[Foundation-l] One side of the #wikipedia story explained

Michael Bimmler mbimmler at gmail.com
Wed Jun 20 18:40:17 UTC 2007

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Zoran Obradovic <zoran.obradovic at siol.net>
Date: Jun 20, 2007 8:33 PM
Subject: One side of the #wikipedia story explained
To: foundation-l-owner at lists.wikimedia.org

I've posted this to
, but since this I think that it's important that the foundation people
see it, and it's already discussed here, I'm crossposting it here.

== The long answer ==
For the last few days, many people have been shouting at each other
about #wikipedia. It turns out we've all been mostly shouting past each
other. Our ideas and opinions on the matter are different, more than
that, we see two different realities. So, I set out to write a
meaningful explanation of at least one side of the story, or one of the
two realities, all in the interest of reducing the need to read and
misunderstand future misguided comments by people who misunderstood your
last comment.

Unfortunately, it turns out there was a lot to say, so the explanation
is rather long. I hope you can bare with me till the end. (There may or
may not be a test later.)

===The channel===
The initial creation of #wikipedia back in the mists of time is beyond
the memory of all but the best of us. However, it's safe to say that it
is the mother of all Wikimedia channels, and as such has served us in
many ways over the years. These have included:
* Discussion of "the PHP script" and its descendents. This was moved to
#mediawiki in early 2004.
* Discussion of the server farm status. Moved to #mediawiki and then to
#wikimedia-tech in 2005.
* Inter-project coordination and foundation business. Moved to
#wikimedia in 2004.
* Editor coordination on en. Moved to #wikipedia-en in 2005.
* Admin coordination on en. Moved to invite-only #wikipedia-en-admins in
2006, causing conflicts on en for a time.
* Editor and admin coordination on Wikipaedie in other languages. Moved
out gradually to other channels over the years.
* Editor and admin coordination on other Wikimedia projects. Ditto.
* Detailed discussion of gender issues and personal lives of the LGBT
community. Moved to other channels around 2004/2005.
* Coordination of anti-vandal activities, violations of WP:BEANS, newby
biting and general incitiment to siege mentality. Moved gradually to
other channels over the years.
* Process-wonk bashing, RFA pile-ons, slander against editors,
coordination of on-wiki attacks and causing all sorts of trouble on en.
Shouted down and moved to other channels during 2005.
* Trollbashing, warfare against critics and "enemies", coordination of
counter-trolling on "enemy sites". Shouted down and moved to other
channels during 2006.
* Juggling channel modes, micromanagement of the ban list, kickbanning
people for a laugh, flaunting op powers. Actively discouraged, but
recurrent in occasional waves, related to new crops of ops.
* Sulking, assuming worst about human nature, righteousness and general
misanthropy. Somewhat reduced in 2006, but still persistent.
* Trolling and crapflood attacks. Killed with fire at least since 2005.
* Running jokes about autofellatio and furries. Died out on their own as
jokes grew old over the years.
* Discussion of theoretical and practical approaches to the English
Wikipedia, other Wikipeadiae and encyclopedias in general.
* Discussion and analysis of articles in en and other Wikipediae, as
well as other Wikimedia projects.
* Learning and teaching of encyclopedic and people skills by new users,
new admins and old hands.
* Helping new users, new admins, as well as old hands, find their way
down the ever changing corridors of Wikipediae and other projects.
* Handling requests for admin action on en and other projects.
* Being the lobby to wikipedia for people who are technically savvy
enough to use IRC. Not that IRC beginners aren't given help when they
show up.

In addition to all the on-topic talk, #wikipedia communicates in several
off-topic registers:
* Discussion of encyclopedic subjects, which tends to take a relaxed,
but largely academic tone.
* Socializing and friendly banter.
* Monologues at quiet hours, which sometimes go ignored, sometimes spark
of a new round of discussion, and sometimes just make somebody smile.
* Humour, which is often grotesque, dark, over-the-top. I'll come back
to this later.

It is my informed belief that off-topic discussions play a crucual part
in attracting the right kind of people to the channel and ensuring
antendance, which enables the channel to perform its on-topic functions.
They're often the most flamboyant, most memorable, and certainly
longest, but to get some perspective, according to the
[http://stats.fennecfoxen.org/freenode/wikipedia.html channel
statistics], the most common real word in the channel is "article", not

===The people===

People in #wikipedia come from many countries, all age groups, all kinds
of backgrounds, and have widely differing world views and opinions on
everything. What brings them together is the fact that they're editors
of one or more Wikipediae or other Wikimedia project, and that they
enjoy the immediate medium that IRC provides. As a fortunate
consequence, they tend to have a common interest in a wide range of
encyclopedic subjects, which facilitates enjoyable discussions and
bonding. The channel has exposed many Wikipedians to a widely differing
POVs on a great number of issues, which has maed them better
encyclopedia editors and admins. These fun sides of the channel,
combined with the common purpose of improving Wikipediae, and with the
collaboration on chores that the channel is responsible for, are what
makes the channel interesting enough to keep people coming for months,
in many cases for years.

These are the "regulars". They're the ones who carried out the chores.
They're the ones kept the channel running 24 hours a day and made sure
that questions don't go unanswered. They're the ones who killed
crapflooders with fire while making sure that the channel could still be
used by normal people. They're the ones who shouted down the schemers
and the backslappers. They're the ones who told the young admins to
think twice before ganging up on the editor that irks them, in many
cases because they learned it the hard way in the channel. And
crucially, they're the ones who have seen every trolling trick in the
book, every type of confused newbie, and every way that a
misunderstanding can be turned into a conflict.

But all is not that rosy, of course. The splintering of channels has
hurt the mother-of-them-all badly. The gains that we made by getting rid
of the people that caused on-wiki onflicts were to a large extent offset
by the brain drain to other channels. Over time, the powers that be
first came more rarely and than completely stopped coming to the
channel. Some regulars followed them either because they needed to work
with them, or they liked to associate with them. Others naturally
drifted to more specific channels which suited them better, or were
driven away by the atmosphere. Regulars who had no such ambitions or
interests remained and continued to run and improve the channel and the

This brought us to the current situation, or rather the situation before
the "reform". The people who know and care about #wikipedia are no
longer the same people who hang out with the powers that be. Thus we
became completely divorced groups - the regulars became the
left-behinds, and the former regulars became their own grandparents who
visited Spain in 1969 and think it's still a fascist dictatorship in 2007.

===The reform===
:''Disclaimer: The following sections includes many references to
"reformers" and "regulars". The names may not be precise nor 100% serious,
and the membership of both groups is fuzzy and non-exclusive, but I
trust everybody will know what is meant. In any case, we're discussing
two concepts of how the channel should be run. Actual personalities are

It's useless to talk about the "reform" as a single issue. On the whole,
the regulars obviously think it's a bad thing, and the perpertarors
obviously think they're doing something good. So I'll try to separate it
into issues and see if we can come to an agreement on at least some of them.

;The channel structure
The newly proposed channel structure isn't ''illogical'' or ''wrong''.
It makes sense, philosophically speaking. Yet, there are several
important drawbacks which seem to have been overlooked:

#Success of any channel scheme depends largely on incoming links, in our
case those posted on Wikipediae and related sites. Even if we changed
them all (btw, has anybody investigated how many there are, where they
are, etc.?), it's still a fact of life that, unlike on other Wikipediae,
readers of en are often oblivious to the existence of other language
editions. Those who are IRC-adept will still simply type /join
#wikipedia and ask questions about en. And of course, there are
countless links to #wikipedia around the net which are beyond our
control. It is questionable whether the final results will be worth the
# It is questionable whether a symmetrical channel scheme is really
beneficial to a largely assimetrical project.
# It is highly questionable whether further splintering of the channels
is beneficial. See above.
# #wikipedia has been used this way for years, and without strong
indications that it is harmful, it's simply reckless to change it for
the sake of symmetry. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

In any case, this is something that could have been discussed reasonably
and calmly in advance. Changing the channel scheme succesfully is quite
a tedious operation and certainly isn't urgent.

;The guideline
Especially after the recent edits, the guideline isn't a bad start for a
reasonable discussion, content wise. In details and especially in tone,
it's harmful. On one hand, it's full of weaseling like the contradictory
(mystical?) description of the channel owners, and the hilarious talk
about "catalysts". It's in urgent need of some straigh talking. On the
other hand, it's primarily concerned with discipline, which shows that
it's not based on traditional Wikimedian values, like openness,
participation, consensus and above all, assumption of good faith.
Instead, the reformers decided that the channel needs discipline in the
form of kicks, bans, devoicing. This for the channel that kept its topic
unprotected until it became wholly impracticable.

Oh, and please, everybody, stay on topic. Some subjects, like television
shows, movies, music or other popular culture, even clearly encyclopedic
subjects like politics, government and religion are explicitly declared
off-topic and nudged towards a dead-end channel. Things like
non-wikimedia related open-source software and computer games aren't,
and in the past few days, the reformers have indeed discussed such
subjects freely and at length in the channel. Could it be that pet
subjects are tedious only when they're other people's pet subjects?

And of course, no humour please. At least not your kind of humour. Think
of the children! But I'll come back to that later.

;The powerplay
Now, the really tedious part: It all started one day, when the curious
decision was made that all it takes to achieve consensus is have a
proposal ignored for 5 days. Actually, as was made apparent later, it
all started at an undefined time before that, with a conversation
between uncertain participants who were concerned about the channels for
unclear reasons. I can't tell you what and how happened (not for lack of
trying to find out), and I wouldn't mind at least a short
non-contradictory resume of that, if nobody can be bothered to provide
actual details.

In any case, the new owners enacted the new mission statement,
authorization codes wer exchanged, all the employees were fired (and
offered their jobs back provided that they pledge alleigance), and some
of the patrons were booted. This understandibly met with protests and
enquiries, which for some reason were repeatedly met by FUD.

The questions were: Who was it that decided this? Who gave them the
authrotity to decide this? Is it Freenode or Wikimedia? Is it up to a
single person? Is that person the guy that says he was authorized, the
one that says it wasn't him, or the one who's on vacation and doesn't
say anything? Can the foundation do anything?  It all boils down to "who
had the authority to do this and who has the authority to undo it"?

We got a whole caleidoscope of tidbits and hints, but no straight
answers. We were told to "go to the meta page". When the meta page was
edited, it got protected, and reformers said "go to the meta talk page".
When the meta talk page was filled with concerns and objections, they
were brushed off or ignored, and the reformers said "go to
foundation-l". (As an aside, this was not brought up on the
Communication Committe's mailing list, though it clearly concerns
internal communications.)

As if the clearence of the op list weren't socially inadept enough, the
reformers' choice of co-captains raised more eyebrows.  What was the

Obviously not experience and attendance. Very few of the new ops are in
the top 55 participants on the channel, according to the channel
statistics, and most of the people who op themselves in #wikipedia last
few days are certainly not long-time veterans. Some are former regulars,
some seem to be freenode staffers, some are virtually unknown on the
channel. That doesn't mean that they're bad people, or bad ops, or that
they shouldn't be ops. But they are clearly not in the channel all the
time. They obviously have other things to do and they're not familiar
with the terrain.

It also wasn't the willingness to follow the new guideline, at least not
the non-fun parts of it. Channel modes were juggled alright, people were
quieted, but the discussion continued much as before. Only it was
different people and a narrower choice of pet subjects.

So, it appears that the criterion was knowing the right people or being
in the right position. It's downright funny that Raul was made an op in
this scheme of things. He's known for occasionally crashing the channel
with a flurry of gross jokes and other scary off-topic talk (bless him),
and then disappearing. Could it be because he supports or cares for the
new guidelines? Or is it just because he's Raul? (Don't get me wrong, I
want Raul as an op in #wikipedia. He's not a bad op at all.)

As well-intentioned and well-mannered as most of them are, they simply
can't do the job effectively. We had a crapflood attack lasting half an
hour. Channel remained accessible only to registered freenode users for
who knows how long. A very friendly lobby indeed.

Other new ops seemed more confrontational and curiously better informed
than the regulars about what was going on. We were told "bluntly" that
the idea is to get rid of the people in order to change the atomsphere,
we were called "so-called regulars", and told that the ex-regulars who
have since left the channel were the "real oldbies". In reality, the
people who oppose the guideline have been in the channel for years, some
for 3 or 4. In all that time they were also productive editors of
Wikipedia the encyclopedia, some for 4 or 5 years.

As could be expected, such a turn of events led to a kind of a turf war,
and we all started shouting past each other, which is where we're now.

==Possible causes==

So, finally, back to the dark, surreal, vile humour of #wikipedia. Which
seems to be the only point where both sides of the story meet at the
same point.

On one hand there is the perception that wikipedia is nothing but penis
talk. There are people who drop into #wikipedia occasionally and walk
straight into a bout of gross-out bantering. There are those that
haven't been in the channel for years and are like the aforementioned
grandaparent tourists, with snapshots of the most memorable moments and
hardly any more knowledge of the channel. A similar phenomenon can be
observed with AFD and DRV, for instance.

On the other hand, it's not like the regulars don't know this or don't
act on it. Even without this attempt at reform, the realization has been
growing in the channel that being the lobby of Wikipedia and Wikimedia
requires a somewhat cleaner image, simply to avoid shocking the random
passers-by. In fact, the humour and gross-out bantering has been greatly
reduced over the years, and certainly regulars are prepared to take it

The only other relevant issue that I have seen brought up is the
supposed op abuse, but that was never backed with any but most vague
references to anecdotal evidence, at least to my knowledge. While I
don't always agree with op decisions in the channel (I myself never
desired to be an op), the idea that op abuse is ripe in #wikipedia is
simply wrong.

So, it seems to me that this was all based on a partly faulty perception
of one of the many components of #wikipedia, and on the desire for a
direction on which we all agree anyway. It boggles the mind that the
"reformers" thought that they need to adopt such a confrontational
stance and go behind the backs of the "regulars". An explanation of that
would also be helpful.

==What now?==
Mid-term solutions will require considerations such as who gets to
appoint Wikimedia's contact with FreeNode, does the foundation have any
influence on the appointment of both its own and freenode's contact
persons, should such contact persons between real-life organizations be
adults, and even should Wikimedia look for another network to avoid such
situations in the future.

But that's mid-term. In the meantime, we can get the channel back to
normal pretty easily. Just reinstate the old ops and unprotect the
guideline page so that it can be edited into something more sensible in
tone and detail. The "regulars" agree with the general direction of the
guideline and will be happy to improve it. I don't expect any opposition
to cleaning up the act further. As long as it does not mean banning all
discussion of certain "unclean" subjects, like sex, death, or politics,
of course.

But that won't save the channel by itself. We're still dependent on
incoming links, and we're still being hurt by the braindrain. We all
found the conversations more interesting when they included nicks like
jwales, anthere, eloquence, raul654, submarine, disprosia, etc etc etc.
And since you last saw us, we aged for a few years, some reached middle
age, others grew up. So, if you're an ex-regular and are concerned for
the welfare of #wikipedia, your help will be greatly appreciated. You
don't need to be a "catalyst" or any other buzzword. Just
[irc://irc.freenode.net/wikipedia don't be a stranger].


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