Me and Wikipedia

original essay that was here | open letter

Think of it like this.

On the roads of most countries there are laws, like speed limits and vehicle construction and use regulations. Think of Wikipedia policies as being like the laws, the Road Traffic Acts of Wikipedia.

There is also a highway code, of some sort, which exists to guide you on how to behave but is not necessarily binding - however, failure to follow it might well bring the disapproval of the authorities, and relying in a court of law on the fact that "don't be a dick" is only advisory may not stop you being convicted of driving without due care. So: Wikipedia guidelines are the Highway Code of Wikipedia.

Now consider:

There are a few people who will slavishly obey the law because it is the law. They are not usually a problem. On Wikipedia, you will find people who are unwilling to make any edit without discussion and a reference. This is just fine. It makes progress a little slower, but it is solid progress and there are few wrecks along the way.

Most people will know the rules, accept that they exist for good reason, and generaly comply with the spirit if not always the letter of the rules. Wikipedia embraces this: "ignore all rules" is a long-standing principle which allows you to sidestep any bureaucracy in order to get straight to where, by common consent, the project needs to be. On the roads, this is the average driver. On Wikipedia, this is the average editor.

Some people just don't get it. The Mr Magoo types. One must kindly but firmly escort them to the door. Maybe they can come back after they've been to the optician.

Then you get the people who don't care much about the rules as long as they don't get caught. Which, of course, they usually are, sooner or later. Sometimes they are philosophical about this, sometimes they rail about the "unfairness" of it, but in the end it's not unfair because the rules apply to everyone and you can't have a social space without at least some firm rules. If you don't like the rules, work to change them, don't simply pretend they don't apply to you. On Wikipedia, these are the POV-pushers and the tendentious editors. Like the militant motorists, these rule-deniers will hang around together in places where they can persuade each other that the rules and not they are in the wrong. They will trade fantasies about the judge who handed down the driving ban, the admin who blocked them, but all their kvetching won't make the rules go away, and indeed tends to persuade those in authority that the rules are indeed sane and necessary. A Holy Crusade by militant right-wingers to present The Truth™ about Michael Moore is never going to persuade Wikipedia to drop NPOV, BLP and RS. Quite the opposite.

A very few of these determined rule-breakers will set out to deliberately evade the rules. Obscure and fake license plates, radar detectors, and even blowing up enforcement cameras. They are monomaniacs: they must be allowed to do what they want, because they bear The Truth™. The idea that it is they and not the system which is wrong simply never occurs to them. If you know any evangelical fundamentalist Christians, you will recognise this type immediately. On Wikipedia they tend to get the bum's rush, and they make a large fuss about it. The canonical example here would be Jason Gastrich.

Finally you get the hard core of genuinely dangerous sociopaths. They are so determined that the world is doing them down by not letting them drive at 60 past a school that they will stalk the traffic police and attack them when they are off duty. In the real world, people have attacked police, magistrates, traffic wardens, jurors and judges. In the Wiki world, this increasingly vocal and dangerous group is currently exemplified by Judd Bagleybut we have seen it in the past from 9/11 Truthers and various other individuals. And this, I think, is a serious and pressing problem. There is no mechanism in place by which they can be prevented from following their victims. They are often resourceful, and in most cases seriously unbalanced. They are scary, and they are as dangerous as a drunk redneck wandering round Greenwich Village with an Armalite. During a Gay Jewish Communists Against War March.

Do you want to be the cop who tries to arrest that redneck, alone and without a flak jacket?