Essays on Technology and Culture

Tragedy of the Wikimedia Commons

I recently came across an article by Kevin Morris on DailyDot about how the Wikimedia Commons has become a hub of amateur pornography. [1] It’s better if you read the piece yourself, but to summarize the summary: people have been posting porn to the Commons, and any attempt to regulate it by the larger Wikimedia organization have been rebuffed by the Commons own leadership. While I have no problem with pornography in general, the piece struck me as illustrating an interesting dichotomy in the conceptualization of “free speech” on the Internet, and the spaces for it. The goal of Wikimedia Commons is to be a repository of freely licensed images that would be of value to the educational role of Wikimedia, which is an admirable endeavor. This also means that, by any measure, using it as a host for amateur pornography is mission creep to say the least.

However, there’s a larger discussion to be had about the organizational structures that surround large Internet communities, which includes Wikimedia and its projects. There is a considerable organizational structure within Wikimedia. Though any person can edit anything (with certain exceptions), other users are given power to be administrators, locking down controversial articles, establishing editorial guidelines and more. There are also “Bureaucrats” who appoint administrators, and exert greater control over a project’s mission. A Commons user with the screen name Russavia, who supports the mass of porn on the Commons, is one of those elected “Bureaucrats” and has a lot of support from other Commons users—enough so that Jimmy Wales, the “God-King” of Wikimedia has no control or say in the project. It’s politics, Internet-style, pure and simple, and it all comes down to a sense of what the “mission” of the project is.

By all accounts, Wikimedia as a whole is a very Libertarian (with a capital “L”) endeavor. They have established a baseline set of guidelines for what can, and cannot be done, and allowed extreme freedom within them. There’s no room on Wikitravel for an article about rock music, except in the context of famous rock clubs in a city. On the other hand, there’s no room in Wikipedia for a crowdsourced guide to the best rock clubs in that city. The people who have taken an interest in these non-Commons Wikimedia projects have an interest in building something with a specific mission in mind, and if you want to do something else, they’ll nudge you towards where it belongs. It seems that the Commons, for some reason, has attracted the “small-l” libertarian camp, for whom the rule of the system are suspect—and have leveraged those rules to pull off a coup.

This is an example in how not to do community moderation. By any measure, at some point in the Wikimedia Commons past, there was an inflection point where pornography was becoming an increasingly large part of the content generated. Someone, somewhere, didn’t either seize the moment, or tried to seize it too late. The end result is the mess you see before you. However, I can understand how it happened. In a community of geeks and by geeks, and particularly geeks with a bent towards libertarian attitudes, it’s often better to take a soft approach to addressing issues of inappropriate content. Further muddying the waters is that the line between educational materials and pornography can be fuzzy. Ask any thirteen year old boy in the pre-Internet age who found a National Geographic magazine with pictures of topless women, or the “What’s Happening to my Body?” Book for Girls in the library.

At some point, however, it becomes clear that users are posting pictures that contain explicit material less for the educational value. After a certain point, you’ve learned all you can about human sexual anatomy that you can from still images or short videos. The questions are: how does one handle an abuse of the service, and do the structures in place allow for users with authority to take control of the situation? Without being involved, it may be likely that the answer to the latter is “No.” To paraphrase Douglas Adams, "A common mistake that people make when trying to design rules to keep people from being assholes is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete assholes.” [2]

When we create rules and organizational structures, in real life and online, we tend to assume that everyone involved will be a rational actor—or at least as rational as the people creating those rules and structures. In doing so, we too often fail to plan for the irrational people who seek to bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate those rules and structures for their own gain. Let alone those who just want to watch the world burn. It’s what leads to political corruption, nepotism, gerrymandering, and embezzlement in real political structures, and what leads to “small-l” libertarian coups in the digital world.

One of the great things about the Internet, and its democratizing effect on communication, is how easy and inexpensive it is to create your own Utopian Paradise (no matter your sociopolitical leanings) and invite your like-minded friends. However, there’s no glory as a rabble-rouser in taking your ball and going “home”. I expect as online communities become more commonplace, we’ll see both heavier-handed moderation, and revolts and revolutions in the style of Wikimedia Commons. The communities that succeed will have to strike a balance between guiding its members towards a defined and common goal, while still allowing autonomy and a voice to the dissenting—and an open door for those who want to tear it down to be shunted out through. The details are in the implementation, of course.

  1. The story contains no actual porn, but does feature some graphic language and descriptions that may be frowned upon in the workplace.  ↩

  2. Here’s the original quote, from the fifth Hitchhiker’s book, Mostly Harmless.  ↩