Identifying and Understanding the Problems of Wikipedia’s Peer Governance

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Article: Identifying and understanding the problems of Wikipedia’s peer governance: The case of inclusionists versus deletionists. by Vasilis Kostakis. First Monday, Volume 15, Number 3 - 1 March 2010

URL = http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/2613/2479


Abstract

"Wikipedia has been hailed as one of the most prominent peer projects that led to the rise of the concept of peer governance. However, criticism has been levelled against Wikipedia’s mode of governance. This paper, using the Wikipedia case as a point of departure and building upon the conflict between inclusionists and deletionists, tries to identify and draw some conclusions on the problematic issue of peer governance."


Excerpts

Introduction

"The open source software Linux and the popular free online encyclopedia Wikipedia are considered as prominent peer production projects, where individuals voluntarily participate and, using mechanisms of self–governance, produce digital commons. Peer production, a term coined by Benkler (2006), is a third open mode of production that has become typical of the Internet recently, where decisions arise from the free engagement and cooperation of producers. Peer governance is a new mode of governance and bottom–up mode of participative decision–making (Bauwens, 2005a; 2005b). It is the way that peer production, the process by which common value is produced, is managed.

However, criticism has been levelled against Wikipedia regarding its mode of governance. According to some of this criticism, the power structure within Wikipedia is invisible, vague and opaque, giving rise to a tyranny of structurelessness (Freeman, 1970; Bauwens, 2008). Critical questions such as “what kind of problems does Wikipedia’s governance experience?” and “why does it happen?” are examined in this paper. The narrative of this paper is structured around the conflict between inclusionists and deletionists. In conclusion, some tentative enhancement proposals are articulated.


Reflections

Wikipedia is about representations of knowledge, about unfinished artifacts in a constant process of creation and evaluation. It does not rely on hierarchical structures, but on the wisdom of the crowds for its quality control processes. This is undoubtedly a valuable lesson learned by Bruns (2008; interview with Bruns, 2009). It illustrates that Wikipedia is a peer project, most of the times, relied upon self–organized, uncontrollable, heterarchical structures. Of course, this does not imply that there are no particular requirements to be met. On the one hand, Wikipedia follows some certain rules (WP:RULES) for content creation, which are in some cases mutually inconsistent and conflicting. Therefore, administrators who are adept at manipulating the rules are capable of defeating their foes in order to justify a deletion, block or ban. Active and organized minorities often prevail over the uncoordinated majority and others.

Many critically commented on the lack of clarity of Wikipedia’s rules and on the absence of a functional conflict resolution process for content disputes, without turning these disputes into editorial slugfests. The majority of participants in this research suggested that there is an urgent need for reform. In particular, Kort [17] pointed out that “the whole Rules and Sanctions paradigm is ill–conceived and should be scrapped in favor of a ‘21st Century Community Social Contract Model’ consistent with collegial norms of academic and scholarly enterprises.” Further, it was argued that artificial scarcity, which the deletionist approach inevitably creates, leads to a need for a power mechanism. An inclusionist view, on the other hand, would avoid many internal conflicts. Moreover, from discussions with (ex–)Wikipedians, it became clear that this battle over content is detrimental to the project. This struggle facilitates an “unproductive need” for self–definition, while the case itself is much more complex than just a simple dichotomy.

The consensus of my discussions and interviews with experts and (ex–)Wikipedians can be very well reflected in Bruns’ comments [18]: “If those criteria [Wikipedia’s core principles — neutral point of view, verifiability, non–original research] are met, I can’t see any reason to delete a submitted entry — however obscure the topic may be.” Hence, a recommendation could be that the project return to its inclusionist roots. At the same time, following Kort’s proposal, an unambiguous community social contract model should be openly formulated to secure, protect, empower and enrich the peer mode of governance.


Lessons for peer governance

Wikipedia’s mode of governance is an unfinished artifact. It follows the constant reform and refinement of social norms within the community. However, open participation in combination with an increasing number of participants makes the situation more complex (O’Neil, 2009). By examining the battle between inclusionists and deletionists, it was understood that Wikipedia’s lack of a clearly defined constitution, or what Kort [19] calls a “Community Social Contract Model,” breeds a danger for local jurisdictions where small numbers of participants create rules in conflict with others (O’Neil, 2009). These challenge the sustainability of the peer project. Arguably, the degree of openness in every aspect of a peer project’s governance should be questioned and closely investigated.

During conflicts, persistent, well–organized minorities can adroitly handle and dominate their opponents. The values of communal evaluation and equipotentiality are subverted by such practices. As Hilbert [20] remarked group polarization is a significant danger that open, virtual communities face: “discourse among like–minded people can very quickly lead to group polarization … which causes opinions to diverge rather than converge … [so], it is very probable that the strongest groups will dominate the common life.” In these cases, transparency and holoptism are in danger. Decisions are being made in secret and power is being accumulated. Authority, corruption, hidden hierarchies and secrecy subvert the foundations of peer governance, that is openness, heterachy, transparency, equipotentiality and holoptism — the very essence of Wikipedia.

Peer governance is a suitable mode to govern large sources, working more effectively in abundance [21]. This constitutes the main argument why Wikipedia should return to its inclusionist roots, while a functional, scrupulous and scientifically designed resolution process for content disputes and an unambiguous community social contract model needs to be implemented.


Conclusions

As noted earlier, the main characteristics of peer governance are equipotentiality, heterarchy, holoptism, openness, networking, and transparency. “The aim of peer governance is 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.”

Wikipedia is constantly at risk of transforming itself into an inflexible, despotic hierarchy, while new disputes are emerging about the mode of content creation and governance. As the size of Wikipedia increases (in terms of both content and participants), it becomes more difficult and complex for a relatively small group of administrators to keep track of everything that happens “in the far–flung of the site.” [23] Co–ordination problems on interpersonal and interorganizational levels as well as gaps concerning the interests and the identities of the inter–Wikipedian communities result in governance crises, threatening the sustainability of the project. Active and organized minorities often prevail over the uncoordinated majority and others. Further, the vague distinction among the social and technical powers of administrators — who sometimes take more authoritative roles and make more ‘moral’ decisions about user behavior — leads to power accumulation in one section of the community (Forte and Bruckman, 2008). A functional resolution process for resolving content disputes and an unambiguous community social contract model are needed. Wikipedia may follow some rules regarding content creation, which, however, in some cases are mutually inconsistent and conflicting. Thus, administrators, adept at gaming the system, can pick and choose among rules, and defeat their opponents. Moreover, how do you balance participation and selection for excellence? In other words, “how to make sure that truth does not become the rule of the majority and that expertise can find its place?” [24]

In addition, artificial scarcity, the fundamental point of deletionists, leads to a need for a power mechanism. A line has to be drawn between the sphere of abundance, where self–allocation is natural, and the field of scarcity, where cost–recovery requirements demand choices. As has been articulated, for the latter, some formal democratic rules are needed. According to Bauwens [25]:

“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 … 2) In the sphere of the Foundations, such as the Wikimedia Foundation, which manage the infrastructure of cooperation, a lot can go wrong … such as a lack of differentiation between community and private business interests, and the lack of community representation in the Foundation … 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.”


Proposals

Bauwens suggested that in the case of Wikipedia it would be essential “to return the project to its inclusionist roots, i.e., recognition of abundance; the strengthening of democracy and community representation in the Wikimedia Foundation; full transparency and business divestment in the Foundation.” Based on my research, I side with a moderate inclusionist perspective of Wikipedia’s content. After all, to put it in Bruns’ style (2008), Wikipedia is about “representations of knowledge.” A bottom–up self–organizational mode is enhanced by the reform of rules for content creation, creation of a functional process for resolving content disputes and the formulation of an unambiguous community social contract model. These developments are crucial steps supporting the sustainability of the project and empowerment of peer governance.

While some worry about a danger of the tyranny of the majority, a notion of meta–governance — that is operating in a context of negotiated decision–making — will handle many issues. Bauwens, partly echoing Jessop (2003) on meta–governance, noted:

“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.”

In peer projects, the reintroduction of certain elements of traditional organization (hierarchy or market; project–based organization) contributes to their sustainability (Loubser and den Basten, 2008; Benkler, 2006). These elements are, after all, part of what it is understood as peer governance — an heterarchical, hybrid mode of organization. Bauwens’ proposition of allowing experts to have their own distinct voice (even in the form of a mirror page) corresponds to Forte and Bruckman’s [27] interpretation of Ostrom’s (2000) principles: “the continued presence of the old–timers, who carry a set of social norms and organizational ideas with them,” contributes to the sustainability of the project. In addition, a distinction is required for the social and technical powers of administrators, in order to avoid power accumulation."


References

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