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Peer Governance and Wikipedia (interview with Bauwens & Bruns)

photo of Vasilis Kostakis

Vasilis Kostakis
22nd June 2009

This week the interviews with experts and (ex-)Wikipedians, on which parts of my paper “Peer Governance and Wikipedia: Identifying and Understanding the Problems of Wikipedia’s Governance (2009)” were based, are going to be presented in a series of separate posts. This first post contains the short interviews with Michel Bauwens and Axel Bruns who are answering the same questions.

Questions: When does the benevolent dictatorship in peer projects, such as Wikipedia, become a malicious one? Moreover, what lessons have been learnt by Wikipedia’s governance problems so far, and what should be done in order to confront successfully with these pitfalls? And last but not least, what do you think about the internal struggle between deletionists and inclusionists?

Bauwens’ answer: The aim of peer governance is I think to maximize the self-allocation and self-aggregation by the community, and to have forms of decision-making that do not function apart and against the broader collective from which they spring. But we have to make a clear distinction between the sphere of abundance, where self-allocation is ‘natural’, and the spheres of scarcity, where cost-recovery requirements demand choices. For the latter, we need formal democratic rules. Rules and requirements that select for excellence and function against external attacks are legitimate, but processes that protect a privileged layer are illegitimate and destroy or weaken both the self-aggregation and the democratic procedures

So what can go wrong:

1)  The sphere of abundance can be designed to create artificial scarcities, which create limited choices and therefore power to choose. This is what happened when the deletionist acquired a majority, so that editing or creating pages becomes a high threshold political activity requiring mobilization, and it creates a powerbase for editors knowing the rules, but not necessarily the topic at hand. So expert authors are now facing less expert but more powerful group of editors which have a lot of hidden agendas and can use the formal rules for their own ends.

2)  In the sphere of the Foundations, such as the Wikimedia Foundation, which manage the infrastructure of cooperation, a lot can go wrong as well, and the Wikipedia Review has described many flaws in the process, such as a lack of differentiation between community and private business interests, and the lack of community representation in the Foundation, amongst others.

So when the private power of Jimmy Wales and the formal leaders of the Foundation, mix and merge with the informal powerbase of the privileged editors, there is a lot of potential for abuse, which seems to have been crossed on regular occasions. In the case of Wikipedia, it would be essential: 1) to return to the project inclusionist roots, i.e. a recognition of abundance; 2) the strengthening of democracy and community representation in the Wikimedia Foundation; 3) full transparency and business divestment in the Foundation.

But a fundamental problem, and difficult problem to solve, is the balance between participation and selection for excellence, how to make sure that truth does not become the rule of the majority and that expertise can finds its place. For me, a possible solution is to create a mirror page for experts, who do not make the final decision, but can point to scholarly weaknesses in the open pages. I would also recommend the allowing of personal or collective forks, so that people can encounter a variety of perspectives, next to the official consensus page.


Question: When does the benevolent dictatorship in peer projects, such as Wikipedia, become a malicious one?

Bruns’ answer: When the ‘dictator’ is able to push through their decisions even against the explicit opposition of a majority of the participant community. I would define the ‘benevolent dictator’ as not even a primus inter pares, but as one of several heterarchical leaders of the community, who have risen to their positions through consistent constructive contribution and stand and fall with the quality of their further performance. Through such leadership roles, however, they may gain the ability to push through unpopular decisions (for example because they have gained sole control of the technology used to facilitate community interaction – e.g. the Wikipedia platform or the admin controls for a project on SourceForge).

If they abuse that power, theirs becomes a malicious leadership – I would also expect a substantial exodus of community members at this point, and the continued existence of the project at that moment would depend very much on whether the number of exiting members can be made up for in both quality and quantity by incoming new participants. (This may be the case for a very large project like the English-language Wikipedia, for example – Jimmy Wales may be able to seriously disgruntle existing Wikipedia members at the admin level without at the same time stopping the influx of new users, so there could be a chance for him to become a ‘malicious dictator’, but I doubt this would work in substantially smaller Wikipedias, where serious discontent would likely lead to the exodus of a large percentage of existing users.)

Question: What lessons have been learnt by Wikipedia’s governance problems so far, and what should be done in order to confront successfully with these pitfalls?

Bruns’ answer: First, I think that the governance problems in Wikipedia have been overstated – occasional problems which are picked up in media reports are not very representative for Wikipedia as a whole, and should be seen more as exceptions from the rule. Obviously, there’s also a need to distinguish between different national Wikipedias here.

The main problem for the English Wikipedia is probably its size: it’s very difficult for a relatively small group of admins to keep track of everything that happens in the far-flung regions of the site. By and large, Wikipedia’s self-organising processes at page and topic levels do seem to work pretty well, though – and perhaps the major lesson here is not to try to impose too much top-down governance, but rather to continue to support this bottom-up self-organisation.

Additionally, of course, important issues and problems do need to be addressed as they arise; this happened, for example, with the addition of guidelines for biographies of living persons, and here it is important that any such new directives are communicated well to the general Wikipedia population – if they don’t support the new rules, there’s little chance for them to be adopted.

Question: What do you think about the internal struggle between deletionists and inclusionists?

Bruns’ answer: I wonder to what extent the importance of that struggle has been overstated – and how much this struggle between different philosophies is connected with day-to-day practice within Wikipedia itself. In other words, there is perhaps the start of a division here, between those who are attempting to develop a conceptual framework for describing different schools of thought amongst Wikipedia contributors (or more to the point, admins) at a more abstract level, and those who continue to edit and develop Wikipedia at the practical, everyday level.

In saying this, I don’t mean to belittle the search for better theoretical frameworks to describe Wikipedia – I’ve been involved in that process myself –, and I do think it’s important that Wikipedia is reasonably clear about what it chooses to cover or not to cover. However, at the same time, I would also suggest that the vast majority of Wikipedia users and contributors – those people who do the most important work in updating and maintaining Wikipedia – probably wouldn’t know that there are factions called ‘deletionists’ and ‘inclusionists’, wouldn’t self-define as one or the other, and may even say that in practice, the decision between including and deleting is made on a much more fine-grained, case-by-case basis that shows a great deal more complexity than a simple dichotomy is able to do.

And that, I would argue, is a result of what Wikipedia fundamentally is: it’s not a controlled, even controllable, well-organised mechanism for developing a reliable knowledge base that asymptotically approaches perfection through careful editorial quality control processes (as encyclopaedias of the traditional type may once have claimed to be), but something much more unruly – a sometimes messy, self-organising, continuously unfinished collaborative process that relies not on hierarchical structures, but on the wisdom of crowds for its quality control processes.

The debate over inclusion or deletion, as I understand it, seems much more suited to Britannica than Wikipedia – in Wikipedia’s digital environment, there’s certainly no commercial or practical reason to exclude any topic from being covered (unlike Britannica, where adding another topic requires more staff resources and adds further to the page count). So, the question of whether a topic is worthy of inclusion in the encyclopaedia now comes down more simply to a question of whether anyone is able to write a good entry about it – and ‘good’ here means both well-written and in line with Wikipedia’s core principles of NPOV, verifiable, and not based on original research. Perhaps I’m an ‘inclusionist’ myself, but if those criteria are met, I can’t see any reason to delete a submitted entry – however obscure the topic may be…


3 Responses to “Peer Governance and Wikipedia (interview with Bauwens & Bruns)”

  1. P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » Peer Governance and Wikipedia (interview with Cedric and Barry Kort) Says:

    […] the vein of the previous post, here two interviews are introduced. Cedric  is an active member of Wikipedia Review and has […]

  2. Gregory Kohs Says:

    As far as the ethical pratfalls of Jimmy Wales, the Wikimedia Foundation board, and several of the English Wikipedia Arbitration Committee’s members, the media attention has been understated, not overstated.

  3. links for 2009-08-01 | CIBERCRÍTICA Says:

    […] P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » Peer Governance and Wikipedia (interview with Bauwens & Bruns) the short interviews with Michel Bauwens and Axel Bruns who are answering the same questions. (tags: wikipedia) […]

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