New Wikipedia discussion forum gains steam
A new forum, called the WikBack, has been established for discussion about Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation, seeking to serve as a neutral outside venue for debate and criticism. While its ultimate success at filling this niche remains to be determined, initially it has attracted considerable participation.
Startup and policies
The WikBack was launched on December 27 by UninvitedCompany, who is covering the costs of hosting the forum. It requires members to sign up using the name of their primary Wikipedia account. Addressing a major complaint about some existing sites critical of Wikipedia, WikBack policy prohibits speculation about the identities and private affairs of Wikipedia contributors. In the short time that the WikBack has been active, it has picked up over 100 members (despite some complaints about the onerous registration system - in addition to a captcha at signup, accounts are manually approved).
While WikBack members need to have a Wikipedia account to participate, their status on Wikipedia does not carry over. Participants so far include people who have been banned from editing the English Wikipedia, airing views ranging from general criticism to specific grievances about their cases. Illustrating the potential for a neutral meeting ground, Jimbo Wales and several members of the Arbitration Committee have also posted to the forum. As the policy on acceptable use of WikBack states, "Fair criticism, including highly critical views, are welcome."
Comparison with alternatives
UninvitedCompany reported that the volume of activity already exceeds that of the English Wikipedia mailing list. The contrast with the mailing list highlights some of the challenges for discussion of Wikipedia outside of the wiki itself. Aside from the relative merits of electronic mailing lists compared with bulletin boards, the practical effects of various external venues have prompted considerable debate. IRC channels have been the subject of frequent controversy, and both IRC and Wikia-hosted mailing lists have figured in two recent requests for arbitration.
Although the mailing list is described as "the place for meta-discussions about the nature of Wikipedia" (from an oft-quoted statement of principles, written by Wales when there was only one such list), the English Wikipedia list has also been criticized as overly acrimonious and unproductive. A common alternate description is the "official project sewer". David Gerard, one of the moderators on the mailing list, observed that if he could banish problematic disputes to a "Cage match" section as on the WikBack, the quality of discussion could be expected to skyrocket.
Reaction to UninvitedCompany's announcements on various mailing lists included a mixture of prognostications about whether the WikBack could succeed. Gurch argued that any off-wiki discussion would eventually become a refuge for people whose disruptive behavior had made them unwelcome on the wiki. Other responses ranged from open-minded to enthusiastic about the idea. Pointing out that the concept of the WikBack's role was admirable, David Gerard concluded, "A forum is a different thing to talk on. Maybe it'll work."
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