Felix Stalder on Tue, 28 Sep 2010 16:20:59 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Wikipedia as expert NGO

I spent last weekend at a small conference in Leipzig, organized
by Johanna Niesyto, Geert Lovink and others, called Wikipedia: Der
Kritische Standpunkt (A critical point of view) [1], which brought
together researchers studying Wikipedia and 'Wikipedians', mainly
admins and high-ranking editors. 

What follows relates mainly to the German language Wikipedia, but I
assume some issues are similar in other large Wikipedia, not the least
the English language one.

What came to the fore, at least for me, was that the 'inner circle'
-- foundation people, admins and high-ranking editors who take
responsibility for the project as a whole -- are feeling increasingly
beleaguered by hordes of people who are either a) ignorant/stupid
and thus have nothing to contribute b) hostile trolls out to cause
troubles c) people who only criticize yet will do no actual work.

In many ways, this is an understandable feeling, after all, running 
Wikipedia is a major thing, time and man power are always scarce and the 
pressures from the public are high. Any significant misktake, and it's 
front page news within hours. Yet, there are no clear procedures how to 
handle many of the tasks (e.g. when to block editing an entry).  

This is all not terribly surprising, given the exponential growth
of the last couple of years and the needds to create policies and
procedures on an ad-hoc basis.. But it leads to a shift in what this
project is about.

The sociologist Christian Stagbauer described a shift within the      
inner circle from an ideology of liberation (FREE encyclopedia        
ANYONE can edit) towards an product ideology (BEST encyclopedia in    
the world, GOOD AUTHORS are always welcome). This shift is also       
expressed in the widespread view among that Wikipedia (again, mainly  
the German and the English) is nearing completion and that the main   
focus should now be on improving quality, a task that most people     
are not sufficiently qualified for. In the German context this had    
created bitter discussion regarding the deletion policy, which many   
outsiders see as arbitrary and draconian, while the insiders see it   
as essential to their quality focus.                                  

It's clear that Wikipedia is in a process of institutionalization.
This is necessary and in itself not a bad thing. The question is, what
kind of institutions are being created and what is their impact on the
knowledge that is produced within and through the project.

In my view, the most likely trajectory in terms of institution-building is 
that of a professional, expertise-driven NGO. Think Greenpeace. There, you 
have relatively small group of professionals, who make all the key 
decisions and hold all the expertise. They are well networked with experts 
outside the organization with whom they collaborate depending on the 
strategic objectives they themselves have established. Around this is a 
group of volunteers who are doing small scale, routine tasks reflecting 
strategies they do not set themselves. Around that is a large group of 
people who have little knowledge of the organizations about feel 
sympathetic enough to donate money from time to time. 

Organizationally, this might be a relatively stable arrangement, but a 
problematic one never the less. 

For one, it's quite far away from its anti-credentialist beginnings   
and unless very well and transparently communicated, likely to        
produce endless tensions with those still believe the Wikipedia tag   
line and want to get involved without being properly acculturated.    
Their edits will most likely be deleted.                              

Second, it's likely that the variety of knowledges that flow into the
making of entries is being decreased, in favor of more conventional,
mainstream expert knowledge. Thus, reproducing the dominant point of
view, rather than highlighting controversies around main of the issues
covered. Something a collaborative open process would be uniquely
capabale of. This tendency towards the dominant center is already
strong through the policy of the Neutral Point of View and the
somewhat antiquated notion that there is an uncontroversial state of
the art, that describes the world out there. Yet, this is acerbated by
the informal changes in the organization itself.

I think the fact that Wikipedia depends on donations, rather than
on advertising, is counterbalancing this tendency, but as long as
the knowledge & expertise gap between the insiders and outsiders is
growing, this will be very hard to turn around.

[1] http://www.cpov.de/ The website contains some very good english-
language summaries of the talks given in German.

--- http://felix.openflows.com ----------------------- books out now:
*|Deep Search.The Politics of Search Beyond Google.Studienverlag 2009
*|Mediale Kunst/Media Arts Zurich.13 Positions.Scheidegger&Spiess2008
*|Manuel Castells and the Theory of the Network Society. Polity, 2006 
*|Open Cultures and the Nature of Networks. Ed. Futura/Revolver, 2005 

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