<CPOV> The Wikipedia Cult

Mathieu ONeil mathieu.oneil at anu.edu.au
Thu Jun 3 18:05:20 CEST 2010

One way in which WP might be seen to operate as a cult is in fact common to other online projects (such as free software): it was explicitly set up against a certain way of producing code / culture, i.e. proprietary businesses, such as Britannica etc. So there are enemies which help negatively structure the project. The difference with WP (I think I wrote this a month ago on this very list, could be wrong) is that there anonymity leads to vandalism or manipulation leads to a siege mentality leads to heavy-handed policing leads to cases of injustice or abuses of authority by cliques etc leads to apostates (?) who leave and denounce the project. Plus, there is a charismatic leader who wields enormous power... At the same time I don't know that there is a really coherent belief system shared by members of the so-called Cabal other than to Protect the Project from Evildoers... so not sure if the term "cult" is appropriate as a coherent shared belief system would seem like a pretty necessary element of a cult...

----- Original Message -----
From: Seth Finkelstein <sethf at sethf.com>
Date: Thursday, June 3, 2010 5:28 pm
Subject: Re: <CPOV> The Wikipedia Cult
To: cpov at listcultures.org
Cc: T.Koenig at surrey.ac.uk

> 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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Dr Mathieu O'Neil
Adjunct Research Fellow
Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute
College of Arts and Social Science
The Australian National University
email: mathieu.oneil[at]anu.edu.au
web: http://adsri.anu.edu.au/people/visitors/mathieu.php

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