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The Broken Wiki Theory

Filed in: culture, Web, Fri, Jun 24 2005 15:55 PT

The LA Times editorial-wiki experiment was a bold one. And, of course, that’s why it failed so quickly. Jeff Jarvis holds out hope for its return, and so do I. I think that what happened is an example of a pattern put forth over 20 years ago.

The Broken Windows Theory, made popular in a 1982 article in Atlantic magazine, is instructive here. In that article, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling suggested that broken windows in a neighborhood, left unrepaired, embolden bad actors to break more windows. It’s a snowball effect which attracts criminal elements and destroys the value inherent in any given community.

It’s the same with wikis, only easier, and with robotic window-breakers. Public wikis with broad appeal need to be aware of the value their space presents. I think that deep down, we all knew it was going to be hacked. The Times made a big splash with that announcement, and in doing so, they made themselves a much more valuable short-term target. Doubtless, lots of people started breaking windows, which were repaired quickly and silently by the administrators. But then, someone broke a window, and nobody fixed it. That’s when it snowballed.

Jarvis is right that they should have gotten some experienced guardians from Wikipedia. The Times has suspended the wiki indefinitely, but I want them to know that it’s not going to be as much of a liability as they would surmise from the first three days of activity. They got all manner of link cannons pointed in their direction at once. In time, that is destined to die down, as the bad actors move on to the next easy target.

What is left is to find more robust defenses for wiki spam and other attacks. the LA Times experiment says the technology isn’t ready to be self-cleaning, but it could eventually be simple enough that an administrator could watch over several high-profile wikis, protecting against attacks that an automated system misses. A few human guardians and some (existing) technological wizardry would do great things for projects like those attempted by the LA Times.

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