“Why Wikipedia Is in Trouble” Emanuel Pastreich

Emanuel Pastreich

“Why Wikipedia Is in Trouble”




This Time Magazine article “Why Wikipedia Is in Trouble”

(January 14, 2016) suggests that Wikipedia is in trouble because of some obscure cultural inflexibility. Although the problems with Wikipedia, despite its considerable popularity, are quite serious, the article intentionally misdiagnoses the problem so as to distract the reader from the real issues.

The failure of the article is perfect representation of the profound corruption of popular media in the United States. One of the most powerful myths even today is that media is simply dying because of the internet. If the information in the was sufficiently relevant and accurate, people would pay for it on-line. The problem is rather that media is increasingly written to protect special interests, rather than to deliver media. Media content is more often a mixture of propaganda with a bit of truth to make an almost convincing argument that will impact perceptions while avoiding a rational argument.

Let us look at what the article states:


“The problem, most researchers and Wikipedia stewards seem to agree, is that the core community of Wikipedians are too hostile to newcomers, scaring them off with intractable guidelines and a general defensiveness. One detailed study from 2012 found that new editors often find that their first contributions to the site are quickly rejected by more experienced users, which directly correlates with a drop in the likelihood that they will continue to contribute to the site.”


I have had a variety of battles with Wikipedians and I do not believe that they are simply hostile to new comers because of some form of cultural conservatism. They are hostile to people who have a different conception of Wikipedia which they consider to be a threat to their economic and political interests. The problem not more, or less, complex than that.

What the article leaves out entirely is the degree to which the content of Wikipedia is created by political consulting firms and other PR firms who have an economic interest in keeping the people who pay them to be prominent on the front stage and making other alternative understandings of society and economics look minor. There are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in this business of images. Money determines who gets into Wikipedia and how they are described. The article does not give the slightest indication of this reality.

Related is the problem of the Wikipedians who lord over those who wish to provide fresh, original and insightful material but do not share the same interests (like working with consulting firms). It is not at all a problem of inflexibility or misunderstanding.

When the article refers to the “[hostility] to newcomers, scaring them off with intractable guidelines and a general defensiveness.” The anointed in Wikipedia are happy to welcome newcomers that share their commitment to servicing the powerful. Being new is not the problem here. The “intractable guidelines” are rarely an issue of bureaucracy, but rather a means of knocking out those who have not bought into the system.

I have seen many thoughtful writers and scholars post on Wikipedia and have their comments deleted by the self-appointed “masters of the universe” for reasons like “lack of significance,” or “lacking proper documentation” (meaning on-line media, not written books or other scholarly materials). In many cases, extremely well argued writings are dismissed as “speculation” or a “conspiracy theory.”

There is no room for negotiations with these masters. Offer a rational counterargument and they will simply ignore what you have written. Provide additional documentation to support your position and they will denounce you as a “sock puppet.” There is no way to win in such a completely fixed system.

Finally, there is no on-line system for insisting on accountability from the masters of the universe. You cannot hold them responsible for their actions or advocate for a reform of Wikipedia content, either by enlisting the advice of qualified experts, or by a democratic process by confirmation by a large community of readers. There is no means to demand that a Wikipedian be dismissed, or reprimanded for unethical behavior.

More often than not, those of high rank in Wikipedia abuse their authority for their own financial and political benefit. I ask nothing more, and nothing less, than that. This behavior is of course par for the course in business and politics. Sadly, the media obscures the manner in which both business and political concerns determine the content of Wikipedia.




3 responses to ““Why Wikipedia Is in Trouble” Emanuel Pastreich

  1. Craig January 16, 2016 at 6:01 pm

    I’m not sure what the solution would be. Centralization of authority?

    The problem may not be corporatization, but an inability to attract people with more esoteric interests. They tend to be busy engaging in those esoteric interests.

    Any solution would need to include a measure to preclude anything that damaged the community-based, crowd-sourced and community-controlled nature of the content.

    This would mean that there could be no editorial board created to control the content for its own sake.

    Otherwise, we end up with nothing more than another top-down information collection system.

  2. Craig January 16, 2016 at 8:17 pm

    The larger question is: What is your alternative model?

    Wikipedia has growing pains resulting from the organic manner of its evolution. It lacks a centralized authority – which is both a strength and a weakness.

    How would we repair it without making the grave mistake of creating a centralized authority?

  3. Emanuel Pastreich January 17, 2016 at 5:38 am

    The alternative is the rub, as it was. This problem dates back to the challenge of the socialists in the last century, some of whom opted for a centralized system in the response to the very real abuse of capital by the super rich back then. The tragic result was the emergence of the Communist dictators, who used their authority to build empires even more dangerous than the powers that they pretended to oppose.

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