Bureaucracies aren't made, they just kind of appear

25 January 2007

One thing struck me about Microsoft's wrangling with Wikipedia over the entry on its XML file formats. The procedure by which people try to change entries that involve them is surprisingly close to that used by traditional publishers, whether of newspapers or encyclopedias. That is, it would be if the publisher had a bureaucratic system based on China's.

Want a correction or clarification in a newspaper? You complain to an editor or ombudsman. There is some discussion that might lead to a correction, depending on how good the claim is. Or they tell you to go away.

According to Wikipedia supremo Jimmy Wales, if you want something about you or something you are directly involved with corrected on Wikipedia - which anybody can edit as long as they're not somebody - you complain on the talk page and an editor will do something about it. Or they tell you to go away. However, it's all a bit like dealing with local bureaucrats in rural China - each one does it differently, and attitudes can change dramatically in the space of days, although they will refer to the same rule book and come back with some obscure answer like: "WP:FOYC". In this case, the answer, apparently, was to go away and write a white paper. Next week? Fill in Form ZZ3BQXL in triplicate and have it countersigned by an accredited software developer.

The evolution of Wikipedia from egalitarian vision to unpaid bureaucracy has been fascinating to watch. Its value as an accurate encyclopedia may be questionable but as social experiment it's wonderful. It has compressed social developments that took years in other industries into a matter of a few years - and demonstrated how bureaucracies self-organise.

It also acts as an argument against Wales's idea of having newspapers host wikis for news they otherwise can't touch. In his interview with Oliver Luft of Journalism.co.uk, as he talks grandly how doing it is all about people, he seems unaware that the model he proposes for tomorrow's newspaper looks, every day, more like the existing model. Except that people don't get paid. So, it's more like a British local newspaper then.