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June 19, 2005


Hans van Deun


the way you describe it, Wikipedia encourages people to write their own sections ("sub-entries") with their point of view on controversial topics. This is not true. Above all, Wikipedia encourages objective ("npov") articles. If consensus is impossible to achieve, as a last resort separate sections may be created detailing the viewpoints of both sides. But in those sections, it is still essential to maintain an objective voice. For example: "supporters, such as [[insert prominent supporter here]] assert that...", and a bit later: "[[insert prominent dissenting ideology here]] does not believe this is the case, but rather that..."
From your description this wasn't very clear :)


You've nailed it. By Friday morning it was clear that a single wiki wouldn't work because a highly charged opinion piece must fork into as many sub-branches as needed to achieve some sort of consensus with a cluster of readers.

Yes, this will result in many dead ends and irrelevant rants. But with a collaborative filtering mechanism (Slashdot-style mod points? Amazon-style feedback?), the site could separate the few kernals of wheat from the buckets of chaff.

Here's what I posted to the editorial desk of the LAT wikitorial the morning it first appeared. I hope they regroup and push forward into a Wikitorial 2.0.


Distinct Points of View Require Branching Wiki

Kudos to the Times for the experiment. Though the current version is fatally chaotic, this experiment has engaged me in the editorial page again. I hope it is the beginning of real two-way conversation and engagement with the community.

Wikipedia works because reasonable people can usually agree on the facts. Since there are more reasonable people than unreasonable people, Wikipedia self-polices and weeds out the bozos.

But with opinion, reasonable people will disagree. An incendiary topic like the Iraq war, or any other topic worth arguing about, is likely to devolve into a battle of the fringe elements where passions are hotter.

So a wiki probably isn't the best vehicle to track the ebb and flow as the fringe elements battle it out over opinion. It will be next to impossible to get the community to coalesce around one coherent body of content and then polish the rough edges. The content will never fuse or unite. Nuance will be bulldozed by extremism.

A possible solution would be to allow the content to branch into multiple revisions, each revision being maintained by a cluster of readers with similar opinions. Each branch off the original would allow a point of view to be debated and merged. If that cluster couldn't agree on a significant point, that branch could subdivide so that distinct opinions could be refined and elucidated.

A single wiki is a powerful tool that allows the community to agree. When the community is divided, we need to explore those divisions -- not mash them all into one revision. We need to spawn branches of the wiki until we can achieve an equilibrium of opinion.

And by providing a forum where one could view all the branches and sub-branches, one could better understand the diversity of opinion. Imagine ranking each branch according to page views, Amazon-style reader feedback, or Slashdot-style moderation (http://slashdot.org/faq/com-mod.shtml#cm520) to show which branches have more interest than others. What an innovative and powerful tool for community discussion and insight that would be!

This experiment may be a "failure," in its current incarnation, but it's just version 1.0. If the Times can build on lessons learned here and foster clusters of opinion by branching the wiki, it could open an exciting new world of community and collaboration.

--Mahlon 09:13, 17 Jun 2005 (PDT)

Jack Krupansky

I suggest that doing such open-ended "research" in the open market is a clearly *stupid* idea.

It would be far better for the LA Times to fund a handful of academic research projects on the topic of self-organizing dissent forums, and let some unbiased researchers do a healthy number of controlled experiments using subjects screened for a range of divsity of opinion, and see what "modes" of dissent and coping mechanisms develop, and *then* suggest an RFP for tools to support those modes and coping mechanisms.

Maybe in the end, wiki technology might meet the needs of such an RFP, maybe not. I suspect that the addition of a first-class true forking capability for wikis might do the trick, but it would need to be a clearly obvious feature, even for "novice" users, and I can personally attest that no such user-visible capability was present in the LA Times wikitorial "experiment."

Much research remains to be done on the concept of unmoderated documentation of dissent.

Years ago, before the web was even around, I came up with an idea I called "Dynamic Coalitions" or "SuperPoll", which was intended to simultaneously allow everybody to have their own opinion of questions (including their own variations of the questions themselves), but also to enable the online formation of coalitions so consensus could bubble up (and down and up in an iterative, dynamic manner) without in any way restricting individual opinion. I never pursued it, but now I wish it was available so that silly efforts such as the LA Times "experiment" would not waste people's time and energy.

Participatory editorials are clearly worthy of our support, but such ad-hoc "experiments" as the LA Times Wikitorial are truly worthless, except as marketing gimmicks. Unless of course their failure focuses attention on needed research efforts.

-- Jack Krupansky

robert  Paterson

Just a "Fork" on a "Fork". I have just finished Neal Stephenson's book Snow Crash. An important arc of the book is how language naturally diverges - are we designed to diverge in ideas? He makes another point that the founders of modern religions intuitively acknowledged this "drift" and made the literal interpretaion of a "book" so central.

So is the idea of a wiki building consensus an unnatural idea in the context of millions of years of development where humans use langauage and ideas as a method of distinguishing difference? Distinguising difference that we all seem compelled to find in our struggle for identity?

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