Wikipedia as Real Utopia: Governance, knowledge production, and the institutional structure of Wikipedia – Edo Navot, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Sociology. Here follows my rough transcription of his speech, followed by my comments. The fact that his is the only presentation I have so far commented on should be taken as a sign of respect, not of disparagement. I rather enjoyed his presentation, pledge to read his paper in depth as soon as possible (I have skimmed it), and admire him for being one of the few academics out there studying social and political thought on Wikipedia.
Scientific papers that have been written about Wikipedia are interesting, and there are many things to do with quantitative or statistical analysis. I however want to take a Sociological approach and ask: how does Wikipedia organize its members into the project?
Real Utopia is a concept from Eric Wright, a professor of Sociology at Wisconsin-Madison. It puts into place very idealistic places. It is an egalitarianism of many kinds, radical direct participatory democracy, where all are given the conditions necessary to ensure human flourishing. Two real utopias. 1: Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil. They created a system of dual power between residents and municipal assembly. 2: British Citizen’s Assembly: 160 randomly selected individuals charged with creating an electoral system.
Real utopian aspects of Wikipedia: Full and open participation, pragmatic orientation, direct and deliberative, consensus formation, alternative dispute resolution, devolution, non-hierarchical, democratic.
Future challenges: every new, innovative, and exciting project faces challenges when it begins to become bureaucratized and institutionalized. Successful institutions must be highly responsive to their members, that is, democratic. Wales remains an authority of last resort. Should the Wikimedia foundation institute a system of dual power? A volunteer assembly has already been suggested.
Perhaps a randomly selected Wikipedian Assembly, a jury picked from members of the community to resolve disputes? Who owns Wikipedia? We discussed in the Board Panel about selling a project. WMF owns all the technology, but content production – who owns that? The community does.
Question: Are you aware of What Wikipedia is Not:Democracy? Yes, and that is wrong. Consensus is democracy – it is implied.
My only real problem with Edo’s presentation was his answer to the question about WWIN:Democracy, a longstanding policy that is widely characterized as “Wikipedia is not a democracy.” If that was what the policy said, I would have entirely agreed with Edo – consensus is effectively a democratic form of governance, when all members of a political community are taken into account when determining consensus. However, this is not what it says. The policy (taken from an emphatic posting on the Wikipedia mailing list by Jimmy Wales in 2005) says: “Wikipedia is or any other political system.”
This is an entirely different idea, one with a good amount of nuance. Wikipedia obviously contains many elements of a democracy, but democracy is not what Wikipedia is primarily about. To rephrase: Wikipedia primarily is a project to create an encyclopedia that will give everyone the sum total of human knowledge in their own language, not primarily a project to adhere to the principles of democracy. Now, many people will say that democracy is what makes such a project possible, and I will heartily agree. However, changing how Wikipedia is run must be justified not in terms of democracy, but encyclopedia building. That is, democracy in Wikipedia is not an end in itself, only a means to building an encyclopedia.
With this in mind, I feel that Edo’s presentation is flawed insofar as it couches policy suggestions in a language foreign to Wikipedia. However, I must admit I do that too: my senior thesis on Wikipedia’s legal structure concluded that Wikipedian law (whatever that was) contained traces of Continental Law and Common Law in its legal systems, which created conflict and need to be reconsiled. Talk about a case of wikilawyering. Every time I feel like busting out Michel Foucault and writing on Wikipedia in that manner, I must remind myself that Wikipedia does not exist to decenter the liberal-democratic humanist subject or problematize existing knowledge/power regimes. Yes, it might very well do that, but I am wary of anyone who uses any particular theory to claim not what Wikipedia is, but what Wikipedia should be.
When looking over his paper, I feel that he is more interested in “exporting” Wikipedia’s model to other forms than importing the concept of a real utopia into Wikipedia. I commend him for that. I also appreciate his call for a “social history of Wikipedia” – a project that I will be undertaking in my thesis next academic year.