Wikis, Screen Names and Authority

On why maybe registration might be a good idea for communities and wikis

The following post is prompted by experiences on many online communities over the years and my own research into wikis. It’s also partly in response to recent occurrences on the Antiquist Wiki where it seems the spammers have been more prolific than the real contributors.

My thanks as always go to Neko for sitting with me on the Common and helping me work through some of this. The ideas are mine, but as with so many of my ideas, she’s been there in the midwife role. As I didn’t start out actively researching this topic with an aim to anything more than making my own mind up, I unfortunately don’t have lots of links and resources to hand – this essay is just the culmination of ideas and experiences that have been brewing in my head for the past few years. However, see the end of the article for a few thought-provoking posts to kick off your own reading.

Due to it’s length (3000+ words), I have made the decision to take the actual content of the post off the front page. I can also provide other formats (txt, doc, pdf and html) at request.

On why maybe registration might be a good idea for communities and wikis

I like things to be open.
I like things to be transparent.
I like things to be easy.
I like there to be as few barriers as possible.

So why do I think that there are times you need to have clear usernames and to restrict ‘edits’ to registered users?

Identity, Authentication, Communities, Authority, Personality, Ownership of ideas, Reputation, Responsibility, Belonging, Democracy, Accountability, Connections, Links, Conversations, Knowledge, Freedom, Sharing.

Say ‘online’ to me and you get that list above. Say ‘wiki’ to me and those are also some of the things that spring to my mind.

Sadly, say online and wiki to me and you also get ‘spam’, ‘porn’, ‘obscene’, ‘trolling’, ‘bully’, ‘anonymity’ and ‘threat’. The smelly flip-side to our shiny web 2.0 coin. It seems that whenever you get a group of people in one place, you just can’t help but get the evil bastard element of humanity along with the fluffy bunnies.

One day just before Christmas 2004 when I was still casting around for some idea that would give my research meaning, I had this fateful meeting with the godhead (my supervisor). He said to me “hmm, how about wikis, they could be quite useful, couldn’t they?”

Up to that point I’d never even heard of a wiki. I’d heard of this thing called Wikipedia, but I hadn’t, in my slightly scatterbrained head, made the connection between a website anybody could edit and a website any body could edit. A site where the content you read on the page, and in fact the entire structure of the site, is entirely up to your readers. I hadn’t made that link.

I hadn’t got my head round the idea that, once your readers are contributing to and making the content themselves, they are no longer your readers.

I don’t think I still fully appreciate, or anybody fully appreciates, the power of such a tool, and at the same time how really it might not be as useful as people think it could be. We say that everybody being able to contribute to something is the best way forward. And in some ways, I guess it could be. Wisdom of the masses, where every body knows a little, so everybody knows a lot. Combine it together and… all peaches and glory.

This movement for open source and a certain gung-ho, the-more-the-merrier attitude is abounding on the web at the moment. Which is cool. Bring on the innovation and power to the people. But there are times, all too often, when the wisdom of the masses becomes the Tower of Babel. You can never get consensus out of a large group and without consensus you are never going to get anywhere. One man, one vote is great for democracy. It tends to lead to crap computer code however. You can end up with a thousand beautiful, wonderful, amazing ideas and… nothing to show for it. You have wasted six months of your life, a year, thousands of thousands of pounds, and – zip, nada, rien.

There is also this drive at the moment for just letting it all hang out. Anything goes. You can say anything. A service wants you to register?! Ya boo to them, we’ll go somewhere else. But look around at the sites that are growing. MySpace requires you to register and have an ‘identity’. So do Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and 9rules. You can skate the surface of these sites without registering, but to get the most out of them, to leave your mark, you have to adopt an identity even if it is pseudonymous.

Yes a notable exception is Wikipedia where anyone can view and edit it, however you are still encouraged to create an identity, log in, and participate in the wider Wiki-Community. All edits are also open to review by a group of “several hundred” Wikipedians. Their godlike powers and their use/abuse there-of are worthy of an entire article all to themselves so I won’t go into it now.

Even blogs, an area I like to think I know something about, are set up so that you have an identity when you comment on them. Yes, you can leave an ‘anonymous’ comment, calling yourself Mickey Mouse and filling in a junk email, but to participate properly in the discussions that can occur around blog posts, you need to adopt that Mickey Mouse persona for more than one comment. Mickey Mouse becomes an expression of your online self. I as the blogger will interact with you, Mickey Mouse, the commentor. We could get into a discussion. Hopefully you’ll come back and comment on other posts. You’ll slowly become part of the community.

Regardless of the nickname you originally chose for yourself, from your first comment you’ve made an impression and that impression will go to build Mickey Mouse’s reputation.

And this is, I think, good. We’re not machines. The online worlds we inhabit are constructed from our dialogue with each other. Our virtual spaces require us to have identities and personalities.

So why should it be considered a good thing to let anyone edit a community wiki without the need to stand by their words?

I am still a great believer that wiki’s are wonderful. I am still a great believer in democracy, everybody having their say, and I believe knowledge should be shared. I certainly don’t think that you can bar someone from knowing something. I don’t think you can really turn aside somebody’s input. That’s not how the world works – well, it SHOUDLN’T be how the world works. But at the same time, there are instances, many many instances, where people are authorities on the subject for a reason. Academics who have spent ten years of their life researching something, are going to know more than Joe Bloggs off the street who has just read the odd web page. If I want to have brain surgery done, I’ll go to a brain surgeon, I’m not going to go to my uncle who is handy with a knife on the roast lamb. I’m going to the specialist. If you want ideas on a subject, you go to the people who know the best.

If you want to have a discussion with archaeologists about a speciality, you go to the best archaeologists in that speciality. How they get to BE the best archaeologists, and how you qualify someone as the best is another matter. How do you specify their authority? In the offline as well as online world the only way you can really do it is by reading what they write. But that’s a very shallow, very flat view of things. Everything I read is coloured by my perceptions of those people. I won’t name names, but there are one or two instances where I used to read somone’s work and thought “mmm, they’re making a bit of sense. I may not agree with all of it but, meh, I’ll go with the flow and belive this guy is an authority in his field because everyone SAYS he’s an authority in his field”. Then I have learned more about them, and in one case had the opportunity to actually meet the guy, and it turns out he is a certified wanker.

Now, when I read his stuff, I say to myself “dear god in heaven, I just can’t agree with what you say”. Or, “OK, you might be making a valid point, but I’m going to go somewhere else to back it up because my perceptions of you are just completely changed”. This works the other way too, where on the page I’ve had a gut based aversion to someone’s work, then I’ve met them, it turns out they are a darling, and I’ve been forced to re-evaluate all I thought of them before.

In both polar circumstances and at all the shades of grey in between, my personal view colours what I think of your work. Whether that’s right or not is another matter. It is how the world is.

Somebody who has just started a webpage, a blog, an article, a written article in a paper, anything – if people don’t know where it’s come from, then they are not going to get that traction. Once you’ve built up a backlog of things behind you, THEN people are going to start to get an idea. If you interact with them in the comments, in letters, in emails, in phone conversations, in skype conversations, in IM conversations, anything, then people can start to think “yeah, I agree with what she says” or “not so much, I’m not liking him”. They’ll go elsewhere.

You need a personality before you can start to build an authority.

And I think that that is one way that some wikis fall down.

There’s this great idea that if anybody can edit, anybody should edit, and over that, that you don’t want to force people to sign in. You don’t want to restrict them to a username. Having them as an unregistered IP address is the ideal. But… If I write something on a wiki as IP address 172.85.63.72 and then, five days later I happen to be logged in in an internet cafe and I happen to write something with a different IP in reply or a new article, how is anybody to know I am the same person?

The alternative case: if I was to have a screen name and I signed into the wiki one day as Cas, and I write something, and three days later I’m back in the internet cafe and I sign in again as Cas, what I say now is added to what I said before. And you start to get a picture. You start to get an idea of who this Cas person is. You can even, if you have an iota of curiosity in your body, start to track me around the web.

You might start out by Googling me, though due to my own taste for a pseudonym (Cas), this would be of limited real-world efficacy. You could, probably, looking at the profile I had hopefully created, follow me to Bright Meadow. You might find my pictures on Flickr. Might see me on Twitter, or Facebook. Maybe, you might even, if you were intrigued, track me down at 9rules and look at my Notes profile. You… You start to understand me. Well, you start to see the idea of me from what I present online. And from there, from looking at my interactions, it’s up to you whether you will start to give me authority or not. The decision over granting or not granting me respect is in your hands.

More importantly perhaps, with everything I say, with everything I write and every time I edit the wiki, you are able to constantly re-evaluate what you think.

And then, maybe the word will spread. Perhaps through word of mouth, through people linking, you’ll go “yeah, this Claire Louise knows what she’s talking about”. Or conversely, “this Cas couldn’t find her way out of a wet paper bag with a map”.

And that is how it goes. That is how it should go. We’ve gone beyond the idea of anonymity. It’s all well and good, but, didn’t your momma always tell you to say what you believe? If you want to make a difference in this world you’ve got to stand by what you say.

I’m not a fan of anonymous comments on my blog (though I don’t ban them) because, well, they’re anonymous. Most of them, unfortunately, are attacks. There is this long tradition of flaming and trolling on the Net, and invariably these attacks are made by people using sock puppets or who are anonymous. Unfortunately in the online world we’re constructing, anonymity is not seen as something that is good. This is the world that we work in. We’re not anonymous machines, we’re people sitting BEHIND the anonymous machines. These are our words, our thoughts and our ideas and we should stand by them.

I once made the argument that you didn’t want to force people to sign into a wiki because, well, why were they going to sign in? You can’t make somebody sign in and it is an extra barrier to them. But then, recently, after spending weeks of looking at a wiki and doing nothing but bashing the spam from spam bots because this wiki allowed anonymous edits, I saw that, that small barrier of signing in – maybe an extra thirty seconds of choosing a screen name and logging in with your email address – is actually a good thing. It starts to create an identity and commitment to the community from the very moment that they begin on the wiki. That personna. That authority.

I want someone to tell me the argument against screen names and registration. I really do. I know there is one because it used to be my argument. Thing is, I’ve no idea what that argument is any more.

Be transparent in your decisions, sure. Take feedback, go through beta rounds. Always be willing to listen to the weird and the wacky ideas. But there comes a time, all to often if the truth be told, when you need to restrict the voices or else you will just go stir crazy.

Everybody who spends any time on the web now is used to and understands the benefit of creating screen names and profiles. It’s… I hesitate to say necessary evil, because, well I don’t think it is evil, but it IS necessary, because that’s how things tie together. We have personalities. It is the social web and isn’t it meant to be SOCIAL computing that we’re all excited about? How can it be social if you hide behind a veil of anonymity?

Endnotes:
I deliberately haven’t made the argument that forcing usernames/restricting edits is a method of fighting spam. Spam, whilst it is a reality of our online worlds, should not be the single force that dictates how we act. Yes, spam-bashing was the catalyst for finally writing this essay, but less spam should be a happy by-product of usernames, not the sole reason.

Some good starting points:
I’ve read a lot of articles and posts in the last few years that have, in different ways, helped to shape my thinking on the subject. If this was a proper article I would have tried to reference them all, but as I didn’t start out researching this with an aim of anything more than making my own mind up, most of the links have fallen to the great bookmark collection in the sky. Below are a few of the links I *have* kept and that give answers or ask questions about both sides of the argument to help you make up your own minds:

15 thoughts on “Wikis, Screen Names and Authority

  1. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this makes so much sense to me, and is expressed in a way I couldn’t quite manage myself.

    Very well put Cas… I’m directing my felloe online archaeologists here as I type πŸ™‚

  2. great post. It can be hard to make the (extremely good) points you do without beginning to sound like Anakin Skywalker but somehow you manage πŸ™‚

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  4. Really interesting post. I’ve been thinking about authority and user-generated content in the context of museums lately, and have decided that lots of the things that have been built into profile displays on forums (the number of posts, length of time on the forum, the ability to read previous posts by the same person) are about building an identity associated with a particular username. which then allows people to build a sense of trust (and authority) for that person. I guess we’re wired to want to know who we’re talking to.

    One quick comment – registration doesn’t stop spam bots, they know how to register now. But it does seem to slow them down so it’s worth considering for that reason.

  5. How wonderful and well-written. (“Thereof” is just one word, by the way.) The argument for the abolishment of anonymity on Wikis is, of course, a long and hard fought one, but this is one of very few I’ve read (I haven’t read many, though) that doesn’t just bang on about spam for 4,000 words. It’s an absolute wonder to read.

    I do, as ever, have more to say on the subject, I think, but I’ll give myself an hour or so to mull it. (Though I will say that I am at least 80% in your camp.)

  6. Nice post. “Their godlike powers and their use/abuse there-of are worthy of an entire article all to themselves so I wonÒ€ℒt go into it now.” This reminded me of a battle we had with the Mighty Wikipedians when we wrote a new article on the topic of “Shocklog.” We were accused of coining a new term, a neologism, which is not allowed according to Wikipedia. Even after referencing our sources the article was removed on the ground of 1. adding a Dutch term to the English Wikipedia (even though we argued that was not the case) and 2. citing foreign sources. Both reasons imply a politics that is embedded within Wikipedia. The Wikipedia editors seem to be US-centric and biased. In the case of the wisdom of the crowds and the power of the many any minority (the Dutch) will loose from the majority (the Americans). We logged the whole debate at our blog.
    YES this would be a whole article in itself πŸ˜‰ I remember there are already things written about this subject matter but I cannot recall it right now.

    Do you know Citizendium? It aims to solve the problems you describe:

    The Citizendium (sit-ih-ZEN-dee-um), a “citizens’ compendium of everything,” is an experimental new wiki project. The project, started by a co-founder of Wikipedia, aims to improve on that model by adding “gentle expert oversight” and requiring contributors to use their real names. As of June 19, 2007, we were working on over 2,100 articles.

  7. I had no idea the registration bit was such an issue Ò€” but maybe that’s because I’m such a law-abiding Belgian who just adores toting around his ID all the time πŸ˜‰

    Seriously though, I think there is no way around it. If I use a service I hate to register (looking up something on last.fm or wikipedia, or downloading a Joomla template to play with it), but as soon as I participate, or more: contribute, registering feels second nature to me and the only way to go about things.

    Real life is no different. If I ask what platform a bus leaves on, I don’t have to say who I am, as soon as I want to drive that bus… that’s another matter.

    Lousy analogy, I know, but at least it shows you’ve written something that makes us ponder the question.

  8. OK, in stead of saying “thank you” to each of you individually for your nice words, just take this as blanket thanks, ok? I did start doing individual thanks, but there are only so many times you can type “thank you” (and variations thereof) before it just starts to look silly!

    Neko – Thank you again for doing some proof reading last night πŸ™‚

    Leif – damn! I was going for the Anakin vibe! Welcome to Bright Meadow and the comments.

    Mia – welcome, and thanks, go to you too πŸ™‚ As you said – we’re social creatures and it’s human nature to want to know more about who’s talking/writing.

    Rich – I look forward to the results of your mulling.

    Anne – I hadn’t heard of the Citizendium before, or that Wikipedia frowned on neologisms. How ARE the new words that people coin going to be defined if you can’t talk about them? I mean, “blog” itself was a neologism a few years back, yet Wikipedia has a Blog page…

    Nils – I might have made it more of an issue than it is. I guess it depends what you’re working with. I do like how you’ve separated out what you will/won’t register for however. Mildly depressing that you managed in two paragraphs to say what I took 3000 words, but hey-ho πŸ˜‰

  9. How ARE the new words that people coin going to be defined if you canÒ€ℒt talk about them?

    As the Wikipedia page on the subject states, Wikipedia’s purpose is not to define neologisms. The term must be in wide use in reputable published material to merit inclusion.

    Which is why “shocklog” was not allowed, as its inclusion was an attempt to “coin” the term and make its use more widespread. (From what I understand, at least.)

    It’s a little queer perhaps, but it makes sense.

  10. I think now is a good time to say I really admire the way you write about things. It’s how I’d like my writing to be but it just always ends up a boring mess… Thank you!

  11. *blush* thank you Renee.

    I’d give tips if I could, but I just write how I write. This is probably going to sound sickening, but I just usually to throw the words at the computer screen and they tend to stick in a fairly decent order…

    Things get better if you practice though. I will say that forcing myself to write regularly here on Bright Meadow has definitely sharpened how I write and helped me to find my personal style that I’m most comfortable with.

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