There is an interesting essay over at meta.wikimedia about Wikipedia power structure: Wikimedia’s present power structure is a mix of anarchic, despotic, democratic, republican, meritocratic, plutocratic, technocratic, and bureaucratic elements.
Wow! The entire self-reflection of the Wikipedia community is amazing and the topic is very interesting.
Personally I find interesting how much these policies and ethos are created by the community (the humans) and how much they are created by the socio-technical system (the Mediawiki software). My impression is that the software influences a lot and the same community will perform very differently under different softwares: I think it is often mentioned that Wikis work because it is very easy (easier?) fix things than destroying them, but this is a feature of the software and of the buttons and functionalities (such as rollback) that the software gives to users.
Many of these points resonates in me since I read the glorious book by Lawrence Lessig Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace but now I’m in a position to test them … at least in Wikipedia! I guess I would be classified as a technocratic ;)
The essay is released under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License, so, just because I can, I copy and paste the original HTML after the jump (and most links are of course broken). Enjoy!
Wikimedia pages can be edited collaboratively by anyone, including IP users, with no hidden strings attached. Rarely, they can be lost over time (see below) but if our policies (e.g. policies of the English wiki) are followed, it is possible for anyone to become a respected editor.
Respected editors also respect the anarchic “accept all comers” approach to this collaborative endeavour. Newcomers are a valued resource.
Similarly, our guidelines and policies, based in tradition are evolving through collaborative editing and the search for consensus and compromises. Besides the talk pages of the respective policy pages, the meta wiki and mailing lists are used to discuss these matters. The mailing lists once carried more active discussion than they do presently.
The smaller national language Wikipedias have less structure due to their smaller sphere of contributors.
As a practical matter, most Wikimedia policy is a matter of tradition. Certain foundation issues are considered, for practical purposes, beyond discussion. Other matters are currently handled according to tradition despite an overall consensus that the status quo is not ideal (c.f. en:Wikipedia:Articles for deletion and en:Wikipedia:Requests for adminship).
To understand this aspect of the Wikimedia power structure, realize that many, perhaps most, contributors consider it impractical to revisit difficult issues as consensus seems unlikely to them. As in other organizations, change most often comes when it must rather than when it should.
However, one is not compelled to follow this point of view, indeed one should probably work against it in a constructive way, for instance by making alternative proposals.
Over time, as the project has grown, a complex collection of policies, procedures, user groups, and conventions has grown up to assist in its organisation and improvement. Theoretically these are mostly transparent, informal, and neutral, but in practice they give an advantage to those who understand them. New or less frequent users may simply be overwhelmed by requests to adhere to the Manual of Style, use the correct categories and templates, or understand the complexities of deletion policy.
Deliberately using greater understanding of the processes to further your own agenda is actively discouraged. Moreover, wherever possible new editors should be encouraged to be bold and get involved, and more experienced users should actively help them through the complexities of the system. See “Please do not bite the newcomers“.
User:Jimbo Wales used to be the “Benevolent dictator” but has turned over control to the Wikimedia Board of Trustees. He originally paid for all of Wikipedia’s operations with no financial return whatsoever, and retained a veto right on all decisions. He also sometimes unilaterally announced certain decisions, such as user bans, and has elevated some guidelines to the status of enforced policies. Other than holding certain foundation issues in high regard, his active participation in the power structure was increasingly limited.
Jimbo at one time was involved in nearly all proposed bans of a signed-in user. After the ban of EntmootsOfTrolls in November 2003, Jimbo issued few new bans, instead relying on the en:Wikipedia:Arbitration Committee to approve bans. Users whose edit history is solely vandalism can be blocked by any administrator. So too can any “reincarnation” of a previously banned/blocked user, though in many cases it is impossible to prove that a user is a reincarnation to the satisfaction of the community without the use of the CheckUser tool.
Wales largely left non-English Wikipedias to get on with it, due to language difficulties. This suggests that his influence was actually more symbolic than effective. Others acted under his authority and general rule statements.
Not all conflicts can be resolved through consensus, and in many cases, simple votes are organized using only the wikipages as a tool. Virtually all existing voting methods have been tried and used, and no standard has been agreed upon yet.
In March 2003, with Wales’ approval, User:Eloquence organized the first official project-wide vote on a Wikipedia policy, on the subject of which articles to include in the Wikipedia total article count (see Article count reform). The voting method used was average voting. The result was accepted, and more official votes on contentious subjects may follow.
Basically, whenever you feel like it, you can try to start a vote on a talk page, but people will probably not participate in it if they think discussion has not yet been exhausted as a way to resolve conflicts of opinion. In general Wikimedia follows a deliberative democracy model, where nothing is in a hurry… it could evolve towards consensus democracy if Wikipedians chose to do so.
While Jimbo remains skeptical of voting, he has suggested that he is more willing to accept votes on the non-English Wikipedias, where he is less able to oversee the decision making process. It is most likely for original structures to emerge in such areas.
Some Wikipedias, such as the English, French, Dutch and Swedish Wikipedias, have a class of administrators (formerly “sysops”). For information on the specific powers and guidelines for administrators, see:
- Meta administrators
- administrators of German Wikipedia
- administrators of English Wikipedia
- administrators of French Wikipedia
- administrators of Japanese Wikipedia
- administrators of Dutch Wikipedia
- administrators of Swedish Wikipedia
- administrators of Polish Wikipedia
- administrators of Italian Wikipedia
- administrators of Spanish Wikipedia
See also Administrators of Wikimedia projects/Wikipedias for other languages.
Though each language has a different culture, generally administrator actions are limited and controlled by “the people at large”: most administrators see themselves as servants of the community, not masters (see also Administrators on your wiki). For example, page deletions are transparently logged at (for example) Wikipedia’s log. The nomination process for administrators also differs among the various languages.
While administrators are not technically elected, they are representatives of the larger group of Wikimedia users. Their power is strictly limited, and abuse results in the removal of administrator powers from the abuser (though in practice this is rare).
Administrators’ power chiefly derives from the latitude in interpreting rules and consensus. For example, administrators may determine at their discretion when a page qualifies for deletion, either under “speedy deletion” guidelines or as a result of a !vote. Deletions are rarely overturned by other sysops except in high-profile cases or where it is clear a mistake was made. In like fashion, page protection guidelines are vague, and administrators as a rule do not overrule each others’ decisions on page protection.
Wikimedia is very much a meritocracy. Quality is the abiding goal of Wikimedia, and so those contributors who provide the best quality work are most likely to see their contributions come to influence specific articles. They are less likely to be edited and corrected by other users as they gather respect and influence within the community or sub-community of topic area. Wikipedia articles are explicitly stated to have no author, but users only have to check page history to see who has provided the most positive influence in the development of an article. The needs of personal ego can thus be subtly met.
If meritocracy is understood as a community where merits can be accumulated in a power status that afterwards is rendered untouchable whatever the quality of further contributions (or deletions), then Wikimedia is not a meritocracy: the quality of every separate contribution is, in this respect, considered in its own right, and for example, “votes for deletion” take little or no account of the persons that contributed to the questioned content, neither does any wikipedian’s vote have more or less weight according to “merit” in such case.
“Those who pay the bills make the rules” is a common adage. It is hardly true on Wikipedias, and whether it is becoming on such a project as Wikipedia, considering the nature of the effort, could be debated, but the openness of Wikipedias allows anyone with enough financial resources to fund extensive development in a specific area or work on a specific range of topics. This work could then be used in discussions as leverage to implement certain policies — generally, people who contribute a lot are less questioned because they enjoy the respect of the community.
Certainly this is the weakest element in the Wikimedia power structure, but it will grow in importance now that the Wikimedia Foundation has begun to take donations — when money is explicitly involved, the influence of those who have it tends to increase. See the Disinfopedia for some analysis of the impact of money on opinion in the larger world.
Underlying all of the above is a technocracy. Some people have power to develop and change code. Others have the power to change article histories and discover the IP addresses of logged-in users. And underlying all that, someone — the Wikimedia Foundation, though Bomis occasionally lends servers — owns the hardware. Sometimes a Wikipedia Vicious Cycle with strong elements of technological escalation, use of bots, many accounts, access to server logs, etc., takes over, and it is resolved ultimately by “who has the technological power.”
As an electronic community, Wikimedia depends to a high extent on the software it uses. This software is developed as open source by volunteer developers. New developers have to submit patches to the existing coders and, if their patches are of high quality, ultimately get write access to the code and can make their own changes. (The write access is somewhat less open than on the wiki itself, because the software should remain functional at any given time.) Very highly involved developers may get access to the Wikipedia servers, giving them even greater technical power over the project. The controlling process at work, at least theoretically, is that those developers with the greatest ability (and motivation) should have the highest access level in the system.
This is viewed by some as a form of militarism, with whoever has the best technological “weapons” able to cut off input from others. This may be better at Wikipedia than on most “web sites”, but, it’s far from an equal-power relationship. After all, it is a very rare phenomenon to elect developers, sysops, or server admins, although it happens from time to time.
The problem with this, of course, is that it favours technical over other kinds of knowledge – say, moral or ecological knowledge. Those capable of hacking code are not necessarily those most capable of improving the list of ecology topics or list of ethics topics. Wikipedia has suffered very much from technocratic biases in the past, and over-covers views of that sort.
Developers at present play a less prominent and more specialised (if no less influential) role in decision-making than was once the case. Most developer effort has been directed towards capacity issues and other operational matters, including startup of the dozens of related projects in a plethora of languages, and the implementation of feature requests and developments.