<CPOV> The Wikipedia Cult

Seth Finkelstein sethf at sethf.com
Thu Jun 3 17:29:04 CEST 2010

On Fri, Jun 04, 2010 at 12:19:03AM +1000, nathaniel tkacz wrote:
> seth,
> if the term "cult" is too attractive to be left aside, i think it would be
> useful to pose the question: how does wikipedia transform the notion of cult? 

	Easy - it's the first truly successful *online* cult. This is
where there really is something interesting going on - not unknown
in the abstract, but new implementations are possible due to the
scaling and efficiencies from electronic communications.

	For example, where physical cults may create alienation and
isolation by trying to control the person's environment, Wikipedia can
work by funneling in those who are *already* alienated and isolated in
their lives. Now, it's not that physical cults can't recruit. Of
course they do. But physical recruitment is a labor-intensive effort
(getting someone to stand in an airport or on a streetcorner all day
is difficult). If you can "advertise", worldwide - suddenly new
methods of getting pre-existing vulnerable people to come to *you*
become cost-effective.

	This seems to me so much more helpful in analysis that the
standard line of saying a cult is X, and X doesn't fit, therefore ...

[Tedious note: I *did not* say "Every member is alienated and isolated"]

> one thing about cults historically, for example, is that almost
> everyone who isn't in the cult thinks the cult is crazy. 

	I'd say that's somewhat begging the age-old question of the
difference between "cult" and "acceptable religion".

> with wikipedia this isn't that case. only a very small minority of
> people are critical of wikipedia and most think it's great
> (regardless of what you or i think).  this kind of thought
> experiment seems more interesting for me.

	Indeed, Wikipedia gets good press. So what?

> regarding your description of wikipedia as exploitative and akin to
> sweatshop labour, i have to strongly disagree. the realities of sweatshop
> labour are a million miles from wikipedia. [... snip]

	Sigh. The sentence was "Whereas the reality *IS CLOSER TO* an
exploitative cult running on sweatshop labour." Not "is exactly and
precisely and fits perfectly as".

	People really seems to dislike that sentence. If I wrote
something along the lines of "The government of Freedonia is closer
to a mafia gang run by a murderous thug, than a happy extended family
presided over by a loving patriarch", I don't think I'd get reactions
like "The realities of a mafia gang are so different from Freedonia".
(though maybe I would, and there's a lesson there)

> what is clear is that modern, industrial paradigms that clearly demarcate
> between work and leisure no longer apply.

	No, there's now more money to be made trying to convince
people to do free work.

[combining replies]
> T.Koenig at surrey.ac.uk
> The term "cult" might be popular in the press, but it has not caught
> on in the social sciences, for very good reasons.

	I will provisionally accept your assertion that the term
"cult" would be inappropriate in an academic social science paper.

> You can't "demystify" something with a fairly mysterious concept,
> such as a cult.

	However, here I must disagree, and I believe you are making
the perfect the enemy of the good. In the context of opposing
technological mystification, I find the imperfect but evocative
phrasing of "Wikipedia is a cult" seems to work about as well as
can be expected for a concise counter-argument.

Seth Finkelstein  Consulting Programmer  sethf at sethf.com  http://sethf.com
See _Guardian_ columns at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/sethfinkelstein

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