How bureaucratic is Wikipedia and is it getting worse?

Tomá Gabzdil Libertíny‘s “Honeycomb Vase” taken by annamatic3000

Recently I posted an entry bemoaning the recent ‘criticisms’ I’d heard of Wikipedia, and in particular correcting Matthijs den Besten‘s graph from his talk “Wikipedia: the organizational capabilities of a peer production effort” to show that rather than increasing (as his graph sort of implies) the actual number of Wikipedia administrators per page has fallen over 50% from from 0.000526  at the end of the third quarter of 2002, down to 0.000191 at the end of the third quarter 2006.

Three things are causing me to doubt the implications I drew.

1) Matthijs left a thought provoking rebuttal in the comments section of my post

2) I’ve just finished Clay Shirky‘s “Here Comes Everybody” in which he says “Wikipedia, which looks like a reference work to the average viewer, is in fact a bureaucracy mainly given over to arguing. The articles are the residue of the argument.” (p. 279)

3) Both Matthijs and Clay refer to two recent papers from Fernanda Viégas (and colleagues): “The Hidden Order of Wikipedia” (HCII 2007) and “Talk Before You Type: Coordination in Wikipedia” (HICSS-40, 2007)

Matthijs makes two points. Firstly he corrects me by pointing out that although the number of administrators per page may be falling, the number of administrators overall is increasing, and “size matters”. Quoting some possible failures he suggests that the co-ordination required to keep all the administrators harmonized cannot be done informally for large numbers. But these are still volunteers, the structure is bottom up. Fernanda borrows the principle of “Collective Choice Arrangements” from Elinor Ostrom‘s analysis of “successful self-governed common-pool resources communities”. Collective-choice arrangements mean that most of the individuals affected by the rules of a community should be able to change those rules, and that the cost of altering the rules should be small.

There is one fragment of Matthijs comment that crystallises my objection: “provided we can equate administrators with managers”; or, as one of the slides in Matthijs’ talk was titled,  “Wikipedia as a firm”. I’m not comfortable with that. Luckily Fernanda doesn’t want to go that far either. In her HCII 2007 paper “The Hidden Order of Wikipedia” she says of Wikipedia’s Featured Article (FA) process: “the FA endeavour starts to sound very much like a modern-day enterprise workflow process. It is not, however.”

Matthijs’ second point is interesting too. He points out that

>>> Further, it would seem likely that many of the articles in the long tail of the encyclopedia are dormant. That is, they have reached a satisfactory quality, are read relatively infrequently and are hardly changed at all. Sure, those articles won’t require much bureaucratic interventions. However, what matters more in perceptions of bureaucracy is the likelihood that someone who edits a page is rebuffed by someone else (e.g. ratio edits/reverts) or the likelihood that people encounter papers that are restricted (e.g. percentage of top 100 articles in terms of page views that are locked). <<<

This is interesting. One can imagine measures that would capture reader’s and occasional editor’s perception of Wikipedia bureaucracy. I’m uncomfortable with Matthijs’ conjecture that the dormant articles are the unread ones, but I suppose their is logic there. It is only a small proportion of readers who may edit a page, so no readers implies no editors, which is what we’d mean by dormant. But an article could become dormant through acceptable quality being reached, and still attract readers. It would be interesting to see the graph done in Matthijs’ presentation but done with one of these measures instead of the number of administrators overall: the ratio of edits to reverts, the likelihood that an edited page is locked soon after, etc. Matthijs’ other measure, “the likelihood that people encounter papers that are restricted (e.g. percentage of top 100 articles in terms of page views that are locked)”, doesn’t seem so telling. I’d expect contentious subjects to be more likely to lead to a locked article and also to be more popular among readers.

Clay’s point I just don’t get. Saying that the articles in Wikipedia are the by-product of the arguments seems like saying that Fabergé exists to employ jewellers, rather than to make jewellery. He does have a neat turn of phrase though.

The organisation of Wikipedia is clearly more complex than I had appreciated. But does that mean it’s less like the anarchist utopia I naively imagined, and more like a large corporation? I think not.


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