Book of the Day: Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness

  • Book: Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness. By Nathaniel Tkacz. University of Chicago Press, 2015


Paul Bernal:

“Nathaniel Tkacz … examines the entire Wikipedia project in the way that we as academics examine a Wikipedia article: questioning at every stage, digging deeper, looking through the project to its source, so as to apprehend its nature and come to a better understanding. Given the role and prominence of Wikipedia and those behind it, and how it has come to exemplify the internet itself, this is a critically important exercise – and Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness is an important book.

At one level it is a fascinating inside look at the operations of Wikipedia – from someone who clearly knows and understands it from the inside. It looks closely at three specific “incidents”: the deletion of “Wikipedia Art” (an attempt to compose conceptual art on Wikipedia itself), the process by which the controversial issue of whether to allow images of Muhammad to appear in Wikipedia was “resolved”, and the so-called Spanish Fork through which the question of whether Wikipedia should or could allow advertising was raised. Through a detailed examination of these issues, it gives us an insight into how Wikipedia works and tells us a great deal about the people involved – right up to Jimmy Wales himself, whom Tkacz at one point describes as “one of the most celebrated ‘benevolent dictators’ in open projects”.

At the next level, Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness is a critique not just of Wikipedia but of the whole idea of openness – one of the sacred cows of the internet, something considered almost beyond criticism. At times that critique is devastating. Tkacz takes apart some of the most fundamental assumptions of openness – and challenges the idealism behind them, the seemingly sincere belief by the advocates of openness in the near-perfection of their approach to consensus and decision-making.

To exemplify this, Tkacz uses “forking”, the idea that at any point in a truly open project, people who disagree with where things are going can “fork”, creating their own alternative version of the project and taking it with them, to compete with the original. As he describes it, forking is viewed with almost religious reverence: “(the threat of) forking is [seen as] a defense against tyranny and guarantor of democracy, it produces a form of consensus, transfers power from leaders to followers, achieves practical meritocracies, de-monopolizes power, ensures maximum freedom, and brings about diversity and radical innovation”.

Tkacz writes with a commendable dryness and wit – so much so that at times it is hard to tell which side of the story he is trying to tell, but that is, I feel sure, entirely deliberate. Indeed, Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness reads as though every word has been carefully chosen – and every ambiguity intended to make the reader think. The discussion of the so-called neutral point of view (NPOV), one of the five “pillars” of Wikipedia, really hits home: it is in many ways the heart of the book and of Tkacz’s criticism of both Wikipedia and the concept of openness itself. The question of whether there is such a thing as a neutral point of view is a deep one – one that touches on the nature of truth.

As Tkacz puts it: “In fact, Wales’s take on Wikipedia and truth goes even further than [academic Joseph] Reagle’s. It is not particular battles for truth that are ‘abandoned’, but truth in general. It is this ‘philosophical side-stepping’ that paves the way for consensus-based collaboration. There is, however, a second relation to truth, what might be called the truth of the NPOV or the internal truth of the encyclopedia…while the NPOV doesn’t claim to tell the truth about a thing, there is nonetheless a truth about what is neutral.”

This may be the biggest point of all – and one with a wider application than just Wikipedia. It has implications for our whole relationship with the internet, with data, with the digital world. In some ways, Wales isn’t viewed merely as a benevolent dictator but almost as a saint – and is put on a pedestal and used in the way that saints are. His appointment, for example, to Google’s Advisory Council on the Right to be Forgotten attempts to give Google the benefit of Wikipedia’s sanctified “neutral point of view”. Google – and to a lesser extent Facebook and others – also wants to be seen as neutral in the way that Wikipedia is. That way Google can avoid awkward questions, escape scrutiny and even regulation – its search algorithms viewed as purely organic, its various functions seen as provided primarily in the public interest, serving the internet and those who use it through altruism, rather than as a business whose interests are essentially economic and self-serving.

This alleged “neutrality” is critical – and our acceptance of it without real question is something that Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness challenges. It is not an easy book to read: the language is often complex and intense. To understand all the details here, one would need to be a computer scientist, a philosopher, a political scientist, an expert on actor-network theory and more – but to grasp its themes and significance, one needs only to participate actively in the modern world. Tkacz challenges assumptions and forces you to question your own views, particularly about openness itself.

As he puts it in his conclusion: “The problem of openness isn’t that it isn’t open; it is that it conceives the world in terms of this question. My task therefore wasn’t to show that Wikipedia is actually closed, hierarchical, centralized, bureaucratic, or totalitarian, but rather to try to think politically differently.”

Tkacz does think differently – and he challenges his readers to think differently. Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness made me do that. For an academic book, that might be the highest praise of all.” (

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