Thursday, December 12 2013
This article was written by Charles Star. The views and opinions expressed below are those of Charles Star and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of PBEMPlayers. Charles joined SimEnc in October 2010, and was its Chief Editor from January 2011 to January 2012. During his tenure, he greatly improved the organization, clarity, and visual appeal of the site. From his arrival until his resignation, he increased the number of content articles from fewer than 300 to more than 1200. To date, he has made 12,449 of the 22,741 total edits. His research in simming history has led to multiple discoveries of club origins and a greater understanding of the development of our craft. As Captain Dick Sprague he commands the USS Chuck Norris sim.
Over the last few years, SimEnc (short for Simming Encyclopedia) has grown into a treasure of information on simming and role playing history. Whether you're interested in the early days of more than 20 years ago, the volatility of the late 1990s and early 2000s, or the more nuanced recent history, SimEnc's got it. As old websites are deleted and our memories continue to fade, SimEnc serves that invaluable function of being the place to record the comprehensive story of us: The complete story of simming and online role playing. Its purpose is twofold: We aren't lost to the ages and future generations can learn from our experiences. And we already are those future generations for all who came behind us.
SimEnc was originally launched in September 2005 to "become a storehouse of knowledge and information about simming." In short, it was intended to be as complete and accurate a database of simming history as possible. Veteran simmer Chas Hammer was instrumental in its creation and served as the main driving force behind the project for its first few years. Modeled after Wikipedia, SimEnc was open to all simmers and online role players, regardless of rank or club affiliation. All users were treated equally and were invited to contribute in a collaborative manner. Users reached consensus decisions on the content for articles. The results have been unfathomably successful: As of December 5th, there were pages on 607 past and present simmers, 278 sims and role play games, and 194 clubs. Wow! What a library! Ever heard of the club UFP/SF? United Federation? Utopia Fleet? Each has a fascinating story and contributed something unique to simming and role playing. Go read about them on SimEnc. Better yet, see where and how they all interconnect with each other. Even better yet, if you hold some piece of information about them, post it! That's only possible on a site like SimEnc.
A Wrong Turn
Despite the unparalleled success of the first seven years and the obvious value provided to the community as a whole, there were naysayers. There were those who objected to the mission of SimEnc, usually for selfish reasons. There were also those who objected to accurate and factual information being posted on certain topics. In both cases, the objector almost always refused to participate in the discussion. Fortunately, those individuals were few and far between. Just as in real life, there are those in simming who don't want history recorded. Or worse yet, they prefer a filtered version. Or even worse yet, they want to be the only ones to write it. Knowledge has always been the enemy of the tyrant. Something like SimEnc, which seeks truth through consensus decision, is the greatest enemy of the simming tyrant.
Earlier this year in August, Chas Hammer introduced the first-ever SimEnc editorial board to craft policy and to resolve disputes between users. The editorial board consists of seven veteran simmers, each with a sterling record in the community. I personally know five of the seven, and can vouch for their character, integrity, and skill. In fact, I would trust them with anything. Furthermore, I have no doubt that the two board members whom I don't know are of equally high caliber. Unfortunately, I strongly disagree with the direction they and Chas have decided to take SimEnc over the last few months. They have turned SimEnc from an open, collaborative project into a closed, hierarchical system. And no, they're not tyrants.
Why did we make that turn?
Most problems occur when people fail to understand the principles or theories behind their actions. This is true in government, business, personal relationships, and more. It's true in simming too. For example, maintaining a successful sim is dependent upon, among other things, having several contributing players. If one ignores this concept and launches a new sim without any players, the sim will fail. It doesn't matter that the host intended for the sim to be successful--it still failed because the host didn't understand or account for the concepts behind his or her actions. Through experience, we learn and apply these principles without even realizing it. When you launch a new sim, it doesn't occur to you to think that you need players because you've already assumed as much through your experience. But you still might make a checklist for those principles less obvious than simply having players. While there's value in identifying and understanding the theories behind those things with which we're very experienced, it's absolutely imperative that we do so when working in unfamiliar territory. Such is the case with SimEnc for most of us.
When Chas offered me the position of SimEnc Chief Editor almost two years ago, I was reluctant to take the job. Even though I had completed a few thousand edits and had participated in multiple content discussions on Wikipedia, I still described myself as an "average Wikipedian." On top of that, I already had enough on my plate with my job as Chief of Fleet Operations at Independence Fleet. But Chas still talked me into it. I immediately went back and reviewed all of the major Wikipedia guidelines and all of the current guidelines and content pages on SimEnc. It wasn't a lot of fun, but I knew it would come in handy with my new responsibilities. I had to understand how and why SimEnc worked, especially if people were going to be coming to me with their questions and problems!
SimEnc is essentially for simming what Wikipedia is for everything else. So the first step in crafting policy for SimEnc should be to understand what's already been established at Wikipedia by people who have been doing it for more than a decade. I've spoken privately with several of the SimEnc board members over the last few months. Of those I've spoken to, it's clear that not one of them has a basic understanding of Wikipedia's guidelines. Furthermore, two of them didn't even understand the SimEnc guidelines that they themselves had voted on. As I feared, they were making decisions without understanding the theories or concepts behind their actions. Like most people do, they were making judgment calls based on what seemed or felt right. That's a dangerous combination when sailing in uncharted waters.
And that's exactly where the board is: Among the seven of them, they've completed a paltry 383 total edits on SimEnc (and just 39 since joining the board). Those are averages of 54.7 and 5.6, and medians of 16 and 0. On top of that, four of them haven't even made a single edit within the last year. To put it in perspective, I had completed over 3,000 edits when I was named Chief Editor in early 2011. I couldn't imagine Wikipedia promoting someone to an "editorial board" who had completed all of four total edits, as one board member has on SimEnc.
Where are we going?
As I've mentioned several times already, SimEnc is the Wikipedia for simming history. I haven't met anyone yet who disagrees with that. If that's true, it only makes sense that we would model SimEnc's guide off of Wikipedia's. I'm not saying that we should automatically default to all of Wikipedia's guidelines, but that unless we have a compelling reason not to, SimEnc's guide should mirror Wikipedia's. If you're not familiar with how Wikipedia functions, here's a good place to start: Founder Jimbo Wales's Statement of Principles & Wikipedia's Five Pillars. Both of those documents are self-explanatory so I'm not going to expound upon them.
The board's first, and biggest, mistake was when they decreed on September 18th that articles may only be created and edited by "subject matter experts" or "a person duly authorized by the subject expert." They go on to define a subject matter experts as:
- For a page about a person, only that person
- For a page about a sim, only the host
- Fot a page about a club, only the senior leadership (undefined)
Further, they say that "greater leeway shall be given to individuals with higher rank or responsibility." Again, this is undefined. Essentially, users can only create and edit pages about themselves, sims they've hosted, and clubs where they were in the senior leadership. There are more restrictions, but I won't go into them here. The first obvious problem with this policy is that it disallows any and all research. Users are only permitted to post about things they themselves were or are in charge of. That means that anything currently lost to the ages must remain that way. I immediately think of Utopia Fleet, which I mentioned earlier. I would not have been permitted to tell their story if I had joined SimEnc under the current system. Ditto for Adrian Kowalewski, Shay Given, and Pat Weber. They have no "subject matter expert" to tell their tale, but there's something for us to learn from each of them!
The second problem with this policy is that it only allows the most biased party to determine the content of a page, thus making the subject matter expert the de-facto owner of any given page. This flies in the face of the concept of collaboration and is not indicative of an encyclopedia. Furthermore, it completely destroys the idea of consensus decision making. SimEnc's no longer "open to all simmers and online role players, regardless of rank or club affiliation" as it used to claim and be. Instead, editing is now restricted based on rank and club affiliation. As is clear by both common sense and the concept of conflict of interest, we're asking for biased and unbalanced articles. If SimEnc were the Facebook or MySpace of simming, this policy would make perfect sense. But it's not--it's an encyclopedia.
The board attempts to temper this policy by allowing non-subject matter experts to post recommended changes to the subject matter experts on discussion pages. SimEnc and Wikipedia pages are built one edit after another. If one edit is delayed for any period of time, it slows the growth and development of the article and the entire project. Since the implementation of the new policy, I count at least 16 such edit requests. Only two have been acted upon or even replied to. I cringe to think about all the edits that would have happened in addition to the 16, but weren't allowed. The policy is severely stifling the development of our collective knowledge. Where would we be now if we still had that open, collaborative wiki over the last few months?
Another mistake the board made was to require that all content be cited by specific references. I can respect this decision because it is at least based off of Wikipedian guidelines. However, it doesn't make sense within the simming world as there are no academic or reliable sources. Further, the board never explained how to cite content. This is probably why not a single piece of content has been cited since the policy went into effect on October 1st. This is a case where we have a compelling reason not to follow Wikipedia's guidelines: reliable third-party sources do not exist. Practically speaking, we can't follow Wikipedia policy on this issue. What makes this specific requirement even more puzzling is that, as already shown, users are only permitted to post about (some of) their own experiences--so why cite anything?
The common counter point to my above arguments is that without those controls, people could just post anything on SimEnc. People could post libelous material on people, sims, and clubs. Essentially, SimEnc would get out of control. That sounds great... except that it doesn't happen, and never has happened. The beauty of SimEnc and Wikipedia is that, like science, they're both self-correcting. Neither is a finished product, but both are continually being built upon to become better and better. I charge anyone to find a single instance on SimEnc where blatantly false or libelous information was permitted to stand through the consensus decision making process. SimEnc's been around for over seven years. If this really was such a problem, there should be many cases. There aren't. And even if you were able to find one minor flaw, just edit it and correct it yourself. Except you can't under the new system unless you get a subject matter expert to do it for you.
The third mistake the board made was to get involved with and to try to resolve content disputes. This is not only completely unnecessary, but also counter productive. There has been one public content dispute on SimEnc since the board was created. It began back in August, and there's still no solution. If all parties had simply been permitted to discuss the issue on the appropriate talk page, a consensus would have been reached within a few days just as had been done with all past content disputes. Another fail.
So what will happen? If the board's current policies remain or are strengthened, SimEnc will continue to drift from an historical encyclopedia to advertising platform. Factual, relevant information viewed as "negative" will be removed, and articles will paint overly positive and unrealistic pictures of the various entities and events. Those events we don't want to talk about, but can learn the most from, will be removed. Those who control the board will be able to filter information to ensure their side of the story is the one that's told. SimEnc won't be the place to read and record history, but the place to advertise yourself to others (and only advertisers, not game seekers, will visit, rendering the site virtually useless). Besides, we've got plenty of those sites already. SimEnc will become increasingly irrelevant as these changes permeate through the current content. In fact, this has already begun. Active users are way down. Total edits are way down. New pages are almost non-existent now. Edits are already increasingly self-serving. Check it out for yourself.
However, not everything the board has done has been a mistake. For example, they strengthened and clarified the privacy protections that I first wrote earlier this spring. They elected to keep SimEnc an out-of-character wiki, a theme I pushed while I was Chief Editor. They also have maintained and expounded upon the style guide that I created for clarity's sake. Since these issues are not in dispute, there is no need to spend time on them.
Where should we be going?
I'm not calling for the board's respective heads. I'm not even calling for them to resign. Instead, I encourage them to change course and make SimEnc all that it can be, not the least it can be. Make it the most complete and accurate encyclopedia of simming information possible. Here's how: First, recognize that you don't have all the answers in your head. Second, educate yourself on how Wikipedia works. Here's a good list of links to start with:
Third, actually read and edit SimEnc yourself! And fourth, before instituting any new policy changes, first be able to answer both of the following questions in the affirmative:
1) Does this policy enhance the understanding of simming history for the reader?
2) Does this policy encourage users to participate to their full potential?
Censoring factual, relevant information for political reasons, as their latest policy issued on December 3rd does, is not a step in the right direction.
What can the rest of us do? Get involved! Go to SimEnc and start reading. Learn your history! If you're not sure where to start, check out these great sims and trace out their historical roots: USS Sunfire, Blue Dwarf, and Fighter Ops. Better yet, create an account and start editing. And even better yet, encourage the board to remove the handcuffs so you can contribute to the collective knowledge of our community. SimEnc's a great thing, but it can be even more... as long as we all come together and want it to be so. If instead the board continues to fail in the their duties, perhaps there is some visionary out there who can fill the void they're creating. I sincerely hope it doesn't come to that.