Rambling Thoughts About Wikipedia

Wikipedia has the top search results for an incredible number of topics. Its goal is not to make money, but it has something close to (or analogous to) a monopoly on the valuable service that it provides.

So it’s interesting to consider how that organization is governed. And make no mistake, Wikipedia is not some “just the facts ma’am” encyclopedia. Rather, for many controversial subjects, it’s an information filter that Wikipedia’s government greatly influences. And, yes, like all corporations, Wikipedia has a government.

There are ordinary editors at Wikipedia, and there are also administrators. Many of the editors and administrators are excellent, but some of them collude, and use the Wikipedia government to slant information, mostly by pursuing editors who they choose to bring actions against. As volunteers, these administrators are not required to take action against anyone, so they can solely enforce rules against those whom they choose to target, or alternatively can take only token action against those with whom they agree about article content.

The ultimate authority at Wikipedia, or at least the penultimate authority, is the “Arbitration Committee” (aka “ArbCom”), which is often too busy or uninterested or biased to be anything but a rubber-stamp for whatever lopsided or unsubstantiated action the administrators may take.

The ArbCom says what the facts of a dispute are, and what the rules are. There is no involvement of ordinary editors as randomly selected “jurors” or the like. And since anonymity prevails, there is not much of any way to prevent or obtain correction of slanderous, or libelous, accusations or decisions made during “dispute resolution” by the administrators or by “arbitrators” (the arbitrators are the members of ArbCom, numbering less than twenty).

ArbCom is heavily influenced by Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, whose personal discussion page in some ways operates as the pinnacle of the encyclopedia (in the sense that the most powerful Wikipedians monitor that discussion page and take their cues from it). In this pyramid-like structure, enormous influence is wielded from the top down, and ordinary editors do not make any of the fact-finding decisions during the adjudication of disputes by ArbCom. While bureaucracy may be inevitable in such a large enterprise, there is a centralization of power that coexists with more inclusive power mechanisms. In other words, ordinary editors can participate in policy-making and elections at Wikipedia in a large number of ways, and this tends to conceal (or mask) the more top-down aspects of the operation.

What Wikipedia needs most is to create something like a jury system so that randomly-chosen editors can perform many functions that are currently performed by cliques. That includes (at least) fact-finding during disputes, and ought to include many other functions as well. Can you imagine what would happen if real-life criminal juries were replaced by whoever decides that they’d like to show up, or alternatively replaced by a bunch of permanent officials? Either way would be a disaster, and yet that is pretty much what Wikipedia has done.

Wikipedia is a non-profit, and supposedly non-political entity. It is certainly a good first-stop resource on many topics. But its governance needs to incorporate basic elements that have been used in civil governance for thousands of years, such as randomly-selected and mandatory jury duty.

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