Thursday, August 23, 2007


As mentioned in an earlier post, cliques form spontaneously in Wikipedia due to the desire of editors to avoid conflict. Editors will abandon articles where their edits are resisted or reverted and gravitate toward articles where their edits are accepted without much fuss. Thus, most active articles will be worked on by a relatively homogeneous clique of editors. On the one hand this is useful, since the editors are happy and a great deal of work can be done when there is not constant bickering about each contribution. On the other hand it is difficult to achieve a neutral point of view when all contributors are in such happy agreement with each other.

Cliques can form due to special expertise. For example, the editors of game theory articles are likely to be among that small group of people who know something about game theory. Arguably, nothing is served in such articles by bringing in outsiders who know nothing about game theory. So certain articles are well-served by clique structure, since it keeps out the incompetent and the ill-informed. A corollary of this is that, for articles requiring special expertise to edit, a tacit selection process ensures that only the most qualified Wikipedians edit. For one can imagine that if a widely recognized game theorist were to appear and edit on game theory articles, the graduate students and minor academics who had previously done the work would defer to her judgment. For these kinds of articles the model of open access editing is not really harmful: the most qualified editors will eventually form cliques and control editing.

Other kinds of cliques are obviously harmful. The most obvious of these in Wikipedia are ethnic cliques. As mentioned in an earlier post, the hatred of Armenians for Turks has led to some obvious cases of article bias. This bias tends to persist, in part, because Armenian editors receive substantial support from other editors, to the point that editors writing from the Turkish perspective are immediately branded as trolls. The support of editors with names like "John Smith" for Armenians is no doubt due to very deep anti-Turkish prejudices, persisting from Medieval times, prejudices that can be seen in many parts of Christian European culture, such as--for example--the geographical location of the land of Mordor in Tolkein's Lord of the Rings.

One lesson from this example is that cliques are most likely to maintain hegemony over articles when the worldview of the clique jibes well with the prejudices of the contemporary Anglophone world. What are those prejudices? The phrase "political correctness", though a pejorative, captures a broad swath of those prejudices, and one could well predict that cliques with politically correct perspectives are much more likely to maintain hegemony over articles than cliques without those perspectives. The article on Race and intelligence serves as a good example of how an article about politically incorrect scientific research is dominated by a politically correct clique. The point I'm trying to make is that in Wikipedia it is extremely unlikely that this kind of research would be presented except in a politically correct way.

Another group of prejudices center around Laïcité, Secularism, and Science. Many Wikipedians are proud skeptics, and consider themselves the enemy of all superstition. But, as Richard Dawkins notes in his magnificent The God Delusion, religion is privileged in our culture, protected from any criticism or analysis. Thus skeptics tend to avoid articles on recognized religions, and instead to form cliques around articles related to the paranormal. An example would be the article on Electronic voice phenomena, where one of the most notable researchers in that field, Tom Butler, was discouraged from editing by a skeptical clique. Again, the point is that only the skeptics would have the backing from general prejudices to form cliques dominating paranormal articles.

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