The elusive Jimmy Wales

Like others, I have been surprised that the Wikipedia policies of No Original Research (WP:NOR, Wikipedia 2006nor) and Verifiability (WP:V, Wikipedia 2006v) had been collapsed into a new policy of Attribution (WP:ATT, Wikipedia 2007a). The two former policies, in addition to Neutral Point of View (WP:NPOV, Wikipedia 2006npv), have been essential for understanding and explaining Wikipedia collaborative culture – even more so than the Trifecta (Wikipedia 2006pt) and The Five Pillars (Wikipedia 2006fp).

But Wikipedia is huge, and it’s not hard to miss something even as important as this, so last week I updated my dissertation to read:

The second policy of Attribution requires, in a nutshell, that “All material in Wikipedia must be attributable to a reliable, published source” (Wikipedia 2007a). In a manner of speaking, this second policy is relatively new – becoming “official” in February 2007 – because it incorporates and supersedes two the long-standing policies of No Original Research (WP:NOR, Wikipedia 2006nor) and Verifiability (WP:V, Wikipedia 2006v).

Yet, for the dissertation, I concluded that having these two ideas remain distinct was useful to me in my writing and I would continue referring to them even if it now required a parenthetical comment about their merger. Evidently, Wales (2007wvw) agreed, as he wrote yesterday:

The change was made before a sufficient process had taken place to make the change, with the result that many good editors were unaware that such a fundamental change was about to take place. Many have reported being baffled and unhappy with the change.

However, because he intervened with a “rejection of [[WP:ATT]]” (Wales 2007jrw) this prompted two threads of interest to me: to what extent does WP:NOR act as a proxy for Notability, and “Just what is Jimbo’s role anyway?” (Bennett 2007). In writing about leadership in Wikipedia and other open content communities, I have wondered the same, and now some were pressing for an explicit enumeration of Jimbo’s powers. Others engaged in the perennial question of is this role more like that of a dictatorship, ministership, presidency, or a monarchy? Stephen Bain (2007tdv) has posted a thoughtful argument that constitutional monarchy is the most apt, something Wales himself has said in the past:

But we have retained a ‘constitutional monarchy’ in our system and the main reason for it is too support and make possible a very open system in which policy is set organically by the community and democratic processes and institutions emerge over a long period of experimentation and consensus-building. No one needs to be afraid that VfD will be hijacked, and our rules turned against us. (Wales2005 nnw1)

And this brings me, finally, to the point of this essay: the elusive Jimmy Wales. I am not sure if this is a feature of other auctorial leaders (e.g., Linus Torvalds, Guido von Rossum, Larry Wall, etc.) but it is a sometimes frustrating and seemingly useful characteristic of Wales who commented on the ambiguity of his role as follows:

I think the limits on my power are quite a bit unknown for a few reasons, mainly that I really don’t exercise power all that much, ever, and so most questions of what I could do just simply don’t come up. And passing a priori laws against me seems rather injudicious since our community institutions are all quite carefully limited for good reasons in an effort to create an atmosphere of calm loving respect. (Wales 2007jwi1)

This ambiguity is one reason why I find the statist notions somewhat inappropriate and place my theory of leadership in the lineage of emergent leadership (Yoo and Alavi2003).

Wales has followed this strategy from the start, once characterized, to the frustration of Wikipedia cofounder Larry Sanger (2005), as a good cop rarely wielding a big stick:

In retrospect, I wish I had taken Teddy Roosevelt’s advice: “Speak softly and carry a big stick. Since my “stick” was very small, I suppose I felt compelled to “speak loudly,” which I regret. (This was not such a problem, by the way, on Nupedia; partly, that was because there were not nearly as many problem users on Nupedia, but partly it was because there was clear enforcement authority.) As it turns out, it was Jimmy who spoke softly and carried the big stick; he first exercised “enforcement authority.” Since he was relatively silent throughout these controversies, he was the “good cop,” and I was the “bad cop”: that, in fact, is precisely how he (privately) described our relationship. Eventually, I became sick of this arrangement. Because Jimmy had remained relatively toward the background in the early days of the project, and showed that he was willing to exercise enforcement authority upon occasion, he was never so ripe for attack as I was.

This elliptical approach serves Wales well and I think it is appropriate to the many challenges he faces, but it is also a challenge for writing about Wikipedia. For example, in explaining an inspiration for Wikipedia, Wales (2005nt) has acknowledged the debt to Hayek’s, “‘On the Use of Knowledge in Society’ as a pivotal essay in guiding my own thinking on topics like decentralization, knowledge, and society.” But Wales has also resisted (Wales 2005wew) the idea that The Wisdom of Crowds (Surowiecki 2004) is a factor in Wikipedia dynamics. This isn’t trivial for me to reconcile and I can only do so by reading the latter statement not as a disavowal of social emergence, but a purposeful shift in focus to the community and culture of Wikipedia. (Since that, too, is my own belief: there are underlying emergent dynamics, but don’t forget the collaborative culture!)

Or, consider that Wales (2005wdm) vehemently disagreed with Seigenthaler’s claim (AP 2005) that because Wikipedia allows anyone to edit, Wikipedia permits vandalism. Yet, six months later, in order to limit such vandalism Wales argued for what was popularly understood as a new blocking feature, so those logged in from an otherwise blocked IP address could still edit. Wales (Wales 2006nyt1) argued this was not a restriction:

Openness refers not only to the number of people who can edit, but a holistic assessment of the entire process.I like processes that cut out mindless troll vandalism while allowing people of diverse opinions to still edit. Those are much better than full locking.

“Holistic,” “elliptical,” “elusive”… and a challenge in writing about Wales!

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