Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What Really Happened on Wikipedia

Ever since its foundation, Wikipedia has been criticized for its open nature, claiming that the public ability to edit any page would eventually corrupt the site as vandals and trolls pour in. But now that Jimmy Wales, founder and emeritus member of the Wikimedia Foundation board of directors, has actually stepped in and done some cleaning, everybody freaks out. For those who do not know, the all-respected Jimbo recently stepped in and deleted thousands of questionable images after the media started showing these images to patrons of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs Wikipedia. Obviously, a loss of funding would be disastrous for Wikipedia, so Wales's actions are understandable, but on the other hand, the Wikipedia editors are also right in that most of the questionable images were actually being used appropriately in their related articles. All of this is besides the point. What has really heated up is the question over whether Wales regretted his mass deletion and subsequently removed his administrative powers.

Randall Munroe describes it perfectly.
The entire debacle erupted when a request for comment was posted on Wikipedia proposing the removal of Wales's founder flag, the permission that gives him all of his power. Just reading the comments, it is apparent that Wikipedia users need to grow up a little. There are comments asking Wales be removed from the community completely, while others still propose breaking off from the Wikimedia Foundation completely. While it is true that Wikipedia is an open and free-to-edit service that is governed by its own community, the website is still run by a company. There is still an organization behind the site that pays for the data centers, handles the servers when they go down, and develop the open-source software that backs the online encyclopedia. So no matter how independent the service becomes from the corporate process, there will always be some kind of presence from the Wikimedia Foundation in Wikipedia. And quite frankly, I don't see the problem in this. Wales rarely ever involves himself in controversial moves such as this, and whenever he does he always acts in the best interests of the organization and, thus, Wikipedia itself. So a message to Wikipedia users: you're not going to have a revolution and free yourselves from the Wikimedia Great Britain.

After the request for comment, news services erupted. Venture Beat says that Jimmy has "given up his administrative privileges". Most of this inaccuracy stems from the Fox News article describing the situation, where not only does it say that Wales is the president of Wikipedia (not true), but he has relinquished his top-level control (also not true, as we will see). Chances are that Fox deliberately spread this misinformation because of their historically controversial relationship with Wikipedia. Another aspect of the chaos, though still far from the truth, is a TechCrunch article that refutes the Wales stepping down claim. Never have I seen a situation where nobody knows that actual truth.

Well, from my limited experience on Wikipedia, here is the truth. (This truth is confirmed on the original request for comment page.) MediaWiki, the software behind Wikipedia, has a special page that shows the current rights of all user groups. Furthermore, users can view the public log that shows exactly how the founder position has changed on Wikipedia. And finally, you can look at the user list that shows what groups Jimbo is in. From all of this evidence, we can finally clear out the trash. It is true that Jimbo removed most of the abilities of the founder flag, so now a founder can only make new administrators and edit user rights. However, just by observing that claim, Jimmy still has the ability to edit all user rights, meaning he can give himself back all those powers at any time. Furthermore, removing the founder rights has no effect on what Jimmy can do, because Wales is also a member of the administrator, checkuser, and oversight group, so most of the rights he removed he still effectively has. This may be a little hard to understand, so here is a quick summary: Wales can still delete articles, block users, protect and unprotect pages, look up people's IP addresses, delete edits on the site, and edit everybody's user rights. The only thing he really cannot do is mass delete, which was one of the permissions he removed from the founder flag.

I think the best part is that Wales's stepping down has successfully taken a good portion away from the actual story: Wikipedia has been hosting child pornography (it is irrelevant whether the claim is true or not, because I doubt the companies that donate to the Wikimedia Foundation would think twice about pulling out of an organization that has been reported to the FBI by one of it's former founders). Anyway, I still respect and love Wikipedia as it remains one of the more ideal utopias of openness in the Web 2.0 world, and I hope Jimmy Wales does not get too caught up in the mudslinging over there in Silicon Valley, because it's a lose-lose for everyone once you start something like that.

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