Sunday, September 23, 2007

Gresham's Law

"Bad money drives out good," is an adage ascribed to Sir Thomas Gresham, who pointed out that valuable coins were hoarded by anyone so lucky as to receive them, while debased coins were spent, so that only the debased coins remained in circulation.

The adage applies also to any kind of intellectual exchange, such as academic email lists or Wikipedia, and can be expressed in this context as "bad contributors drive out good." I once participated on an email list populated by radical economists, some quite famous. For the first year or so, lurking on the list was one of the highlights of my life, much like sitting in a conference and listening to what those really shaping the field really thought. But very soon, some less famous people began to post, and post frequently. By the second year, it seemed that every third post was from the same graduate student, who had an opinion about everything and couldn't wait to share it. The famous economists fell silent, and then the less-famous but still lucid ones began to disappear, and finally the graduate student had the list all to himself.

My local newspaper allows its online readers to write comments on its articles, a feature that it calls a readers' forum. Very few of the readers are gentlemen or scholars, though, and the average contribution is an angry vent about illegal aliens, government officials, Muslims, or other people's children. Much of the commentary, perhaps the majority of it, takes as its target other commentators, rather than the content of the news article. The comments do have some value, in that they show how some people think in private, and there is also the rare post where someone actually adds information to the article, or provides a lucid analysis. But these rare posts are rare precisely because of Gresham's Law: the bad contributors drive out the good. Why are they driven out? Partly, no doubt, because the audience of other contributors is so obviously indifferent to intelligent discourse, but also because the usual standards of civility do not prevail here--one is in the world of the mob, where barbaric insult is piled on barbaric insult for no other reason than to get a rise out of another commentator. These commentators are trolls, and trolls drive out people looking for intelligent discourse.

Wikipedia has problems of bad editors driving out good. In the first of his laws, Raul maintains that, of the "...highly dedicated users who have left, the vast majority left as a result of trolls, vandals, and/or POV warriors." Since dedicated users are Wikipedia's main resource, he concludes that "...such problem users should be viewed as Wikipedia's biggest handicap." But compared to the anarchy of the newspaper forum, Wikipedia is a highly structured environment, replete with rules designed to ensure that all editors behave civilly, and avoid any personal attacks. As part of this effort, there is a rule that the talk pages focus on the articles rather than on the personalities of the editors. When followed, these rules guarantee that the level of discourse will stay high enough to attract intelligent contributors. When the rules are not followed, there are real sanctions--the violator is banned, at least temporarily.

Nevertheless, Wikipedia will always suffer from problems with trolls, because of two of its features: unrestricted entry of contributors, and contributor anonymity. Unrestricted entry brings in unworthy people--those who are uninformed, uncivil, or both--and anonymity emboldens people to behave in ways they would never behave were they using their real name. Citizendium has sought to remove these two features, and therefore provides a better environment for the highly qualified contributor, but has run into a different problem. That is that the rate of progress (in terms of article creation and improvement) is much higher with unrestricted entry. Perhaps Citizendium is too lonely a place, and therefore not attractive, even to the highly qualified. But perhaps the swarm of random Wikipedia editors does manage to do some good, as long as their work is shaped a bit by a smaller core group of competent editors.

It seems, then, that the best wiki structure is one in which large numbers of people edit, but rules are structured so as to readily identify and discourage troll-like behavior, and a core group of dedicated editors are able to exert a great deal of influence. Wikipedia has all of these features: anonymity and free entry help bring in large numbers of users; rules have evolved to drive out trolls; and a Wikipedia elite, both formally designated and informally acknowledged, shapes policy and content.

1 comment:

Audra said...

Thanks for writing this.