Wikimania 2008: Wikipedia as Real Utopia with Edo Navot

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 not an experiment in democracy 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.

One thought on “Wikimania 2008: Wikipedia as Real Utopia with Edo Navot

  1. Hello Stuart (and anyone else),

    I’m honored that you chose to write about my presentation first, for your email and the opportunity to respond to your friendly criticism. You raised many important points… I don’t know if I can respond to all of them.

    Wikipedia and democracy: My answer to this question was, I admit, too brusque. Here’s a more nuanced version of my understanding of democracy in Wikipedia. First, there are different norms of management in WP at different levels of the institution. At the level of content creation, decisions are made by consensus and – as we all seem to agree – that is a particular form that democracy can take. However, at higher levels of management – call it policy, or meta, or dispute resolution, or all of the above – WP displays a mix of democratic and non-democratic decision making. Administrators are elected; members of the ArbCom (the only body in WP with punitive authority) are selected on the basis of elections; select seats in the Wikimedia Foundation Board are elected; etc. I characterized WP as democratic because I think the spirit with which governance takes place is representative democratic and I see WP developing more democratic elements all the time, like the proposed ‘volunteer council.’

    Also Stuart, you rightly point to the important distinction made by Jimbo, that WP is not “an experiment in democracy”. In some respects, I respectfully differ. I agree wholeheartedly that WP is not ABOUT experimenting with democracy, or anything else other than building an encyclopedia. I acknowledged this characteristic in my presentation but ran through it too quickly for lack of time. When I described WP’s “pragmatic orientation” I meant that WP is exclusively about producing the encyclopedia. I admire this characteristic and think it is essential to the project of WP. Yet while the purpose of WP is the production of the encyclopedia (not dem governance) there remains plenty of room for experimentation with different institutional structures to see which ones best facilitate the growth of the encyclopedia. I think the “social history” of WP is, in part, a series of incremental changes with different forms of governance in which some hierarchy was necessarily created (admins) but, in the main, representative democratic structures where ‘tried on’ and those that fit were kept. I realize this is highly subtle and that I could not address it adequately in my presentation, but I do not think there is a contradiction between the two phrases: “Wikipedia has experimented with and remains characterized by some forms of democracy” and “Wikipedia is not about experimenting with democracy; it is about writing an encyclopedia.”

    I will only add that part of what I was trying to convey in my presentation is that I advocate for more democracy in Wikipedia not because of democracy’s intrinsic virtues (though I believe most of us agree on those) but because of my belief that pragmatically democracy will best facilitate the building of the encyclopedia. A megaproject constructed at the hands of a diffuse, decentralized, largely anonymous, often raucous community must find ways to remain responsive to that community. Governance in WP is constant balancing act between getting things done and not alienating the community that must do the work of building the encyclopedia. I believe that no form of governance will achieve this requirement better than direct democracy.

    As for writing about Wikipedia in a language foreign to WP, well, as you say, that’s pretty much what academics do. And it’s not necessarily all bad as long as what we write is not aloof from what we write about and as long as it provokes some people in WP – or elsewhere – into reflective discussion. Also, academics in particular and persons who believe in a more just and democratic society have a lot to learn from Wikipedia. The production of knowledge and knowledge industries will only become more critical to future economies. Wikipedia is currently the only model of knowledge production that, while problematic, has proven successful while embodying ideals of democracy and minimal hierarchy.

    Stuart, thank you very much for your criticism and your post. I have been delighted and complimented by all the feedback I have received in Wikimania and since.

    Edo Navot

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