The Wikipedia is often hailed as a prime example of peer production and peer governance, an example of how a community can self-govern very complex processes. Including by me.
But it is also increasingly showing the dark side and pitfalls of purely informal approaches, especially when they scale.
Wikipedia is particularly vulnerable because its work is not done in teams, but by individuals with rather weak links. At the same time it is also a very complex project, with consolidating social norms and rules, and with an elite that knows them, vs. many occasional page writers who are ignorant of them. When that system then instaures a scarcity rule, articles have to be â€˜notable” or they can be deleted. It creates a serious imbalance.
While the Wikipedia remains a remarkable achievement, and escapes any easy characterization of its qualities because of its sheer vastness, there must indeed be hundreds of thousands of volunteers doing good work on articles, it has also created a power structure, but it is largely invisible, opaque, and therefore particularly vulnerable to the well-known tyranny of structurelessness.
Consider the orginal thoughts of Jo Freeman:
“Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a ‘structureless’ group. Any group of people of whatever nature coming together for any length of time, for any purpose, will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible, it may vary over time, it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities and intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals with different talents, predispositions and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate ‘structurelessness’ and that is not the nature of a human group.
Consider also this warning:
Every group of people with an unusual goal – good, bad, or silly – will trend toward the cult attractor unless they make a constant effort to resist it. You can keep your house cooler than the outdoors, but you have to run the air conditioner constantly, and as soon as you turn off the electricity – give up the fight against entropy – things will go back to “normal”.
In the same sense that every thermal differential wants to equalize itself, and every computer program wants to become a collection of ad-hoc patches, every Cause wants to be a cult. It’s a high-entropy state into which the system trends, an attractor in human psychology.
Cultishness is quantitative, not qualitative. The question is not “Cultish, yes or no?” but “How much cultishness and where?”
The Wikicult website asserts that this stage has already been reached:
With the systems, policies, procedures, committees, councils, processes and appointed authorities that run Wikipedia, a lot of intrinsic power goes around. While most serious contributors devotedly continue to contribute to the implied idealism, there are those with the communication and political skill to place themselves in the right place at the right time and establish even more apparent power. Out of these, a cabal inevitably forms; the rest, as they say, is history.
The Wikipedia Review offers an interesting summary of the various criticisms that have been leveled agains the Wikipedia, which I’m reproducing here below, but I’m adding links that document these processes as well. Spend some time on reading the allegations, their documentation, and make up your own mind.
My conclusion though is that major reforms will be needed to insure the Wikipedia governance is democratic and remains so.
1. Wikipedia disrespects and disregards scholars, experts, scientists, and others with special knowledge.
“Wikipedia specifically disregards authors with special knowledge, expertise, or credentials. There is no way for a real scholar to distinguish himself or herself from a random anonymous editor merely claiming scholarly credentials, and thus no claim of credentials is typically believed. Even when credentials are accepted, Wikipedia affords no special regard for expert editors contributing in their fields. This has driven most expert editors away from editing Wikipedia in their fields. Similarly, Wikipedia implements no controls that distinguish mature and educated editors from immature and uneducated ones.”
2. Wikipedia’s culture of anonymous editing and administration results in a lack of responsible authorship and management.
“Wikipedia editors may contribute as IP addresses, or as an ever-changing set of pseudonyms. There is thus no way of determining conflicts of interest, canvassing, or other misbehaviour in article editing. Wikipedia’s adminsitrators are similarly anonymous, shielding them from scrutiny for their actions. They additionally can hide the history of their editing (or that of others).”
3. Wikipedia’s administrators have become an entrenched and over-powerful elite, unresponsive and harmful to authors and contributors.
“Without meaningful checks and balances on administrators, administrative abuse is the norm, rather than the exception, with blocks and bans being enforced by fiat and whim, rather than in implementation of policy. Many well-meaning editors have been banned simply on suspicion of being previously banned users, without any transgression, while others have been banned for disagreeing with a powerful adminâ€™s editorial point of view. There is no clear-cut code of ethics for administrators, no truly independent process leading to blocks and bans, no process for appeal that is not corrupted by the imbalance of power between admin and blocked editor, and no process by which administrators are reviewed regularly for misbehaviour.”
The blog Nonbovine ruminations critically monitors Wikipedia governance
Wikipedia’s abusive bio-deletion process: case by Tony Judge
4. Wikipedia’s numerous policies and procedures are not enforced equally on the community, popular or powerful editors are often exempted.
“Administrators, in particular, and former administrators, are frequently allowed to trangress (or change!) Wikipedia’s numerous policies, such as those prohibiting personal attacks, prohibiting the release of personal information about editors, and those prohibiting collusion in editing.”
The badsites list of censored sites belonging to Wikipedia’s enemies
The Judd Bagley case
InformationLiberation on Wikipedia’s totalitarian universe
5. Wikipedia’s quasi-judicial body, the Arbitration Committee (ArbCom) is at best incompetent and at worst corrupt.
“ArbCom holds secret proceedings, refuses to be bound by precedent, operates on non-existant or unwritten rules, and does not allow equal access to all editors. It will reject cases that threaten to undermine the Wikipedia status quo or that would expose powerful administrators to sanction, and will move slowly or not at all (in public) on cases it is discussing in private.”
The case of the secret mailing list for top insiders
6. The Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), the organization legally responsible for Wikipedia, is opaque, is poorly managed, and is insufficiently independent from Wikipedia’s remaining founder and his business interests.
“The WMF lacks a mechanism to address the concerns of outsiders, resulting in an insular and socially irresponsible internal culture. Because of inadequate oversight and supervision, Wikimedia has hired incompetent and (in at least one case) criminal employees. Jimmy Wales for-profit business Wikia benefits in numerous ways from its association with the non-profit Wikipedia.”
Review of the conflict of interest issue