tommorris.org

Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.


Citizendium Editorial Council: resignation statement

For regular readers of my blog: I am using my blog as a place to put this only because there doesn’t seem a better place to speak my mind openly and freely without having my honestly written words getting mangled or removed for being “intemperate” or “inflammatory” or whatnot.

I hereby resign from the Citizendium Editorial Council. I wish the remaining members luck; they will need it.

Before providing the reasons for my resignation, let me first note that I am fully in support of the founding ideals of the Citizendium project. I do think that Wikipedia needs some competition. The BSDs and Linux compete without much animosity.1 I fully support the principle of the real name policy and I agree that experts should be given a slightly elevated role in the running of certain open culture and wiki projects.

My resigning from the Editorial Council does not mean I intend to leave the Citizendium project as an author. As long as the Citizendium project respects and welcomes my contributions2 and does not waste my time with crazy bureaucratic bullshit, I will freely contribute my knowledge to it as I do for a number of other wikis and open culture projects.

My support for the principles of Citizendium – although not the often heavy-handed implementation of those principles – comes from experience of the open source community: in many open source projects, you have to earn your stripes before being given responsibilities like the ability to commit code to the trunk repository. Contributions that come from experts working with their real name are valued more than fly-by-night anonymous contributors with goofy names like “1337 h4x0rxorz!” The people who I have worked with in the open source community have, for the most part, acted professionally, responsibly, like adults, using real names and welcoming contributions, judging them in a open but meritocratic way. Code I push up to community repositories has to be high quality. If it isn’t, I cannot complain if it does not make it into the released project. Code I have pushed into community repositories has often been worked on for weeks before being merged with the main repository. The high use of unit testing and other similar quality assurance techniques in open source software modules is a testament to an increasing professionalism which I heartily support.

I reject the claims of some Wikipedians that we cannot have real names and the like in wiki projects. If developers in open source can do it, those trying to build encyclopedias and open culture/open knowledge should be able to do it too. The only justification given for not having it seems to be the “I don’t want my [boss or evil government overlord] to know I’m writing about [controversial topic here]”. This doesn’t seem to be enough of a justification for the cost of anonymity (and, well, you can make the odd exception). The communities I work in tend to favour this and achieve it without requiring it: open source communities, standards bodies and so on.

No, I am resigning from the Editorial Council simply because I believe the council to be dysfunctional and the current governance model is not sustainable and is also out of step with the needs of the community at this point in time. Some members of the council have attempted to pin the blame on Howard C. Berkowitz (and, more recently, on myself). I have worked with Howard on the main wiki and he has been pleasant, helpful and professional if a little long-winded at times (generally, pleasantly so). His contributions have been outstanding and are obviously a testament to a life of experience. Others inform me that Howard is not like this towards them. They hint at various things but do not provide any evidence for their assertions. I’m not participating in a whisper campaign: present evidence and resolve things openly but don’t keep the flame of personal bickering alive with veiled accusations, secretive e-mail threads and a back and forth of meta-accusations.

In EC-2010-013, Howard has been singled out for reasons unexplained. As I noted in my comments, the punishment does not fit the supposed crime; and no justification is given for the punishment beyond simply that Howard is hard to work with. I’m betting if you asked House Republicans if they had found Nancy Pelosi easy to work with, they probably would have said “no”. But they didn’t have the opportunity to simply vote her out – only the voters get that right in a democracy, not the politicians.

Every single decision we have attempted to make has been sullied and distorted by a personal argument I frankly haven’t got the time or patience to mediate or even navigate. Tantek Çelik calls this kind of thing a Denial of Productivity attack. The tasks I have made a priority for myself are reforming the workgroup system, resolving the problems with pseudoscience and figuring out if we can reform Citizendium policy so we can make good on Larry Sanger’s rather too optimistic promise of 100,000 articles by 2012. It was always a long shot to begin with: an optimistic pipe dream for most of us, not a realistic expectation. Something to hope for, a positive goal to aim for. But once you deal with dysfunctional processes for long enough, you lose hope. I lost mine weeks ago. I’ve stuck with the process because I feel a sense of loyalty to the Citizendium community, and some sense of duty to those who voted for me in the perhaps naïve belief that the Editorial Council might not be a total clusterfuck.

I’ve had to fight back against the imposition of absolutely pointless bureaucracy. It has been like the scene from Douglas Adams’ “Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy” where they task the hair-dressers with discovering fire, so they form the Fire Discovery Subcommittee who then decide they need to do consumer focus groups to decide how best to market fire. Certain people in the Citizendium community take all our talk of “democracy” and “country” and “republic” and “citizenship” to be more than a metaphor and turn what should be a relatively lightweight process - managing a damn wiki – and make it look like something out of Yes, Prime Minister.

When I first started on the Editorial Council, I attempted to try and get people to start working on finding solutions to a variety of practical problems so we could get down to business. Shortly thereafter, an e-mail got accidentally sent to me from one member of the EC to another (I shall not name names: I have some class) asking them to please pay attention to what I was doing as I was “trying to push my ideas”. How dare I push my ideas? Of course, I wasn’t doing anything of the sort. I have been elected with a mandate to try and fight for the things the electorate voted me in for. Instead, I was trying to push the bureaucratic clutter out the way so we could get on with some actual substantive issues.

If I had been “pushing my ideas”, so fucking what? It is a wiki, not a country, despite certain delusions to the contrary. And I know about delusions of grandeur first-hand: when I was an undergraduate, I was on the Student Union.

They needn’t have worried. In the weeks since I was elected, I haven’t had a chance to push any ideas of any consequence. What I have been subject to is repeated, abusive e-mails between other EC members. Where in the Charter does it say e-mails consisting of the words “JUST FUCK OFF” count as intelligent, reasoned discourse in leading the community? I bet you at certain points certain people on the U.S. Supreme Court want to tell Scalia to just fuck off. Part of being a grown up is that you at least squabble about grown up things. Or better yet, you don’t squabble. You disagree without being disagreeable as the saying goes.

Instead of representing a calm and rational approach to problem solving and decision making, the e-mails in my EC folder represent an shrill, insane, paranoid view of the world. Every time a critical message goes up on the forum or on RationalWiki or wherever, paranoid scuffling goes on. Maude Flanders’ famous outburst of “Think of the children! We must do something! Anything!” suddenly becomes the rallying cry. Posts start disappearing and e-mails start circulating from people. The Constabulary get called in, and the cycle of pointless, soul-crushing paranoid stupidity starts again. Even the threat of a lawsuit has been suggested at least once. Every opinion is a threat to be counteracted or suppressed, not an opportunity to get community feedback. Raise any doubt and you are accused of being an ‘obstructionist’. Raise any doubt and someone will try and work out what your secret RationalWiki codename is.3 It’s like Marvin the Paranoid Android after a particularly bad drug experience and an X-Files marathon. Not a productive work environment.

Wikipedia and other projects have the principle of “assume good faith”. It is often hard to live by. The Editorial Council seems to have the principle “assume everyone is an alien from a distant star system who, in proposing [some matter] is secretly trying to take over the process so they rape our children!”

The whole process has become such a huge waste of time, and it has been at the worst moment imaginable. Citizendium has some real big problems that have bottled up over poor management, both editorial, financial and logistical. I’ve been complaining about the Healing Arts problem for months on end. I’ve been pointing out that we could do with changing the design for ages. And every time I’ve been told “oh, don’t worry, once the charter is in place and we elect the Councils, we can resolve all these issues”. And that is a load of bollocks. I’m on the fucking Council! Can I do anything about it now? Absolutely not. We’ve got to wait for something else first. And that something else is the spectacle of toddlers squabbling, then not allowing anyone to resolve their squabbling because it was done in a private e-mail or for seventeen other bureaucratic reasons.

And for what? A wiki with 15,000 odd articles and a few hundred contributors at most? What was so funny about the Fire Discovery Subcommittee is that committees are a luxury you get once you have a society stable enough for them. Look at any successful open source project and you’ll find few if any committees or Councils or quorums or any of that faff. That is a feature, not a bug. I’m not saying we don’t need those things. But we don’t need them now. What we need are sensible, mature people who can make a decision without drama and bickering. Such people exist, and they are leaving the project in droves. What are left are a few people hanging on to hope (and a fair bit of paranoia too) and a lot of bureaucracy trolls.

While Wikipedia may go too far towards anarchy, Citizendium has gone too far towards bureaucracy way too early. Numerous times, I have suggested that we ought to make policies less heavy and less complicated, but reserve the right to increase the complexity as and when it is required. Take registration: it is far too complicated at the moment. I can see why, if we had about ten times the number of contributors, the current registration process might be justified. But we don’t. We are struggling to recruit authors. So, you know, in any sane community, we’d lift the registration requirements to allow more people to sign up just a teeny bit until we reached a point where vandalism and other problems with a lack of real names became an issue then clamp it back down. But, no, when such ideas are suggested, certain people just get more fundamentalist about rules and procedure and less and less tolerant of disagreement. This is not helping.

I have been putting off resigning for a long time. I’ve considered it numerous times in private e-mail with others. I like to think I’m one of the good guys. I’ve been trying my hardest to push Citizendium in the right direction. But personal disputes are too strong and our bureaucracy enables this self-destructive lunacy rather than discourages it. My only problem with resigning is that I will sadly be passing on the responsibility to someone else. I wish them luck: as I said, they will need it.

There’s plenty of people I respect in the Citizendium project. Though I (apparently) disagree4 with her on much, I got a lot of respect for the hard work Aleta Curry puts in. I’ve disagreed with – and been very rude to on occasion – Anthony Sebastian, but he’s a good guy. Even more so with D. Matt Innis: we really disagree on alternative medicine, but he has always acted maturely and intelligently. Chris Key is a good guy. And Daniel Mietchen has been a pleasure to work with and to bounce ideas off: he is exactly the right person to be in charge of Citizendium. And I’m glad I’ve had an opportunity to work with people like Pat Palmer and some of the Eduzendium students. There’s plenty more. I hope to continue working with some of the intelligent and incredibly helpful people in the Citizendium community who have been charitable with their time and wisdom. I am not a grudge-bearing type. I do not wish to destroy Citizendium, and nothing would please me more than if the site were to resolve its issues and become a viable project and do all the things it has set out to.

I’d like to conclude by thanking everyone who voted for me in the elections. I am proud to have served the Citizendium community even though events outside of my control have made my continued presence on the council impossible to sustain. I have no intention of bringing Citizendium down: it is on a self-destructive path already and requires no outside assistance. I do hope that the problems which have plagued Citizendium for years now are resolved sensibly and maturely. I want to be wrong about Citizendium because, well, I’m personally invested in the project having contributed a lot of material to it. But I cannot endure any more drama or bullshit; I cannot be party to any more crazy paranoid accusations, any more secret e-mails, any more headaches.

There comes a time when one has to say enough is enough. And for me, now is that time. I hope my words prompt people more enamoured with bureaucracy and personal infighting to put that to one side and do what is right. I wash my hands of the problem.5

Good luck everyone!

  1. Unfortunately, Citizendium may be more like GNU Hurd than like FreeBSD in this analogy…

  2. I hope I can depart from the Council on good terms and still be a productive community member. If, as a result of my statements here, I find myself rapidly banned and condemned as a heretic (my own personal odds are about 40% on Constabulary action at the moment), you’ll know that the tolerance for dissent from community members has been lost. Feel free to consider me a test case of whether Citizendium is too far up its own arse or not.

  3. Yes, my questioning of the homeopathy situation has caused people to suggest that I have a secret account on RationalWiki with absolutely no evidence. I have a RationalWiki account: the username is ‘Tom Morris’. But, Doctor Dark, you’ll be pleased to know that I have been reliably informed that in at least one Citizendium user’s paranoid fantasies, you and I are the same person.

  4. I’m told I disagree with Aleta, although I cannot explain what I am supposed to disagree with her on as we have not had an actual chance to hash out our differences on anything of substance yet. But, as I said, I respect Aleta’s hard work even if I am supposed to disagree with her or something.

  5. On a personal level, I will be able to spend more time programming, working on my research proposal and vegging out in front of the TV (gimme that dopamine hit!). This will be a much more useful use of my time than the Editorial Council.