Wikipedia - Governance

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

See our general article about the Wikipedia; and our entry on the Wikimedia Foundation which has a subsection on the Transparency of the Foundation's governance.


Ira Matetsky on Who Runs the Place?

(May 15, 2009 in The Volokh Conspiracy)

"As Wikipedia, the collaboratively edited online encyclopedia, becomes more prominent, people often wonder who operates and administers the site. I'm also asked sometimes how I became involved as an administrator.

A majority of the people who contribute occasionally to Wikipedia may have little or no interaction with the administrative side of things at all. A new user doesn't need anyone's permission to start editing or to register an account. One can make dozens or hundreds of edits and never encounter an administrator acting as such or come into contact with the site's rules and guidelines.

My experience as "newbie" Wikipedian was a largely, and perhaps unusually, positive one, and the lens of my own early experiences probably still flavors how I look at the site. As soon as I registered my account, an experienced editor left a helpful "welcome" message on my talkpage, with links to relevant pages of policies and helpful hints. (Each user has a talkpage, which is a special page for messages intended for that user.) The first time I made a bunch of edits to an article, someone posted to my talkpage and thanked me for my contributions. When I had questions about how to format an article, I posted to the Help Desk and received a polite and useful response almost instantly. When I made rookie mistakes, they were quietly corrected and I was gently advised what had gone wrong. I was invited to join a project of editors with interests similar to mine. When I started to learn about policies, I read guidelines such as "be civil to your fellow editors," "when there is a disagreement, discuss it and seek consensus," and "don't bite the newcomers."

So my first impression was that Wikipedians included a collaborative group of exceptionally friendly people working together to write an encyclopedia while having some fun in the process. (Okay, I soon learned that not every page of Wikipedia was like that, as I was clued in pretty early to some areas where there was some nasty feuding going on. In fact, within a couple of months, I was trying unsuccessfully to mediate one of the loudest feuds on the site. But a first impression is a first impression.)

Of course, not everyone has the same generally favorable introduction to contributing that I did. If an editor's first contribution is an article about an marginally notable person or a garage band or his junior high school, his first memory of Wikipedia may be of the article being summarily deleted. If a user starts off writing in a controversial area, her first experience may be one of "edit-warring" as disputing users change the article back-and-forth to their preferred versions. If an editor starts off by uploading images, she will very likely receive a warning for inadvertently violating one or another of the complex rules implemented to prevent copyright violations. And sometimes one just runs into another editor who either doesn't know anything about the subject-matter but acts as if he does, or who just feels like being a jerk.

(I was once asked whether I'd ever been a party to a real edit-war. The biggest one I recall was an ongoing dispute about whether Presidential and Congressional terms prior to the Twentieth Amendment ended at midnight on March 3rd or at noon on March 4th. This issue comes up all the time in biographies and lists. The answer, of course, is March 4th, but because there are some otherwise authoritative sources such as older editions of the "Congressional Biographical Directory" that say March 3rd, this remains a matter of occasional contention.)

So sooner or later a truly experienced editor will run into the administrative apparatus underlying the site. On the English Wikipedia, any registered editor is eligible to run for the status of administrator. In practice a few months' editing experience and a few thousand edits are required for a successful candidacy. Nominations can be made by oneself or by another user and are posted to a page called "Requests for adminship" ("RfA"), where any interested user can post a "support" or "oppose" comment (one must carefully avoid calling it a "vote") based on whatever criteria (within reason) they individually choose to apply.

After seven days, the results are reviewed by a senior administrator archly designated as a "bureaucrat," who determines whether there is a "consensus" to promote the candidate. Hundreds of megabytes of text on Wikipedia:talk:Requests for adminship have been spent in seeking out the perfect metaphysical definition of consensus, but in practice, support from 75% of the "!voters" typically guarantees promotion.

There are no requirements for adminship beyond having a sufficiently strong record of participation to pass RfA. There is no requirement that the candidate disclose his or her real name or background, and many don't. (I've never disclosed my real name on-wiki, although at this point I will soon go ahead and do so.) For example, there is no minimum age requirement. (Certain specialized functionaries do now have to be over 18 and provide proof of their identity to the Wikimedia Foundation Office, though they don't have to disclose it publicly.) There have been administrators as young as 12 or 13 years old; there are no good demographic numbers that I'm aware of, but I would estimate that the median age would be no higher than mid-20s, and I'm painfully aware that at age 46 I am almost surely in the oldest decile of admins. (It feels like just yesterday that I was the youngest person ever elected to the School Board in my town, and now I'm a senior wiki-citizen.)

Critics of Wikipedia often suggest that there is a serious problem with the fact that so many of the administrators, with important powers such as blocking and deletion, are relatively youthful. These are often the same people who suggest that it is absurd for older people with more life experience to spend a portion of their hobby time serving as Wikipedia administrators. Sometimes the same critics make both of these comments, but they are, in effect if not in intent, mutually exclusive.

Administrators are given certain special powers not open to other users, such as the ability to block someone who has violated Wikipedia policies from editing; to delete a page; to protect a page from editing (either by new users or by any non-admin); close certain discussions and decide their outcomes; to view the content of most material that has been deleted. There are about 1600 administrators on the English Wikipedia, of whom a few hundred are active at any one time. There are rules governing how admins are to use their tools, and policies urging them to be civil and helpful in their interactions with other users. In my experience, most administrators do their best to live up to these guidelines; of course, the occasional exception affects the reputation of all.

There is also a system of methods for dispute resolution, including various options for mediation and noticeboards for discussing different types of concerns that may arise. At the end of the dispute resolution process is a body known as the Arbitration Committee, which consists of a group of editors (currently 16) chosen in annual elections. (Formally, the committee is appointed by Jimmy Wales, who holds a special role in Wikipedia governance derived from his role in founding the site, but in the past few elections he has followed the election returns.) The ArbCom addresses user conduct disputes, and typically is not empowered to decide issues such as "which version of this article is better?" or "what should our policy on such-and-such be?" At the moment there is no central mechanism for handing down binding resolution on content disputes or policy decisions, and there is disagreement about whether it would be desirable for there to be one.

I've been following the workings of the ArbCom since early in my wiki-career: first as an occasional critic, later as a clerk for the committee, and since January 2008 as one of the arbitrators. My work as an administrator and an arbitrator has completely changed my Wikipedia experience: Instead of contributing substance to a growing body of free knowledge in an atmosphere of respect and harmony, I must review the history of Wikipedia's most contentious, protracted, bitter, and unhappy disputes and help decide what to do about them.

The cases that come to arbitration are those that cannot be resolved any other way. Most often, they concern editing disputes in exactly the areas one might expect to be the most contentious of all; cases we have accepted this year have included disputes about editing of Wikipedia:Ayn Rand and related articles, of Wikipedia:Scientology and related articles, of Wikipedia:Ireland (is "Ireland" primarily the name of an island or a country), of Wikipedia:Macedonia (or is it Wikipedia:The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia?), and so on. We have also accepted cases involving individual administrators or editors who have engaged in allegedly problematic behavior.

After reviewing each case, the committee issues a decision comprising principles, findings of fact, and remedies. The remedies we can hand down range from noting instances of bad behavior and admonishing parties to do better, restricting a user's editing (such as by banning her from editing articles about a particular topic), imposing various types of probations or mentorships, revoking an administrator's adminship ("desysopping"), or in the most extreme cases, banning an editor from Wikipedia altogether.

We try to keep the process from becoming too legalistic, although occasional legal terms or wordings sneak into the process or the decisions, for which I am occasionally to blame. (The most useful thing I've tried to bring with me in terms of a legal concept is an instinct to always make sure that the parties have had a fair opportunity to present their views and evidence before we proceed to a decision.) My real-life work as a lawyer has not had much to do with how I think as an arbitrator: There are very few parallels between the work of a committee on a website and anything that happens in the real world, and in decisions, I've emphasized that nothing we decide is meant to have any consequences in the offline world. Still, sometime, if I can figure out a way to do it without sounding absurdly aggrandizing, I will write about what my time as a Wikipedia arbitrator has taught me about the types of decisions that must be made every day by a judge of a multi-member appellate court with a discretionary jurisdiction.

Ultimate control over the English Wikipedia, along with all of the sister projects and projects in other languages, resides with the Wikimedia Foundation. The Foundation is the charitable foundation that owns the equipment and the trademarks. The Foundation has a board of directors (chosen by a combination of members), an Executive Director and a small staff, and a General Counsel (currently Mike Godwin, of Godwin's Law fame). It sets policy only at a very broad level, and does not get involved in addressing particular disputes." (

Leonhard Dobusch and Sigrid Quack:

"Differently to the Creative Commons case, Wikimedia's origin was neither politically nor professionally motivated: Before Jimmy Wales announced the foundation of Wikimedia as a non-profit charitable corporation via mailing-list in 2003,19 rights holder and infrastructure provider of Wikipedia and its predecessor “Nupedia” had been the start-up company “”. Wales was one of three owners of this web-advertisment-selling corporation, which mainly provides links to erotic content targeted at male internet users.

Originally founded as a feeder for the quality-controlled Nupedia, Wikipedia‟s concept of openness turned out to attract much more contributors, which caused a growth-rate of 1,500 articles per month in the first year of existence.20 And as the software behind Wikipedia allowed different language versions, only two months after the foundation of the English Wikipedia users started to create versions in German, Catalan, Japanese, French and Spanish. Rising costs of the traffic generated by this nascent but quickly growing community of international contributors together with a reluctance to allow advertising21 soon led to discussions among these contributors, whether was an appropriate organizational carrier for Wikipedia.


Having invited volunteer contributors from all over the world to contribute to its project Wikipedia, ended up as being considered inappropriate for its further development by the community it helped creating. The importance of credibility and legitimacy of the carrier organization was demonstrated by the Spanish Wikipedia fork “Enciclopedia Libre Universal en Español”, which was founded by contributors of the Spanish-language Wikipedia to avoid any possibility of censorship and of placing advertisements by then Wikipedia host So, not least to avoid similar forks, handed over all Wikipedia related intellectual property to the newly set up Wikimedia Foundation, which soon thereafter started fundraising by publicly asking for donations.

Differently, again, to the professionally homogenous origins of Creative Commons, Wikipedia was developed by contributors from diverse professional backgrounds from its very start, some of which also engaged in the realm of Wikimedia. They saw the switch from corporate sponsorship to non-profit governance as an opportunity for increasing community participation in formal decision making processes. For example, one of these contributors, the later community-elected board member Erik Möller, initiated the first official project-wide community votes on Wikipedia policies.25 When in March 2004 Wales announced the community election of two seats of the Wikimedia board,26 this immediately inspired demand for even further participation: “Why is only a minority of the board chosen democratically? I won't argue about Jimbo's right to be in. But is the benevolent dictatorship now extended to a benevolent triumvirate with two guests?” The next challenge for organizing participation was then posed by Wikimedia‟s transnationalization. Differently to Wikipedia, which was conceptualized as a multilingual and hence transnational endeavor from the beginning, Wikimedia’s organizational transnationalization was far less planned: When in 2004 German Wikipedians, who had met at informal “regular‟s tables” before, formed the first local Wikimedia organization to raise funds for preserving Wikipedias advertisement-free status,28 the Wikimedia Foundation did not have any procedures or guidelines for dealing with such organizations, yet. In officially recognizing the German membership based association as a “Wikimedia Chapter”, the Wikimedia Foundation both paved the way for other local chapter organizations and at the same time established the German example as a role model for followers, as is pointed out by a member of another chapter organization: “Germany was very successful in organizing the chapter as a formal membership association and so all the others stopped thinking about it and did the same.”

As a consequence, Wikimedia‟s transnationalization strategy exclusively relied on a grass-roots approach with newly founded and legally independent membership-based organizations.29 New chapters have to be approved by Wikimedia‟s “Chapter Committee” to become officially recognized by the Wikimedia Foundation and, similar to the “MoU” within the Creative Commons network, chapters have to sign various formal agreements regarding the use of name and logo in a “chapter agreement”. By the end of 2008 Wikimedia officially recognized 20 local chapter organizations with a total of about 1.800 individual members.30 Wikimedia Germany is the largest chapter in terms of members (about 500), followed by Wikimedia Sweden (200), Italy (160), France and Netherlands (130 each).

The rationales given by founding members of the respective Wikimedia chapters for engaging in the formation of a formal organization were very similar across the board: Most interview partners report requests for contact persons from archives, museums or the local press, e.g. for managing donations of content such as picture archives. A member of the Czech Wikimedia chapter, for example, mentioned “cooperation with local entities” and “trying to get some sponsored project” as the major motive for forming the chapter. Thus, being able to cooperate with other local and formal organizations required local Wikipedia communities to build up a formal organization themselves.

As a “natural” recruiting ground for local Wikimedia activists and, hence, founders of local Wikimedia chapters serve the Wikipedia language projects mentioned above. Although participants in language projects are not necessarily geographically close, local meetings of very active contributors (”wiki meet-ups”) function as the basis for further engagement in the realm of chapter organizations. In terms of funding, the amount of financial resources each chapter receives via donations heavily depends on local tax laws and whether donations to the local Wikimedia chapter are exempted from tax. This is, for example, the case in Germany, Switzerland and Poland, as opposed to Austria or the Czech Republic.

In 2008, as a reaction to the growing number and importance of these local chapter organizations, Wikimedia devoted two “chapter-selected” seats to representatives of local Wikimedia chapter organizations in addition to the directly elected community representatives. This most recent change in participation structures is the last instance in Wikimedia‟s development from a very centralized and non-participatory structure with direct community participation from 2004 onwards, to a more decentralized and partly even heterarchical structure." (

Source: Managing Boundaries between Organizations and Communities: Comparing Creative Commons and Wikimedia. Paper prepared for the 3rd Free Culture Research Conference, October 8-9, 2010, Berlin. By Leonhard Dobusch and Sigrid Quack. [1]


As described by Eric Olin Wright:

"Wikipedia’s fundamental principles of organization are not simply non-capitalist; they are thoroughly anti-capitalist:

1. Nonmarket relations:

Voluntary, unpaid contributions and free access. No one is paid to write entries in Wikipedia and even much technical work on the software infrastructure of Wikipedia is done on a volunteer basis. No one is charged to gain access to its millions of entries: it is free to anyone in the world who can get access to an internet connection. There are no advertisements on the pages of Wikipedia. No one makes a profit directly from its activities. The financial resources needed to underwrite the hardware of the system and pay the limited staff needed for some technical functions is provided by the Wikimedia Foundation which is largely funded by contributions from the wiki community.

2. Full, Open, Egalitarian Participation.

Wikipedia gives full editing rights to anyone who wishes to join in the production and transformation of content. Anyone can be an editor and no editors have special privileges over others in the production of content. A PhD and a well-read high school student are on formally equal footing. The editorial process thus functions in a dramatically different way from conventional editorial processes that rely heavily on experts with credentials. While it is impossible from the available Wikipedia statistics to know how many different people have contributed to the editing process, in December 2008 there were 157, 360 “active accounts”, meaning accounts which had done at least one edit in the previous month.

3. Direct and Deliberative interactions among contributors.

Wikipedia contributions and decision-making are generally done directly by editors in a deliberative process with other editors without mediation by any body that has editorial or managerial control. Wikipedia articles tend to display a certain life-cycle, beginning as a “stub” (the wiki-term for a minimalist entry that has not yet “matured” into the normal structure of a Wikipedia article), then growing to a proper article with an increasing rate of edits which eventually converges on some equilibrium in which the article either remains largely static and “complete” or undergoes only minor editing. This process is often accompanied by considerable back and forth discussion among editors, which is recorded in a discussion page linked to a given entry.

It is thus possible to review the entire history of the writing and discussion in the editing process of Wikipedia entries. The mass collaborative effort of article authorship is a slow process of consensus formation. On average, entries in the English Wikipedia have nearly 90 saved revisions per article.

4. Democratic governance and adjudication.

At its inception, all Wikipedians were essentially editorial administrators (called “sysops”) but as vandalism and other mischief intensified with the growing notoriety of the encyclopedia, a kind of quasi-administrative structure was instituted which enable users to acquire different levels of organizational responsibility and roles in adjudicating conflicts. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the development of Wikipedia as a real utopian institutional design: the emergence and evolution of mechanisms of social control and adjudication suitable for such a freewheeling network structure.

There are currently four basic administrative levels of users: editors, administrators, bureaucrats, and stewards. As of mid-2008 there were about 1600 administrators, 31 bureaucrats and 36 stewards. The administrative privileges associated with these designations, however, remain focused on facilitating “cleaning” the encyclopedia; they do not confer privileges in the production of Wikipedia content. Here is how Wikipedia describes administrators, the basic level of this administrative structure above ordinary editors: “Administrators, commonly known as admins and also called sysops (system operators), are Wikipedia editors who have access to technical features that help with maintenance.” As described in the Wikipedia website that discusses administrative procedures, “English Wikipedia practice is to grant administrator status to anyone who has been an active and regular Wikipedia contributor for at least a few months, is familiar with and respects Wikipedia policy, and who has gained the trust of the community, as demonstrated through the Requests for adminship process.11 Among other technical abilities, administrators can protect and delete pages, block other editors, and undo these actions as well. These privileges are granted indefinitely, and are only removed upon request or under circumstances involving high-level intervention (see administrator abuse below). Administrators undertake additional responsibilities on a voluntary basis, and are not employees of the Wikimedia Foundation.”

Access to these administrative roles is gained through democratic means. The process, as described on the page in Wikipedia discussing “Requests for Adminship”, stresses the open, consensus-seeking character of the process:

- Any user may nominate another user with an account. Self-nominations are permitted. If you are unsure about nominating yourself for adminship, you may wish to consult admin coaching first, so as to get an idea of what the community might think of your request. Also, you might explore adoption by a more experienced user to gain experience. Nominations remain posted for seven days from the time the nomination is posted on this page, during which time users give their opinions, ask questions, and make comments. This discussion process is not a vote (it is sometimes referred to as a !vote using the computer science negation symbol). At the end of that period, a bureaucrat will review the discussion to see whether there is a consensus for promotion. This is sometimes difficult to ascertain, and is not a numerical measurement, but as a general descriptive rule of thumb most of those above ~80% approval pass, most of those below ~70% fail, and the area between is subject to bureaucratic discretion….. Any Wikipedian with an account is welcome to comment in the Support, Oppose, and Neutral sections. The candidate may respond to the comments of others. Certain comments may be discounted if there are suspicions of fraud; these may be the contributions of very new editors, sockpuppets, and meatpuppets13. Please explain your opinion by including a short explanation of your reasoning. Your input will carry more weight if it is accompanied by supporting evidence.

Selection procedures to other levels of the hierarchy have somewhat different rules, but they all involve open democratic processes.

One of the key roles for these different levels of administrators is resolving conflicts.

There are, of course, topics in which there is considerable disagreement among editors over content. Sometimes this makes it difficult for an entry to converge on a consensus text. There are also instances of malicious vandalism of Wikipedia entries. Wikipedia urges the resolution of disagreement between editors on the basis of open communication and users have written numerous guides and essays offering instruction and advice to this end.16 Most evidence indicates that warring between editors is rare relative to the total number of editors and vast amount of content over which disagreement may arise. Yet, disputes do arise and when the editors fail to resolve the issues themselves, a neutral administrator may be called in to manage the conflict through negotiation, mediation, and arbitration – all processes that emphasize the empowerment of aggrieved parties, consensus, and mutually beneficial outcomes. If disputes remain unresolved, then a series of escalating interventions become available. A dispute may be referred to formal mediation and finally to arbitration. The Arbitration Committee, which was formed in early 2004, is the mechanism of last resort for dispute resolution and is the only body that can impose a decision, including sanctions, against users. The members of the Arbitration Committee are appointed by Jimmy Wales on the basis of advisory elections by the broader Wikipedia community. At this ultimate level of control, the Wikipedia process contains a residual, if nevertheless important, element of undemocratic power.

Taken together these four characteristics of Wikipedia – nonmarket relations, egalitarian participation, deliberative interactions among contributors, democratic governance and adjudication – conform closely to the normative ideals of radical democratic egalitarianism. What is remarkable is that these principles have underwritten the collaboration of tens of thousands of people across the world in the production of a massive global resource." (

Specific Aspects

Three Reasons for Wikipedia's Bureaucracy

By Dariusz Jemielniak:

"There are three main reasons for procedure accrual on Wikipedia. First, the sheer amount of regulation lets more veteran editors use their understanding of the rules as leverage against the less experienced editors. As I describe in my new book, Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia, this way bureaucracy substitutes for the lack of more traditional organizational hierarchy. Experienced editors reinforce their own status by smacking newcomers with their ignorance. This process is strengthened by cryptic lingo, in which phrases such as “del per nom. Fails NPOV, relies on OR, and has a SNOW chance of improving to BLP standards” are not uncommon. (In case you’re not fluent in Wikipedian, that means: “I support the deletion of this article per the arguments of the nominator. The article is not written neutrally, it relies on original research, and does not have any chance of being improved to meet the standards of biographies of living persons.”)

Second, in open collaboration, project members enjoy their influence by generating rules and norms. Collective decision-making plays an important role in fostering editors’ engagement and their feeling of community. The only problem is that this approach works best for the veterans. When the amount of rules reaches a critical point (as it has most likely already done on Wikipedia), there is not that much vital to add. New generations of editors basically do not have any important areas left to regulate to make their marks. At the same time, a fossilized status quo additionally deters newcomers.

Third, it should not be surprising that in any population, there are people who feel better in a highly regulated context. Even though they probably do not form a majority of Wikipedia contributors, their preferences are reflected in actions. Each procedure that is approved on Wikipedia makes sense on its own, so most new rules are not veraciously opposed even by those who prefer a more flexible environment. As a result, there is a natural growth of regulations, while no one focuses on their reduction." (

The anachronistic practice of banning adversarial editors

Barry Kort:

"The governance model of Wikipedia was so anachronistic that it took me over a year to place it in the timeline of historic governance models adopted at various times in the annals of human history.

The thing that stymied me was the prominence of blocking and banning as the primary tool of governance. I simply couldn’t place that among the recognized tools of governance in any historic context.

And then I happened to take a look at the oldest surviving account of secular law — the Code of Hammurabi of 1760 BC.

Of the 282 laws that Hammurabi of Mesopotamia carved into the stone tablets, take note of the very first one:

-1. If any one ensnare another, putting a ban upon him, but he can not prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death.

Evidently, banning (ostracism) was a common practice in the tribal cultures in the Middle East some 4000 years ago, at the dawn of civilization. Capricious and spurious banning was evidently such a common and egregious abuse of tribal overlords that Hammurabi made it a capital offense to ban someone without proving just cause.

And yet, on Wikipedia, indefinite blocks and bans without due process are a common occurrence. That is to say, the prevailing governance model of Wikipedia corresponds to a pre-Hammurabic tribal ochlocracy that is so anachronistic, it predates the advent of the Rule of Law.

When Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders drafted the US Constitution, one of the provisions they put in Article One was a prohibition against Bills of Attainder. A Bill of Attainder is the technical term in the law for declaring a person to be an outlaw (without respect to having violated any specific law that applies equally to everyone). The Founders excluded Bills of Attainder from the tools of governance because 4000 years of political history had demonstrated that such a toxic practice is corrosive and ridden with corruption, and invariably sinks any government that comes to rely on it.

The irony here is that Wikipedia purports to be the “sum of all knowledge” with an educational mission that reaches out to students, teachers, and scholars around the world. And yet those exercising power in Wikipedia have not yet learned the oldest and most profound lessons in the annals of human history — lessons enshrined in the first written law and in the first article of the US Constitution.

The consequence of adopting such an anachronistic governance model is that Wikipedians are fated to relive and reify the long-forgotten lessons of history. They relive those lessons by reprising the same kind of political dramas that fill the history books since the dawn of civilization.

The anachronistic governance model which Jimbo Wales foolishly and mindlessly introjected into Wikipedia is simply not a sustainable model in this day and age. Summary and capricious banning wasn’t even a sustainable model some 3768 years ago when Hammurabi first singled it out as an unacceptable practice in a civilized culture." (

Conflict Arbitration

Interview of Jonathan Hochman by Tisch Shute:

"One of the things I did was to try and clear people out who were being disruptive. We actually had to go to arbitration over that article. It is like the supreme court of Wikipedia. There is a panel of 15 arbitrators. They hear the case. There is evidence, arguments and decisions. It is really like a simulated law suit. You get all the experience of a simulated law suit with the real threat that you could be banned. If they don’t like what you are doing they can actually ban you or restrict you from topics.

So it is really fascinating how this social space Wikipedia becomes a very real platform though it is in a virtual world for real world disputes. Most disputes are over the definition of things. If you have a you suit most disputes are about how things are defined. And Wikipedia has become the defacto definition of things in the real world. People want to know what are “The Troubles.” If you go to Wikipedia you find out The Troubles are a dispute over Northern Ireland. What the article says has a profound impact on public opinion.

Tish: So who is on the court of Wikipedia?

Jonathan: They are volunteers. these people work two or three hours a day to run this court. There are all kinds of projects. There is a WikiProject Spam which has people who can write computer programs to statistically analyze Wikipedia projects - not only Wikipedia. But all of them are looking at the links and reporting them and banning those people who are abusing or gaming the system.

Tish: You were on the Stopping Virtual Blight Panel at Web 2.0 Summit - what are the most important things to think about on this topic?

Jonathan: Yes we were talking about how to defend the web against virtual blight. The thing I find interesting about Wikipedia is that because it is the eighth largest web site and possibly the second largest web site comprised of user generated content after YouTube. The problems that exist in Wikipedia are larger and more detailed than any other site. For whatever problem someone has for their social media site or their Web 2.0 site these problems already exist in Wikipedia and the solutions are there and they are transparent. You can actually see the history of what’s been done.

If there is, for example, a problem on Digg - some problem with sock puppetry or vote stacking - it happens, it goes away. You don’t get full disclosure. With Wikipedia you can actually go in and look at a dispute and watch it unfold. You can watch the arbitration cases that are filed, the arguments, the decisions, the logic, the rationale. You can see the successes and the failures and the different things people have tried to control blight. For example, we tried to resolve this dispute one way but it was a disaster, so we have tried something else and that worked." (

User typology as related to governance

Forte and Bruckman (2008, pp. 3-4) identify three main identities that a user may have:

Unregistered users can exert little individual influence in shaping policy and establishing norms, but en masse they represent an important part of the context in which day-to-day operations take place. In most cases, unregistered users have the ability to edit the encyclopedia freely but…their ability to influence content is weaker than registered users.

Registered Users includes everybody else on the site…Registered users may also hold various technical powers…[they] often self-select into formal and informal subgroups along ideological, functional, and content-related lines… Ideological groups are much like political parties whose affiliates hold a set of common beliefs about the way the community should function and what its goals should be. Examples of stable ideological groups include deletionists, who are committed to very strict guidelines on what constitutes encyclopedic topics, and inclusionists, who are committed to the idea that an online encyclopedia need not and must not exclude information.

The Arbitration Committee wields considerable influence in the community. The Arbitration Committee (Arb Com)…appears to often serve as a more general decision-making body for the English language site. Arb Com was initially charged with interpreting policy and making binding resolutions in the case of interpersonal disputes…Committee members are selected through a hybrid process of election by the community and appointment by Jimmy Wales…Committee action can play a role in influencing both policy and content."

Source: Forte, A., and Bruckman, A. (2008) “Scaling Consensus: Increasing Decentralization in Wikipedia Governance”, Proceedings of the 41st International Conference on System Sciences, Hawai: HICSS, 157.

More Information

On the governance structure of Wikipedia, see

  1. Fernanda B. Viégas, Martin Wattenberg, and Matthew M. McKeon, “The Hidden Order of Wikipedia,” Visual Communication Lab, IBM Research, <>, and
  2. Andrea Forte and Amy Bruckman, “Scaling Consensus: Increasing Decentralization in Wikipedia Governance,” Proceedings of the 41st Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 2008, <>.
  3. Bauwens, M. (2008b) “Is Something Fundamentally Wrong with Wikipedia Governance Processes?”, P2P Foundation blog at (retrieved 14 October 2008).
  4. Butler, B., Joyce, E., and Pike, J. (2008) “Don’t Look Now, But We’ve Created a Bureaucracy: The Nature and Roles of Policies and Rules in Wikipedia”, CHI Proceedings, 2008, Florence: CHI.
  5. Economist, The (2008) “The Battle for Wikipedia’s Soul”,at (retrieved 24 January 2009).
  6. Helm, B. (2005) “Wikipedia: A Work in Progress”, Business Week at (retrieved 20 January 2009).
  7. Loubser, M., and den Besten, M. (2008) “Wikipedia Admins and Templates: The Organizational Capabilities of a Peer Production Effort“, Creating Value through Digital Commons, European Academy of Management, Ljubljana and Bled, 14-17 May.
  8. Riehle, D. (2006) “How and Why Wikipedia Works: An Interview with Angela Beesley, Elisabeth Bauer, and Kizu Naoko”, International Symposium on Wikis (WikiSym '06).
  9. Rosenzweig, R. (2006) “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past’’, The Journal of American History, 93(1).
  10. Spek, S., Postma, E., and van den Herik, H.J. (2006) “Wikipedia: Organisation from a bottum-up approach“, International Symposium on Wikis (WikiSym '06).
  11. Viegas, F., Wattenberg, M., and McKeon, M. (2007) “The Hidden Order of Wikipedia“, Proceedings of HCII International, Beijing: HCI.

Internal Wikipedia articles:

  1. Wikipedia (2009) “Criticism of Wikipedia” at (retrieved 23 January 2009)
  2. Wikipedia (2009) “Deletionism and Inclusionism in Wikipedia”, at (retrieved 25 January 2009)
  3. Wikipedia (2009) “Essjay Controversy” at (retrieved 23 January 2009)
  4. Wikipedia (2009) “Talk: Deletionism and Inclusionism in Wikipedia”, at (retrieved 25 January 2009)
  5. Wikipedia, “Wikipedia:Protection policy”, at (retrieved 25 October 2008)
  6. Wikipedia (2009) “Wikitruth” at retrieved 24 January 2009)

Wikipedia-critical sites:

  1. Wikipedia Review, The (2008) ”Criticisms of Wikipedia: A Compendium” at (retrieved 30 October 2008)
  2. Wikipedia Review, The (2008) “Discussion” at (retrieved 11 November 2008)
  3. Wikimedia (2008) “Power Structure” at (retrieved 25 October 2008)