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A bureaucracy of sorts

June 17, 2006

Wikipedia "is not the experiment in freewheeling collective creativity it might seem to be," writes Katie Hafner in today's New York Times.

So what is Wikipedia?

"At its core," Hafner says, "Wikipedia is not just a reference work but also an online community that has built itself a bureaucracy of sorts - one that, in response to well-publicized problems with some entries, has recently grown more elaborate. It has a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control, delete unsuitable articles and protect those that are vulnerable to vandalism."

Hafner goes on to quote Lotus founder and open-source advocate Mitch Kapor, who says that Wikipedia "can tell us a lot about the future of knowledge creation, which will depend much less on individual heroism and more on collaboration." She also quotes Wikipedia cofounder and chief executive Jimmy Wales, who says that the online encyclopedia's imposition of restrictions on the editing of certain articles "is a tool for quality control, but it hardly defines Wikipedia. What does define Wikipedia is the volunteer community and the open participation." Regarding the establishment of editorial rules, Wales says: "It's not always obvious when something becomes policy. One way is when I say it is." And she quotes me: "As Wikipedia has tried to improve its quality, it's beginning to look more and more like an editorial structure. To say that great work can be created by an army of amateurs with very little control is a distortion of what Wikipedia really is."

Wikipedia's other cofounder, Larry Sanger, has written a response to Hafner's article, offering a very different perspective on Wikipedia's "bureaucracy of sorts." Sanger, who's no longer associated with the encylopedia, takes issue with the assumption that the new editorial rules that Wikipedia has recently adopted make the publication "more responsible and more carefully controlled." This assumption, he says, "is very badly wrong." According to Sanger, the bureaucracy is a dysfunctional one:

I was seeing a bureaucratic sort of attitude develop just as I was leaving in 2002: people began, to my strenuous objections, to track how long they’d been with the project, how many edits they’d made, and they began to use this data as bludgeons in their disputes with each other. (I was very much opposed to the rule of the “I’ve been here longest”; I was always in favor of a meritocracy of real expertise, rather than a meritocracy of those who knew how to game the Wikipedia system.) People who happened to waste inordinate amounts of time on Wikipedia were very often looked upon by other Wikipedians as authorities, no matter how trollish or nutty they were. In fact, I suspect it helped (and still does help) to appear just slightly off-kilter. Straight shooters and people who rely exclusively on rational argument and genuine intellectual authority (based on actual study and expertise) are too often – not always, but too often – shouted down by pretentious mediocrities who no doubt resent the challenge to their personal authority. This “rule of the most persistent” then naturally ossified into a bureaucracy. That’s how it was (and still is) possible for teenagers and ideologues to gain substantial authority in the system, authority which they might then lord over everyone, regardless of actual level of intellectual attainment.

Sanger criticizes my perception of an "editorial structure" emerging at Wikipedia: "Wikipedia’s plethora of bureaucratic levels and rules really does bother me precisely because it is a bureaucracy. But it is impossible to take Wikipedia’s bureaucracy seriously qua responsible editorial structure. If Wikipedia must have a bureaucracy, at least it could be a bureaucracy of people who possess genuine editorial skill and who lack ideological drums to beat."

What is Wikipedia? To be honest, I'm not exactly sure. But I do think that Mitch Kapor might be right in saying that it "can tell us a lot about the future of knowledge creation." What it tells us, though, is a lot more complicated than he seems to want to believe.

UPDATE: Jimmy Wales, responding to the New York Times article, fantasizes about the Times having an "edit this page" button so that he could rewrite the piece to better fit with his view of things.


Wikipedia is a system of natural selection. The efficiency of such a system is gauged by the usefulness of its results. As the "sum of all human knowledge," Wikipedia fails, largely because it stores useful knowledge supported by contributors in the same linear history as previous edits that are supported by nobody, making most of its knowledge inaccessible. However, Wikipedia succeeds, to some extent, in being a universal source of definitions. Despite its insistence that facts, viewpoints, theories, and arguments may only be included in articles if they have already been published by reliable and reputable sources," Wikipedia has moved far beyond the scope of a research project and well into the realm of an "official" source. There's nothing wrong with the human race defining the words that it uses to communicate, but let’s be honest about it. The Wikipedia:Verifiability policy is used as a stick to suppress information of a less influential editor, not as an equal standard.

Hierarchies of influence will always form in a system of natural selection. Such a system will stop evolving if it cannot support a method of identifying usefulness of one's contributions. The 'number of edits' and 'length of stay' advertising that Mr. Sanger complains about are the best identification that people can create in the absence of any built-in tools for tracking usefulness of edits in the Wiki engine.

Using this influence to create circular systems of unbalanced policy to "bludgeon" each other in disputes will also naturally occur in the absence of any built-in tools for reduction. Natural selection requires a reduction method. Since the Wiki engine fails to provide any reduction tools, the filtering reduction method defaults.

The filtering reduction method, inherent in the Wiki engine, works like this: first exclude undesirable contributors, then undesirable contributions. Next, try to force compromise under the threat of conflict. If there is still more than one outcome, engage in conflict (might makes right). In the event that two or more positions are supported by contributors with equal might, decide the sole outcome by endurance. The result is the least filtered contribution.

The strength reduction method, employed within the human brain and found in the Consensus Omnium Engine currently under development and to a limited extent in Google's new combined Personal Search algorithm, works like this: provide an environment for consensual combination of contributions (merging only when the new version includes the strength of all parts and agreement of all supporting editors), give added weight to combinations supported by those that have made the quantifiably most useful contributions in the past. Add more weight to the combinations that are in closest agreement with other sources (as determined by weighted linking of other articles to that version). Finally, add proximity weight based on edit branching (mutual support of similar versions). The consensual combination that carries the most weight becomes the primary result, but other heavily supported versions continue to exist for additional information about alternate opinions, and to allow for continued evolution.

The Wiki engine and the projects built upon it were a great step in creating an intelligent internet. Wikipedia did a better job of creating possibilities for specific categories than any other tool, but intelligence also enables stewardship, with a balance of responsibility and control, and requires a reduction method that has a tendency to produce the most useful result. To some extend, the two missing categories of the Wiki engine occur naturally in any social environment, which is why Wikipedia is better than nothing. Soon, however, the Wiki will be replaced by a more robust engine that adds powerful stewardship and reduction tools so contributors won’t have to fight, be forced to compromise, suppress information, stand vigilant over their edits, censor content and contributors, or create overlapping policy.

Posted by: Zephram Stark [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 18, 2006 01:24 AM

Nick, I think you are relentless on a non-profit.This must be your 10th ot so post on Wikipedia.

You know where the real bureacracy and waste in technology is - in corporate technology where s/w vendors are used to making 80+% margins, then blowing most of it in SG&A, at outsourcers nowhere near your efficient powerplant model etc...compared to IBM, EDS, Oracle poor Wikipedia's bureaucracy is the professorial kind...

it's your blog, but as a fellow blogger I think there are many more instituions than Wikipedia which merit your sharp scrutiny... my 2c

Posted by: vinnie mirchandani [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 18, 2006 08:40 AM

Vinnie, Then again, in the end it will be the organizational and economic structures we build for creating the products of culture that will be more important than those we create for providing the underlying technology. Nick

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 18, 2006 11:03 AM

As Kafka said somewhere,
"Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy."

It is tempting to see the world of web 2.0 etc as all new, miraculous and revolutionary.

Ironically (I think) with Google, Wikipedia and co, one can quickly delve back into the rich vein of 19th century and early 20th century social theory.

Those that pontificate about web 2.0 and so on could do worse than acquaint themselves with a dose of Kafka,Weber,Durkheim and even Marx.

"The bureaucracy is a circle from which one cannot escape. Its hierarchy is a hierarchy of knowledge. The top entrusts the understanding of detail to the lower levels, whilst the lower levels credit the top with understanding of the general, and so all are mutually deceived."
Karl Marx
He could have been describing wikipedia it seems.

Posted by: Thomas Otter [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 18, 2006 04:20 PM

Ah, but Wales would need not only an "edit" button, but administrator privileges so that he could win the inevitable fight over his change being reverted.
That's the tricky part.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 19, 2006 06:13 AM

Much as I have disagreed with Nick in defending Wikipedia and their approach, this time I think Jimbo got it wrong.

I don't want to choose between traditional and collaborative methods: I want both.

And, so far, I am getting both.

Posted by: gianni [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 19, 2006 02:45 PM

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