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My Dream[edit]

"Josh! Wake up!" As the sunlight glared through my bedroom window, I frantically tried to finish the program. "Wake up!" my mother prodded. I just needed a little more time, a few more minutes, to figure out how to fix the program. After all, the program's importance was undeniable; it would solve all the major problems in the world. But, it was time to get up. The cause of humanity, I suppose, would have to wait. [1]

Beliefs about society[edit]


I've been editing Wikipedia for a few months now, and I've really learned a lot from it in this short time. The lessons I've learned have affected me in many ways; they've changed how I think about anything -- how I work, how I write, how I solve problems, and how I work with other people. These lessons didn't come to me as revelations when I hit the appropriate knowledge. In fact, I didn't even really know the value of what I was reading when I first started looking at Wikipedia policies. However, the things I read started to have an effect on me outside of the encyclopedia. The quality research practices required for Wikipedia articles started creeping into my schoolwork, and a snowball effect began to form. Community policies, organization techniques, and many other aspects parts of Wikipedia have crept into my behavior. In some cases these effects on my behavior have even been a bit of a annoyance, but on the whole, I think of these lessons as an enormous benefit.

The Perfect Democracy[edit]

Wikipedia is, of course, an encyclopedia, but it is also far more than that; it is also the community created to build the encyclopedia. Calling it a community is probably an understatement. The list of groups referred to as cults -- a list including the likes of Scientology, Al-Queda, and the Jesus Army -- includes Wikipedia because Charles Arthur, a technology writer for The Guardian noticed it resembles a cult by the definitions he found: "a person or thing that is popular or fashionable, esp. among a particular section of society", or even "a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object" [2]. The fact that this mention warrants Wikipedia's inclusion on the list is a bit disconcerting, but Arthur's revelation is still a valid one. "Religious veneration and devotion" are the perfect terms to describe many editors feelings towards Wikipedia. In spite of all the "dirty laundry" Arthur mentions, editors, often called Wikipedians, remain devoted to the encyclopedia for a variety of reasons. One reason that I've seen frequently, and subscribe to myself, is seizing the opportunity to contribute to something useful. Another common reason is to earn prestige within the Wikipedia community [3]. Attempting to earn prestige in a community that offers no rewards -- in the real world or otherwise -- strikes me as very similar to religious veneration. While Wikipedia might not be a cult, it certainly does have some of the social qualities of one.

The cult-like aspects of Wikipedia allude to something greater. I perceive Wikipedia as more than a community, but even an entire society. One definition of society is "the institutions and culture of a distinct self-perpetuating group" [3], a definition Wikipedia seems at a glance to fit. I feel a bit like an anthropologist when learning about how Wikipedia works, particularly one studying a parallel of the rise and fall of Rome, arguably the greatest empire of all time. I've come to think of Wikipedia as the most successful democratic society on Earth. Wikipedia's consensus democracy is putting an encyclopedia together with considerable success. My role as anthropologist examining this modern Rome is clear: why does Wikipedia work, and what are its shortcomings?

Why Wikipedia Works[edit]

As an encyclopedia, Wikipedia faces quite a few problems that the community must address. The community relies on one core democratic principle in order to resolve issues: consensus. The technical nature of a wiki, by allowing edits to contradict, remove, and replace one another, requires implicit consensus for anything written on the wiki to remain.[4] In addition to being a consequence of the wiki, building consensus is the official policy for resolving disagreements on what course to follow on any question the community faces. This principle is what allows the Wikipedia community to -- over a sufficient time -- resolve virtually any problem.

Quite frequently, there are disputes over content added to encyclopedia. Disagreements often arise about whether or not information should be included, and in what form. There are content policies that dictate what belongs and what does not, considering that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. These policies ensure that correct information is listed, or that if the truth is uncertain, common viewpoints are represented.[5] Editors often violate these policies -- most often, but not always, unintentionally -- and another editor reverts these changes to comply with policy. The original editor may disagree for any variety of reasons, some legitimate -- such as genuine disagreement over whether policy has been violated -- as well as some illegitimate -- such as persisting to give undue weight to a specific point of view of a controversial topic. There is a policy outlining how to resolve disputes in Wikipedia, and the goal is always to build consensus.[6]

There are many difficulties in reaching and enforcing a community consensus. The primary tools used to enforce community consensus are administrator powers, the most noteworthy of which is the ability to block users -- that is, prevent them from editing. Administrators are authorized to block users who disrupt the project. This includes users who prevent consensus by means such as edit warring or repeatedly violating policies.[7] Blocking is not used to force editors to work towards a consensus, but only to prevent them from disrupting discussion and any resulting consensus.

Although administrator tools make functioning on consensus technically feasible, the tools do not help develop a consensus except by preventing disruption. The community has established etiquette principles to facillitate successful discussion. Critical among these principles are the policies to act with civility and its corollary, to never use personal attacks, as well as the guideline to assume good faith. Civility entails "[Participating] in a respectful and civil way. [Not ignoring] the positions and conclusions of others. [Trying] to discourage others from being uncivil, and [being] careful to avoid offending people unintentionally." Incivility, by contributing to an "atmosphere of conflict and stress", makes reaching a consensus more difficult and can incite further uncivil behavior.[8] Editors are advised to "comment on content, not on the contributor"[9] as any personal attack -- an extreme form of incivility -- easily disrupts attempts to improve the encyclopedia. Finding a consensus is only possible if everyone is working towards the same goal. As a result, Wikipedians assume good faith, that is, that every editor is working for the good of the encyclopedia, unless evidence indicates otherwise. [6]

Wikipedia's Effect on Me[edit]

I have come to deeply respect all of Wikipedia's policies. As an American, as well as from personal experience, I believe that democracy is the best way to solve problems. The Wikipedia community has successfully identified what it takes to make democracy work, so I try to apply the same principles to any democratic discusison. The school robotics team is also based on democratic process, but is far less so successful, so I tried to apply Wikipedia's principles of civility and consensus to the team.[6] I also try to follow the same principles for any argument I am engaged in; I aim to remain polite, calm, and respectful, and to focus on the topic of discussion rather than how or who is saying it, and I encourage others to do the same.

Editing Wikipedia resulted in several subtle effects on my behavior. For one, Wikipedia's core content policies, verifiability and neutral point of view, have become my personal guidelines for virtually any argument. On Wikipedia, verifiability is achieved through the proper use of citations, and every controversial fact must have a reliable source detailing it. In practice, I attempted to have, if not also to provide, logic and references for every single statement I made in essays or arguments. Furthermore, I began to constantly consider the reliability of sources, particularly with regard to the extravagence of the idea. This started to become a slight nuisance, as I would spend unnecessary amounts of time verifying the most trivial of facts. Wikipedia also crept into my life in other small ways. It is proper practice to sign your comments on discussion pages, using the symbol ~~~~. I frequently found myself typing that symbol at the end of instant messages and emails, usually catching my mistake in time to erase it.

Beliefs about People[edit]

Most people I know often think of me as an unusual -- if not freaky -- person. This doesn't bother me in the least. I attribute this appearance to my disregard for the status quo and the standards of society. I find that society's preferences, beliefs, and taboos are often irrational, so I give almost no precedence to them. Almost everything I believe, I believe because I understand it to be logically correct, not because someone else -- or even many other people, for that matter -- believes it. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness provides a perfect example of the frequency of hypocrisy I perceive in society.

Heart of Darkness provides an extensive supply of hypocritical beliefs about Africa, black people, and imperialism. The root of all the contradictions is the negative -- nearly inhuman -- perception of black people. In the novella, Europeans do not even recognize Africans as humans, thinking of them as machinery and statuary, and assigning them all the negative characteristics of darkness.[10] This bigoted assumption, based solely on the facts that Africans have a different type of society and less advanced technology, is extremely unfair. However, it is used to justify all the atrocities the Europeans committed over Africans, including widespread overworking and torture. All the unjust actions are excused as attempts to improve the nature of the uncivilized Africans. People who oppose this bigotry, or even people who could expose it, are doomed to failure -- Kurtz, who did not even disguise his chauvinism is an example.

I find that society repeats this trend of applying invalid axioms, resulting in many incorrect beliefs accepted by the majority of people. As such, I feel compelled to verify commonly accepted beliefs before accepting them myself.

Beliefs about Self[edit]


I practice mimimal, decentralized organization. [11] That is, I apply organization to problems only when it is necessary, only as much as necessary, and usually attempt to move whatever I am organizing apart rather than together. My primary motivation in applying these tactics is efficiency. Employing too little organization can make a task impossible, so there certainly is a minimum. Additional organization past that minimum can make the task easier, but often requires more work to set up than it saves. I always aim to use the most efficient combination of thoset two factors. A glance at the article on decentralization shows that the concept is not original, but although I realized and defined my methods as decentralized without any reference, my methods and reasons for using them match those mentioned in the article. I prefer decentralization because it minimizes the work for each individual and is usually safe from cataclysmic failure of an individual.

A few examples[edit]

Two examples have helped me realize the two characteristics that define my preferred organizational habits. I became conscious of them only recently, the first time after prom. I went to an after-party in Connecticut, and in the morning we were faced with the question of how to return to New York City. We had to call car service to get everyone to the train, and needed to figure out how many cars to call. One girl wrote down everyone's names and which car they'd go in. I complained meekly about how unnecessary it was to do that, but realized it wasn't worth the effort to argue. When the cars arrived, a problem arose: the people expected to leave in the first car weren't ready to leave, and it was delayed. I would have organized it differently: count the number of people, divide by the number that fits in a car, and call for that many cabs; as the cabs arrive, put whoever is ready inside and send them off. The difference between the distributed method and the overly organized method was a considerable loss in efficiency. In reflection of this occurance, I realized my tendency to minimize organization.

The anecdote of the afterprom party is a good example of the problem of an excess of organization, but another example demonstrates a deficit of organization is no better, if not worse. A group of my friends, discussing in an internet chatroom, were attempting to decide what day to get together. However, whenever a day was suggested, someone insisted that we choose a different day because he or she would not be able to attend. The discussion went nowhere, and I tried to create a solution. I was about to suggest that someone poll each individual and figure out which day would be best, but a better idea came to me. I set up a Google Spreadsheet to allow everyone in the group to input what days they would be available and then show the totals for each day, then distributed access to the document to everyone. Soon, almost the entire group in the chatroom entered information, and the document was sent to other people we wanted to attend. Here, some organization was necessary, but decentralizing the work made it more successful.

The Origin[edit]

I am not entirely certain how I arrived at my opinions on organizational techniques. I've been a certified slacker for quite a few years, for I suspect that my perpsective, through which I seek efficiency of this sort, originates from my background in computer science. Distributed computing, in which most of the work is distributed across a group of computers, has been used to solve computing problems of considerable magnitude. Notable examples have been the most successful peer-to-peer file sharing networks, such as Kazaa and Bittorrent, which use decentralized networks; as well as parallel computing tasks such as Folding@home, which utilizes home computers to forward scientific research, and render farms, which use a cluster of systems to perform the extensive computing required to generate the graphics seen in movies. I have dealt with problems similar to each of these notable examples, and programming experience has taught me the value of decentralized processes. Furthermore, object oriented programming languages such as Java have made it easier to let each part of a program do its own work, rather than have a single part work on everything else. All these experiences have made decentralization seem intuitive to me.


  1. ^ Excerpt taken from my college application essay.
  2. ^ Arthur, Charles (2005-12-15). "Log on and join in, but beware the web cults". The Guardian. Retrieved 2007-06-15.
  3. ^ Forte, Andrea; Bruckman, Amy. "Why Do People Write For Wikipedia? Incentives To Contribute To Open Source Publishing" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-06-15.
  4. ^ Wikipedia:Consensus.
  5. ^ Taken from a paraphrase from Jimbo Wales at WP:UNDUE.
  6. ^ a b c My essay, Lepidoptery, Lo-lee-ta: The Propagation of Passion into Writing and Life included some perspectives repeated here.
  7. ^ The blocking policy is found at Wikipedia:Blocking policy
  8. ^ From Wikipedia:Civility.
  9. ^ Wikipedia:No personal attacks
  10. ^ Gatten, Brian and Martin, Melissa. SparkNote on Heart of Darkness. 20 Jun. 2007 [1].
  11. ^ This reminds me of the home page of Professor Carl Craver, who I met at Washington University in St. Louis. His home page contains a link to his curriculum vitae and reads "I am a philosopher of neuroscience". [2])