Increasing Decentralization in Wikipedia Governance

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Article: Scaling Consensus: Increasing Decentralization in Wikipedia Governance. Andrea Forte and Amy Bruckman


"How does “self-governance” happen in Wikipedia? Through in-depth interviews with eleven individuals who have held a variety of responsibilities in the English Wikipedia, we obtained rich descriptions of how various forces produce and regulate social structures on the site. Our analysis describes Wikipedia as an organization with highly refined policies, norms, and a technological architecture that supports organizational ideals of consensus building and discussion. We describe how governance in the site is becoming increasingly decentralized as the community grows and how this is predicted by theories of commons-based governance developed in offline contexts. The trend of decentralization is noticeable with respect to both content-related decision making processes and social structures that regulate user behavior." (



"Governance is not simply the sum of policy-related social processes. There are also groups of individuals who manage the execution of detailed procedures that operate on a site-wide level such as the Featured Article (FA) selection process used by Viegas et. al. to reveal features of Ostrom’s eight principles of self-organization in Wikipedia. The story we have told about policy in Wikipedia provides a complementary view. The most noticeable gap we found between Ostrom’s principles and the structure of Wikipedia governance was in the inability of WikiProject members to enforce their own local guidelines in order to maintain local standards of content production. It remains to be seen whether this trend will prove disruptive over time. Perhaps WikiProjects or some other form of local governance in the site will acquire the authority to impose sanctions on users who violate their locally-devised rules. It is also possible that local enforcement will simply prove unnecessary and that Wikipedia will ultimately demonstrate an alternate model of self-governance for which theoretical justification will need to be found.

Rather than suggest a prescribed community structure based on discrepancy with existing theory, we can continue to learn from the evolving practices of Wikipedians.

Issues like the Virginia Tech biographies and arachnophobia illustration arise every day, and Wikipedians continue to use and refine both their policies and their policy-related processes. Overall, the story of Wikipedia governance that we assembled is one of increasing decentralization. As the community grows, it has become necessary for governance mechanisms to shift outward into the community. This decentralization was not entirely accidental; self-organization was dependent in part on the design of the technology and embedded in the philosophy of the community’s founder and early participants.

We suggest that the Wikipedia community has remained healthy in large part due to the continued presence of “old-timers” who carry a set of social norms and organizational ideals with them into every WikiProject, committee, and local process in which they take part. Instead of fracturing, the community has (so far) gracefully distributed the pressure of expansion among its members in ways that are largely consistent with Ostrom’s propositions about the necessity of decentralized decision-making authority in large, selforganizing enterprises."