Wikipedia’s Technological Obscurification: Three ways Wikipedia keeps 99% of the population from participating

We’ve been talking a lot about the Wikipedia recently here at, and I wanted to make my podcast from last week a little more clear. I spoke of technological obsurification–the process of using obscure technology to keep people from participating.

Having spent seven days at the Wikimania and hacking days last year in Boston I’ve learned a lot about the insular culture of Wikipedia, how they make decisions, and how they block participation. Yes, you read that last part correctly. The Wikipedia is currently designed to lower participation so it is easier to manage.

Now, I’m not saying it’s wrong to limit participation in Wikipedia–perhaps that’s what necessary to keep the project on track. However, I think we should be really honest about the fact that Wikipedia is not an open system–at least not open in the sense that anyone can participate. Let’s look at just three examples:

1. Wikipedia pages have become increasingly complex and Wikipedia doesn’t support a WYSIWYG editor. WYSIWYG stands for “what you see is what you get,” and that means that as you edit if you make something bold or underline you see bold or underline–just like Microsoft Word. Wikipedia doesn’t use a WYSIWYG because if they did more people could edit the pages–people without technology skills–and that would make the entire system collapse–at least according to the folks at the Wikipedia conference I attended.

For example, in this image you can see what it’s like to edit the George W. Bush page:

As you can see you need code in Wiki Markup language in order to edit this page.

2. The Wikipedia uses “Discussion pages” to reach consensus, and these pages are also coded in mediaWiki so that 99% of people can’t figure them out. Here is what the discussion page for George W. Bush looks like, and as you can see it is much more complicated than a Threaded Message board. The Wikipedia could easily have message boards by now–just like they could easily have a WYSIWYG editor–but by adding it there would be too much participation and the system would collapse.

3. The Wikipeda uses IRC chat, which 99% of folks don’t know how to use, in order to discuss the inner workings of Wikipedia. IRC chat typically requires client software and to use it you have to learn how to use all kinds of archaic commands. The Wikipedia could easily use web-based chat, but it doesn’t because–again–it would create too much participation and Wikipedia would collapse. Here is a look at the IRC director page–your mom ain’t gonna figure this one out.

Those are just three simple examples of how the Wikipedia community block participation through its use of obscure technology. Is this wrong? Perhaps not, but we should all be clear that Wikipedia is edited by and run by folks with significant technical knowledge.

Was this intentional? I don’t think so, I think the Wikipedia has grown so quickly and has had a lack of resources for so long (don’t get me started on the advertising debate that would solve this) that they have not been able to keep up with the growth.

I’m convinced that the Wikipedia is so understaffed that if they did provide simple message boards, a WYSI editor, and web-based chat rooms, that they would be so inundated with participation that no one would be able to keep up.

This is why it is so critical that the Wikipedia take the steps that Firefox/Mozzila has to make the organization stable. There should–and could be–30 to 50 full-time developers at Wikipedia getting paid to clean up the software and fix the systems, but because some folks don’t want even OPT-IN advertising there aren’t.

As the Wikipedia becomes more and more important, it is also becoming more and more insular. Participation is getting harder and harder for normal folks, and the system is very close to the breaking point in my estimation.

Now is the time to act to increase participation and access to the system in my mind.

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