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Duns Scotus and Jennifer Lopez: Why can’t Wikipedia make better sausages?

By Edward Buckner

Despite the acknowledged shortcomings of Wikipedia’s governance, the strongest argument against reforming it is its apparent extraordinary success. Editing Wikipedia is like making sausages, they say: it’s a nasty process that you really don’t want to see [1]. As long as the end product is nice tasty sausages, does it really matter how it ended up on our plate?

Even when you do find mistakes, Wikipedia tells us that it doesn’t matter in the long run. Anyone can edit Wikipedia, and so there is a quasi-Darwinian process which ensures that only the fittest edits – i.e. the good ones – will survive, and the final result will be perfect. Wikipedia doesn’t need experts, or an editorial board, any more than natural selection needs a design committee. As Kevin Kelly of Wired once said, the crowdsourced wiki is like an invisible hand which emerges from its ‘very dumb members’. Why then would it need a visible hand? [2]

More sausagemakers, better sausages?

.

The idea that more is better is a fundamental principle of Wikipedia, and is the reason why such a large chunk of the Wikimedia Foundation’s annual budget – probably about $10m of it [3] – is dedicated to combating the decline in the editorial base. The idea underpins the unofficial policy of purging the ‘old guard’ of established editors, on the grounds that their impatience or uncivil behaviour towards well-meaning but incompetent editors is putting off newcomers. A respected member of the Wikipedia military history project, and another long-standing editor of many of Wikipedia’s Featured Articles have recently been driven off as a result of the policy. The survival of Wikipedia, they say, depends not on keeping a small number of skilled individuals, but on attracting large numbers

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