What a disappointing species we are. Stick us in a virgin paradise, and we create great honeycombed bureaucracies, vast bramble-fields of rules and regulations, ornate politburos filled with policymaking politicos, and, above all, tangled webs of power. Freed from history, freed from distance, freed even from our own miserable bodies, we just dig deeper holes in the mire. We fall short of our own expectations.
Witness Wikipedia. For some of us, the popular online encyclopedia has become more interesting as an experiment in emergent bureaucracy than in emergent content. Slashdot today points to Dirk Riehle’s fascinating interview with three high-ranking Wikipedians, Angela Beesley, Elisabeth “Elian” Bauer, and Kizu Naoko. They describe Wikipedia’s increasingly complex governance structure, from its proliferation of hierarchical roles to its “career paths” to its regulatory committees and processes to its arcane content templates. We learn that working the bureaucracy tends to become its own reward for the most dedicated Wikipedians: “Creating fewer articles as time goes on seems fairly common as people get caught up in the politics and discussion rather than the editing.” And we learn that the rules governing the deletion of an entry now take up “37 pages plus 20 subcategories.” For anyone who still thinks of Wikipedia as a decentralized populist collective, the interview will be particularly enlightening. Wikipedia is beginning to look something like a post-revolutionary Bolshevik Soviet, with an inscrutable central power structure wielding control over a legion of workers.
It will be interesting to watch how those workers respond as they confront the byzantine bureaucracy that’s running the show. Will they continue to contribute, or will they become alienated and abandon the project? As Angela Beesley remarks, “The biggest challenge [for Wikipedia] is to maintain what made us who and what we are: the traditional wiki model of being openly editable.” Kizu Naoko singles out “lack of involvement” as a major threat to the project: “we need to go back to the first and foremost challenge: To keep the openness of the wikis that makes it easy for people to join.” The fate of Wikipedia – and perhaps the general “participative” or “open source” organizational model of online production – appears to hinge on how the tension between openness and bureaucracy plays out.
There was one passage in the interview that was of particular personal interest to me. Some time ago, I proposed the Law of the Wiki: “Output quality declines as the number of contributors increases.” At the time, I was heavily criticized by leading members of the wiki community, including Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and wiki-preneur Ross Mayfield, who argued that the opposite was true – that the more contributors an entry attracts, the higher its quality becomes. So I was gratified to find my Law of the Wiki confirmed by the interviewees:
Dirk Riehle: What about the ‘collective intelligence’ or ‘collective wisdom’ argument: That given enough authors, the quality of an article will generally improve? Does this hold true for Wikipedia?
Elisabeth “Elian” Bauer: No, it does not. The best articles are typically written by a single or a few authors with expertise in the topic. In this respect, Wikipedia is not different from classical encyclopedias.
Kizu Naoko: Elian is right.
There you have it: Experts matter. And they matter more than the “community.” Indeed, “a single or a few authors with expertise” will trump the alleged wisdom of the crowd. Now, there’s something to build on.