With social media merrily building extensions and BBQ pits to its walled gardens, other sites of this world web of ours appear to be struggling to attract enough people to pick their own fruit. Remember Wikipedia? Encyclopaedia anyone can edit, and formerly one of the great phenomenons of the Internet, now sadly diminished.
Amongst the noise generated by Facebook and Google+ (and if you think the Facebook fandago has died down, wait until the Timeline format is launched), a loud and occasionally chaotic controversy has played out, developed and died on the great Wiki policy pages. If the media decide to take a look, it could blow open another hole in the debate about internet freedom and censorship.
Behind all the Wiki articles on sporting events, capital cities and electoral statistics, an army of editors and administrators busy themselves on the site’s version of message boards. Here the various, numerous, often contradictory and highly muddled ”rules” are bashed out using the infamous “consensus model”, which usually means nobody agreeing on anything and the editing policy carrying on regardless for another six months. Diplomatic discussions around the tables of middle-sized companies have nothing on the Wiki model, especially now so few editors are taking on the roles of admins leaving a small set of middle management (the so-called “marzipan layer”) to fix the rules of their own ends.
Out of nowhere, 13 year old editor admitted he had joined the Wikipedia project on Pornography, a group which exists to co-ordinate the editing of articles related to pornographic material. An editor created a policy discussion asking if, under Florida law where the Wikipedia servers are based, this was something to legislate against. The debate flourished into a bewildering half-page analysis of policy, philosophy and social norms across both sides of the Atlantic.
Much of the votes opposing a ban on underage editors contributing to the Porn project used recognisably libertarian opinions; Wikipedia is not censored, nor should it act in loco parentis. We tend to see the Internet generally, and sites such as Facebook and Wikipedia specifically, as places where inappropriate material might just be round the corner. If the editor really is 13, and genuinely wants to assist in editing articles related to Pornography, what stops could be installed which would not encourage other site owners to close down undesirable quarters ‘for the sake of the children’ ?
There is the issue of responsibility running through this which comes from stepping back from auto-response reactions relating to allowing users of the ‘net to run free like the 60s really had changed the world. Porn (the imagery) and porn (the concept) are separate issues; discuss the latter with your children and make sure they don’t search Internet History without someone over their shoulder. It would be a PR disaster for Wiki to be associated with adult material, even if the project itself is designed to educate and inform people about everything from the Vietnam War to the vulva (needless to say, perhaps, but one of those links is NWS).
Wiki does not have the mindset, amongst its users, to block material or build high walls around contentious subjects. On the whole Wiki is a centre-left/liberal organisation, and one which considers it a virtue if mature editors wish to contribute to difficult, minority interest content. The policy debate this single 13-year old started chipped at the core of the Wiki body. It’s not as though the project contains sexually arousing content, as such, with articles on anti-pornography movements and sexual objectifications under the umbrella terms of the project. The articles relating to lesbianism lacks any moving images on girl-on-girl action, and if you clicked on auto-fellatio expecting a treat you’ll leave disappointed.
Wiki retains the potential it always had as an ambitious, well-meaning project, even though the fleeting regular editors and increased administrative regime has left it looking exhausted and out-dated. The lack of a social-media companion tool alongside Wiki leaves the site appearing cold and unappealing. Debates on how to exclude and block editors, however responsible the wider debate may be, can do only more damage. Ultimately we are dealing here with something keyboard diplomats cannot legislate for – parental responsibility. Wikipedia could attract trouble it did not expect if an issue like this is mishandled.