Wikipedia is a perfect example of the tragedy of the commons: where multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen.

I love Wikipedia. I use it constantly, like in the sentence above. For the big picture stuff, Wikipedia works. Take the article on Hamas for example – a nuanced treatment of currently one of the most explosive (literally) topics in the news today. In this, it benefits from high visibility, and a lot of people pushing and pulling at cross-currents to come up with the “conventional wisdom” on a given subject. It has about 10 or so edits a day, and editing with an axe to grind is treated as vandalism and pruned in short order. Wikipedia works precisely as advertised here – the wisdom of the many is outed in the struggle of the everyday. Beautiful phrase,  no? Pity it doesn’t work anywhere else.

Let’s take a look at two people: Raph Koster and myself. You know, I’m going to just go out on a limb here and say Raph’s had a bit more impact on virtual world development than I have. Yet poor Raph gets one breezy paragraph and a credits list, and I get a loving dissertation (which I didn’t write, by the way) on the various ebb and flows of my blogging history. (Which mind you, used to be even longer.) Richard Bartle freaking helped invent MUDs and his entry is mostly about how he pisses World of Warcraft players off. Good thing Rob Pardo has a good entry! Oh wait, no, he doesn’t, his entire biography is how he hates Paladins. NO, I AM NOT JOKING AT ALL. Thanks, Wikipedia, for focusing on what’s really important about the career of the lead designer of the most successful MMO in history. You rock. Especially since, apparently according to Wikipedia, I am the most important MMO developer of our time. I’m getting a plaque or something now.

As a result, we have a bit of a kerfluffle (described by Bartle and Koster) where an angry Wikipedian decided that a MUD he may or may not have used to play isn’t “notable“, meaning that it isn’t worthy of being included in the same category of knowledge as, say, ponyplay. To be fair, the article in question does read more like an ad than a descriptor. But the talk page (a page attached to each wiki entry where people can discuss the pros and cons of MUDding, ponyplay, or both) descends into Shakespearean madness and it’s pretty clear that some uninvolved rational adult needs to step in and thwap everyone on the nose. Of course, no such individual actually exists, so we get people with duelling ASCII signature tags arguing over encyclotrivia.

But maybe it’s just MMOs where Wikipedia falls down. Let’s look at two other people: Barack Obama and Lyndon LaRouche. Space aliens would, just judging from Wikipedia, judge LaRouche as equally notable as Obama. (Luckily, they’d probably also find it easier to communicate with him). This is a good example of where Wikipedia just craps all over itself – since Wikipedia is a hivemind, there’s no policing save that of interested parties – and the interested parties in LaRouche’s case happen to be, well, LaRouchies who think he’s the pre-eminent economist of our times or something. Again, there’s no controlling legal authority (thanks, Al Gore!) so the occasional random visitor dumbstruck by such statements as “LaRouche was credited by press in Italy and Argentina as the economist who successfully forecast the financial crisis of 2007–2008” (note: this may in fact be true, if you come from the Moon) are attacked themselves as having “conflicts of interest“.

Wikipedia is like the web writ manifest – a huge body of knowledge, with no guidance save that of its priesthood, who ensure that there is no editorial voice whatsoever. Which would work, if everyone on the planet agreed on important moral issues, and was sane, and didn’t have axes to grind, and knew what they were talking about. Failing that, it’s much like, well, reading a blog. You might get something of interest, or you might get the leavings of some random game developer ranting about arcane geeky political issues on his lunch break.

And hey, if you think I’m off the wall when it comes to Wikipedia, try Prokofy Neva’s opinion. Having Wikipedia vetted through Second Life? Well, at least then we’d be able to grief the LaRouchies, I suppose.