This is the first in a series of reflective blog posts about online learning at Wikiversity. In Part I want to discuss the topic of censorship at Wikiversity and its impact on learning. Part II is about bad blocks imposed on Wikiversity participants who never violated any Wikiversity policy. The following screenshot provides a convenient starting point:
The image above shows that the Wikiversity page about censorship at Wikiversity was deleted at 5:32 on 16 October, 2009. This was a great moment in online learning. Why is discussion of censorship censored at Wikiversity?
Related reading: “Identifying and understanding the problems of Wikipedia’s peer governance: The case of inclusionists versus deletionists” by Vasilis Kostakis.
Vasilis Kostakis mentioned the fact that decisions about wiki page deletion at Wikipedia are often swayed by notability concerns. We can ask: Is notability important for decisions about content deletion at Wikiversity? Interestingly, almost four years after its inception, the Wikiversity community still does not have official guidelines for making content deletion decisions. If a Wikiversity participant is interested in learning about a topic, should it matter if the topic is “notable”? Would it be unwelcome if someone had a novel idea and wanted to explore it at Wikiversity? No. Wikiversity even allows original research.
However, some Wikimedians have never been comfortable with the inclusion of original thinking at Wikiversity and some Wikiversity project participants have even suggested banning from Wikiversity any topic not found in the curriculum of conventional educational institutions. Other Wikiversity participants think that Wikiversity’s scope should be broad and defined by the interests of its participants: if you are interested in learning about a topic then you should be able to explore that topic at Wikiversity. Such differences in opinion about desirable content at Wikiversity lead to conflict and have contributed to paralysis in the Wikiversity self-government process. Is free and open learning too dangerous, is free thinking too radical of an idea to find a place inside the Wikimedia Foundation?
The Wikiversity:Censorship page was not in the main namespace, it was in the “project namespace”. The “project namespace” at Wikiversity is named after the Wikiversity wiki project, so it is called the “Wikivesity namespace” and the names for all of its wiki pages begin the “Wikiversity:” prefix. The project namespace is a collection of “meta” pages: “The Wikiversity namespace is a namespace containing pages that provide information about Wikiversity.” A typical page in Wikiversity’s project namespace is Wikiversity:Namespaces, which describes the various types of wiki pages that are grouped for convenience in the various “namespaces”.
We can ask why some Wikiversity participants found it useful to create and edit the “Wikiversity:Censorship” page and why other Wikiversity participants found it necessary to delete this particular page. The community discussion leading up to the deletion of the page can be read here. Additional discussion of censorship at Wikiversity (discussion which was itself censored) is on this talk page. When did censorship of Wikiversity begin?
The roots of censorship at Wikiversity can be traced to the first year of Wikiversity project. The early community of learners at Wikiversity was interested in setting itself apart from Wikipedia. For example, rather than have “administrators“, Wikiversity has “custodians“. An attempt was made to use “rounded corners” for buttons in the graphical user interface of Wikiversity webpages. For example: the image near the top of this blog post shows “rounded corners” on the “create” button. A Wikipedian complained about the use of rounded corners at Wikiversity and so Wikiversity was not allowed to use rounded corners. This was an incredibly trivial example of outside influence being applied to Wikiversity, but it was a sign of things to come and it started the process of Wikiversity participants first noticing that Wikiversity was never going to be free of unwanted and disruptive interference from Wikipedia.
The conflicting points of view with respect to content removal at Wikiversity began early with the “problem” of “red links“, as mentioned in my blog post, Deletionists vs content development. In the early years of Wikipedia there were many “red links” in Wikipedia’s encyclopedia articles and they were useful for showing which new pages were needed. People saw red links and wrote the needed articles and the links turned blue. With time, Wikipedian’s came to view red links as a problem and they were banished from Wikipedia. An early symptom of “Wikipedia Disease” infecting Wikiversity was people who tried to imposed the relatively mature Wikipedia project’s dislike of red links to the brand-new Wikiversity. Thus, quite early in the existence of Wikiversity the question became: is it possible for the Wikiversity community to do what it needs to do for its mission without interference from Wikipedians imposing inappropriate and unwelcome rules from Wikipedia on Wikiversity?
This question began to grow in importance when banned Wikipdians started to participate at Wikiversity. Why can’t Wikiversity participants who follow Wikiversity rules be allowed to participate at Wikiversity? Enraged Wikipedians began to descend on Wikiversity and demand that anyone banned from participating at Wikipedia also be banned from participating Wikiversity. This kind of Wikimedia cross-project ban “policy” is still enforced today. In other words, the Wikiversity community does not control the fundamental decision of who is a welcome participant at Wikiversity. That decision is made by outsiders who impose their decisions on the Wikiversity community, without discussion (see). Similarly, decisions about page deletion have been imposed on the Wikiversity community from outside. This is unwelcome censorship.
Conflict at Wikiversity over censorship first came to a boil when Wikipedians decided to prevent Wikiversity participants from studying problems at Wikipedia. For example, a Wikiversity study of a particular violation of Wikipedia’s policy on biographies of living persons (BLP) was attacked by Wikipedians who were responsible for that policy violation’s existence and long continuance at Wikipedia. An attempt was made to delete the entire Wikipedia Ethics project, which explored Wikipedia as an example of online media and how editors at Wikipedia publish false claims about people. A Wikimedian who participated in the “Wikipedia Ethics” project had previously tried to correct a violation of Wikipedia’s BLP policy and for his trouble he was banned from both Wikipedia and Wikiversity (more details about this are described in Part II of this series).
Emboldened by externally-imposed and out-of-process censorship of Wikiversity, the censorship of Wikiversity was soon extended to efforts by policy-violating Wikiversity sysops to prevent the policy violations of sysops from being discussed by the community. By late 2008, the “hostile take-over” of Wikiversity by participants suffering from “Wikipedia Disease” was complete. According to an odious and unwritten rule, it is now a blockable offense at Wikiversity to discuss the censorship of Wikiversity. A large number of honest Wikiversity participants were disgusted by these shenanigans and left the project, leaving it in the hands of a gang of thugs who enjoy participating in the censorship of Wikiversity and banning Wikiversity participants who dare to ask questions about the problems of Wikimedia wiki projects. When the honest scholars of Wikiversity are banned and driven away from the project, then Wikipedia Disease spreads and Wikiversity sinks to the level of Wikipedia complete with witch hunts, kangaroo courts…..use of the delete button replaces use of the “edit” button.
A collaborative online learning community such as Wikiversity must have tools to protect the community from vandals. However, the existence of such a community as an authentic learning community can easily be destroyed by abusive administrators who use the vandal-fighting tools against the honest learners and scholars of the community while letting policy violators become the police. Wikiversity needs to be returned to the custodianship of thoughtful and honest learners who think, discuss and learn. The unwelcome invaders from Wikipedia who delete, block and prevent learning must be removed.
Summary: Casual observers of Wikiversity might think that there is no censorship of Wikiversity because the wiki page for documenting censorship at Wikiversity has been deleted. The censorship methods at Wikiversity are analogous to the methods employed by Max Amann. Censorship occurs at any institution, but at Wikiversity you are not allowed to discuss the acts of censorship that occur and the reasons for them. I think it is healthy to talk about everything taking place in a learning community. Discussion is a great way to learn. Why can’t the Wikiversity community discuss the censorship of Wikiversity?
The history of Wikiversity provides a good case study for how to censor the content of an online learning community. Wikiversity attracts thoughtful participants who want to improve Wikimedia wiki projects, but they have been prevented from participating in their studies and discussions of existing problems. Rather than discuss and improve Wikiversity learning projects and research projects, Wikipedians have unilaterally imposed Wikipedia’s content and editing rules on Wikiversity. This has been highly disruptive to the Wikiversity community, particularly when Wikiversity participants who have never violated a Wikiversity policy are attacked, their contributions to Wikiversity deleted, and their participation at Wikiversity even blocked by invaders from outside who can’t be bothered to participate in the wiki culture where collaborators edit pages in order to improve any perceived problems at Wikiversity.
Next. Worse than the censorship of Wikiversity content is the abusive treatment of Wikiversity participants who dare to ask questions about the failings of Wikimedia wiki projects. If you look at the top of the image on this blog post you can see mention of a block of a Wikiversity participant. In my next blog post I will discuss the abusive treatment of honest Wikiversity participants by Wikimedian’s who think that banning honest and thoughtful Wikiversity participants is the way to build an online learning community.