Wikipedia('s lack of) Rules

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The first thing that I noticed about the key policies (other than the fact that it says in the introduction that Wikipedia basically has no policies) was the vagueness of it all.  "Wikipedia works by consensus." When you read on you discover that the consent of the users is "an inherent part of the Wikipedia process," and nothing more.  Of course, you can click on the link (which I did), but it tells you everything and nothing at the same time.  Other rules tell you to "be respectful" without bothering to explain what showing respect to other users really is.  I will admit that respecting copyrights and using verifiable information explained things very lucidly.

Then there are the Five Pillars of Wikipedia.  Though that is similar to Islam, Wikipedia falls short of a religion :-).  The five pillars say that Wikipedia: is an encyclopedia; has a neutral point of view; is free content; has a code of conduct; has no firm rules (besides the four other minor guidelines).  The last link goes further by telling you to "Ignore all rules," contradicting everything that came before it.  These two pages are meant to give an overview of the policies, but on the Five Pillars page there are around 32 links in the body of the page.

From this I deduce two things.  The first is that Wikipedia is so complex that they do not want you to understand how it really works.  The second is that Wikipedia's rules are so vague that the site does not "work," it merely runs in every random direction.  The thing that truly makes me nervous about Wikipedia is the fact that I did not see anything besides copyright infringement or original research that could or could not be enforced.  "In either case, a user who acts against the spirit of our written policies may be reprimanded, even if technically no rule has been violated."  My question to you is: who decides what gets reprimanded, and based on what?  To me this sounds like anarchy or a dictatorship of academia.

For  a completely different dictatorship of academia, stop here.

3 Comments

Nihiltres said:

Who, may I ask, are "they" in "they do not want you to understand how it really works"?

I think you've missed part of the point. While the "rules" in and of themselves may be unenforceable as vague, it is not so much that there are "rules" to Wikipedia as principles from which good actions can be derived: common sense, hopefully.

In particular, that last entry actually doesn't truly contradict the others: aside from that the statement is qualified ("[…] besides the five general principles presented here") the page to which it links is more clear: "If a rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it."

This is similar in many ways to an unintuitive truth in ethics. In ethics, a psychological hedonist (someone who does whatever makes themselves most happy) and a utilitarian (someone who does whatever creates the most happiness) seem at the outset to have very different ideologies. In practice, a truly rational psychological hedonist will act for the most part like a utilitarian, as most actions which will benefit him or her the most in the longer run will have the side effect of helping other people along the way. On Wikipedia, while it might seem that a rule-breaker is taking the opportunity to do as they please, a rule-breaker in good faith might overall have a positive effect as their contributions which break a few rules can simply be fixed in a slightly longer run, resulting ultimately in good contributions that might not have been got otherwise.

Either way, in practice rules are applied using normal human intuition: not all situations can be predicted and, therefore, a strict set of rules are counterproductive as both a disincentive for rule-fearing newbies and an opportunity for the clever to rules-lawyer and/or game the system.

Humans overseeing the process helps deal with situations dynamically, and is one of the reasons that vandalism, for example, can be combatted effectively: the "bot" internet programs that remove most vandalism are simply unable to recognize it all, and human contributors filter out the rest.

Daniella Choynowski said:

whoah Jed, a wikipedian found your blog. Good for you.

I do agree with the individual above in that the rules are common sense. But, "common sense" implies that the rules need not to be stated: they're obvious.

The wikipedia rules are general rules for etiquette anywhere: be respectful, no flaming, work to build a reliable source. I think the rules are supposed to serve as a reminder to people-not that people would ever read the rules before jumping right into editing.

Sometimes the rules have to be broken, Jed, in order to benefit the greater good (another ethics reference!! Bentham). Think throughout history how many rules breakers have made society a better place?

Offensive material is subjective, but there are times when comments such as f*** you (which I found in a wiki article a couple of weeks ago) that are generally disrespectful. Obviously, there are controversies on certain subject-and wiki articles include information about the controversy. Do people find even discussing the controversy neutrally offensive? I'm sure. But is it wrong to even discuss an offensive subject for fear of who might read about it?


I don't think so. I think there's a difference between offensive and controversial-sometimes they are one, and sometimes they are not.

Jed Fetterman said:

Wow! You both have left me with a lot of information to discuss in a short time.

I think the whole Wikipedia thing has gotten out of control. I don't know who "they" are, but "they" have to be somebody to "enforce" the "rules." Is it you or me? And if it is, what are we supposed to base our decisions on? It sounds all fine and dandy that we are working for the "greater good," but we need rules to define what that is.

The Constitution does not spell out every crime that you can be arrested for; in fact it explicitly names only treason. What it does do, however, is gives a systematic approach for dealing with crime. I think the thing that Wikipedia lacks is the system. All I saw was that Wikipedia won't tell you what it will enforce, but you should know when it happens.

In that case, it is common sense. But we all know that common sense does not work, otherwise we would not have a Constitution that must be routinely read and re-read to be applied.

If ethics were intuitive, then there would be no crime because the criminal would know the wrong being committed and change their actions based on that. That is not the case, though, is it?

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