Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Struggle Over Commons Governance at Wikipedia

by David Bollier (March 14 2008)

Surely there is no greater living experiment in commons-based governance than Wikipedia, one of the biggest, most productive online communities around. Wikipedia now hosts more than nine million articles in 250 languages, all of them contributed by volunteers. It is a remarkable phenomenon.

But what may be more interesting - if difficult for the Wikipedians involved - is the growing struggle to negotiate better ways of managing this burgeoning collective project and its offshoots as a public trust. The fights are not just about power (who should wield it) and philosophy (what editorial and management principles should prevail), but about Wikipedia's very identity. Now that Wikipedia is one of the most-visited sites on the Web, this is a high-stakes, high-visibility controversy.

One of the biggest battles is between "inclusionists" and "deletionists". Inclusionists believe that Wikipedia should host the widest imaginable range of articles, even at the risk of including entries that might be regarded as trivia. So, for example, should Wikipedia host biographies of the 500 fictional characters who make up Pokemon cards? Inclusionists say yes - that's why people like Wikipedia.

Deletionists say no. They want to exercise some level of editorial judgment in determining what sorts of articles will be featured in Wikipedia. They argue that Wikipedia's reputation and reliability will be enhanced if there is a measure of selectivity. And as people who commit more time to running the operation, they understandably feel they should have a greater say.

To try to resolve this fierce debate between inclusionists and deletionists, Wikipedia has evolved an elaborate set of internal processes. As described in The Economist (March 08 2008), a subject is eligible for inclusion in Wikipedia only if it is considered "notable", as defined by such criteria as mention in an international journal, ten matches on Google, and subject-specific rules (a porn star who has appeared in Playboy is "notable", but one who has appeared in a low-budget porn film is not). Final decisions about what gets in and what is deleted are made by a core group of about 1,000 editors and administrators. And for particularly controversial decisions, there is an appeal process handled by the Arbitration Committee.

While the popular perception of Wikipedia is that anyone can submit an article - which is true - there is, in fact, an elaborate virtual bureaucracy of sorts that decides what content stays in, what gets edited, and what gets deleted. The Economist notes:

Debates about the merits of articles often drag on for weeks, draining energy and taking up far more space than the entries themselves. Such deliberations involve volleys of arcane internal acronyms and references to obscure policies and guidelines ... Covert alliances and intrigues are common. Sometimes editors resort to a practice called "sock puppetry", in which one person creates lots of accounts and pretends to be several different people in debate so as to create the illusion of support for a particular position. The result is that novices can quickly get lost in Wikipedia's Kafkaesque bureaucracy.

This battle between inclusionists and deletionists is just part of a much larger set of complaints being raised against Wikipedia governance. There is, for example, a Wikipedia Review {1}, that hosts a range of rants and debates about how Wikipedia and related projects are run.

An excellent overview of the complaints against Wikipedia governance can be found on Michel Bauwens' informative Peer to Peer Foundation blog {2}. Bauwens believes that "major reforms will be needed to ensure that Wikipedia governance is democratic and remains so". His concerns:

1. Wikipedia disrespects and disregards scholars, experts, scientists and others with special knowledge.

2. Wikipedia's culture of anonymous editing and administration results in a lack of responsible authorship and management.

3. Wikipedia's administrators have become an entrenched and over-powerful elite, unresponsive and harmful to authors and contributors.

4. Wikipedia's numerous politics and procedures are not enforced equally on the community - popular or powerful editors are often exempted.

5. Wikipedia's quasi-judicial body, the Arbitration Committee (ArbCom) is at best incompetent and at worst corrupt.

6. The Wikimedia Foundation, the organization legally responsible for Wikipedia, is opaque, is poorly managed, and is insufficiently independent from Wikipedia's remaining founder and his business interests.

To an outsider, it is hard to evaluate many of the issues and how they should be resolved constructively. But it is clear that the existing governance of Wikipedia needs serious attention. The fate of Wikipedia matters, first, because it is a significant innovation of great practical and symbolic value. We should all wish for its success.

Second, we need to learn more about the principles of successful management and governance in the peer production environment. I'm hoping that Wikipedia leadership can navigate the power politics within that community and attempt to establish more open, democratic principles for self-governance.

The most sobering thing I learned from Bauwens' blog post was his response to one reader comment: "My feeling after going over the evidence is that the dysfunctional process is probably beyond reform, and that the deletionist power grab is too entrenched. Before, I was of the opinion that the dysfunctions were part of a broadly healthy ecosystem that could repair itself from within."

Let's hope this is not true. But if so, there is a powerful object lesson: The structures and cultures of online commons - especially large ones - matter a great deal and need close attention and open-minded adaptations. Yet even if Wikipedia cannot be reformed from within, the prospect of a "fork" in the community or new competition from the outside, can be salutary.

Indeed, that is already happening. One of the original Wikipedia co-founders, Larry Sanger, has started Citizendium {3}, which has a greater emphasis on expert editorial judgment. And Google is planning a project called "Knol" {4} (which stands for a "unit of knowledge") that will allow individuals to submit their own entries to an encyclopedia-like venture. A voting system will elevate "the best" entries, and authors will receive bylines and share in ad revenue generated by the site.

So there are many varieties of commons for user-generated encyclopedias. The Internet ecosystem will help sort out the respective fitness of each one in the digital/social landscape.






Bill Totten


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