I was an early champion of Wikipedia. While other academics were pooh-poohing the notion of a collaboratively created encyclopedia, I loved the idea. Its democracy and open-minded approach to gathering information excited me. I did not recommend that students cite Wikipedia in term papers, but I did recommend it to them as a starting point for further research. And, I put my time where my mouth was. I created pages on topics I had done research in for my career, and I edited others’ pages, too. It was fun and collegial, and everyone I dealt with—other editors on this wiki—were helpful. It was an online learning community that embraced the notion that sharing is good.
After a couple of years’ hiatus while I was busy writing and publishing books and articles, I recently returned to Wikipedia to contribute a few new pages to the site. To my horror, I found that the environment had completely changed. Within seconds of my posting three new pages, they were immediately flagged for “speedy deletion.” One page was deleted and the other two were plastered with flags by multiple individuals all apparently anxious to make their mark. My posting these new pages was as if a hunk of raw meat had been thrown to a pack of wolves.
Some of the edits made to my articles were reasonable, and, as someone who is often vigorously revised by professional editors, I was happy to get good advice on how to improve the articles. The majority of the edits were, however, bureaucratic and contradictory. Some edits created errors in my information. Relevant links were deleted for no apparent reason. The articles were also flagged for having inadequate verification, although I had used Wikipedia-approved sources.
Based on my past and recent experiences, my impression is that Wikipedia has become dominated by an entrenched group of individuals who are territorial rather than collegial. Any newcomer is treated as an interloper and is subjected to a hazing process that is likely to discourage them from returning.
I am sure there are many dedicated, excellent editors at Wikipedia, but there is also this overzealous faction that is less than welcoming. I am reminded of the fictional deputy sheriff of Mayberry—the well-meaning Barney Fife, played by comic actor Don Knotts. These Wikipedia editors may not realize how uninviting they have become.
I was interested to see if my experience was unique, and found that a number of others have had similar bad experiences with Wikipedia. England’s Telegraph ran an article in 2007 titled, “Wikipedia: An Online Encyclopedia Torn Apart.” In it, Ian Douglas writes:
There’s a war going on behind the pages of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia written and edited by its readers. Submission of new articles is slowing to a trickle where in previous years it was flood, and the discussion pages are increasingly filled with arguments and cryptic references to policy documents. The rise of the deletionists is threatening the hitherto peaceful growth of the world’s most popular information source. Even though anyone can edit all but the most controversial pages, the English-language Wikipedia is governed by a group of a little over 1,000 administrators drawn from the ranks of enthusiastic editors. Only they have the power to finally delete an article or bring it back from the dead. The group is forming itself into two factions: inclusionists and deletionists. The deletionists say that an encyclopedia is not a dumping ground for facts; standards of notability have to be upheld or their pages will fill with trivia. Inclusionists reply that Wikipedia’s great advantage is that it has no space limit and that an entry of interest to just a few people is justified.
This is the battleground into which I unwittingly stepped. Slate also posted an article, “Evicted from Wikipedia” (February 24, 2007), describing the incoherent nature of its inconsistently enforced editorial policies. Last year, The Economist featured an article, “The Battle for Wikipedia’s Soul,” also discussing these issues.
Unless Wikipedia moves rapidly to change its editorial process and to reduce the harrassment factors involved, I certainly won’t be returning to contribute. I felt violated by the experience.