle, or a blog post). Other people with more, eh, “wikiexperience” will be able to look at your edit, review the changes, and make them stand.
To “write another article for the Chronicle, or a blog post” is, of course, a way of forking the Wikipedia article. So why not encourage that? There aren’t an infinite number of people in the world who have deep knowledge of the Haymarket affair and are inclined to share it. The network graph showing who forked that Wikipedia article, and made substantive contributions, needn’t be overwhelming. Timothy Messer-Kruse’s fork might or might not emerge as authoritative in the judgement of Wikipedia but also of the world. If it did, Wikipedia might or might not choose to merge it. But if the consensus engine is willing to listen for a while to a chorus of voices, it may be able to recruit and retain more of the voices it needs.