Law in the Internet Society
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Wikipedia: An Exercise in Anarchy?

A central theme during the first-half of our semester was that for functional goods where MC = 0, anarchic production produces inherently superior products. We defined "anarchic production" as production without property rights, and Wikipedia was offered to the class as proof of this analytic proposition.

I argue that notwithstanding its lack of property rights, Wikipedia has exclusionary features that result in exclusionary consequences mirroring those property rights produce. While this does not deny Wikipedia's qualitative superiority, it raises the question whether this superiority is attributable to truly "anarchic production." A fair critique is that it is improper to define "anarchy" one way and then test its existence by reference to some other quantity. But, a better definition of "anarchic production" takes into account some exclusion beyond that created by property rights. A narrower definition raises the possibility of "anarchic production" that is, incongruously, extremely exclusionary--for example, a system without property rights that excludes persons based on race would still be expected to produce inherently superior products. This is facially problematic.

Though not all forms of exclusion must be relevant to the analytic proposition, I propose that the exclusionary features discussed herein do not violate the outer boundary of relevance--like property rights, they exclude participants through the imposition of non-trivial costs.

From Resistance to Exclusion

To begin, Bongwon Suh et al. present evidence in their paper, "The Singularity is Not Near: Slowing Growth of Wikipedia," of growing exclusion of non-prolific and new editors. During the global slowdown in Wikipedia edits, which started in early 2007, "middle class" editors (Wikipedians who make 2-999 edits per month), not high-frequency editors (those who make 1000 or more edits per month), reduced their edits at the highest rate. More tellingly, the percentage of new edits reverted increased over the same period of time despite the drop in overall edits. Indeed, excluding vandalism and bot reverts, low-frequency and occasional editors experienced the greatest resistance--"since 2003, edits from occasional editors have been reverted in a higher rate than edits from prolific editors," and "this disparity of treatment . . . has been widening . . . at the expense of low-frequency editors." There are also other indicators of growing exclusionary conduct: the number of blocked IP addresses and pages deleted increased during this time, as did the number of protected entries.

There is reason to believe these trends are related to Wikipedia's bureaucratization, unequal content production and complex rules.

Not only are editors a fairly homogonous group, which by itself suggests exclusionary forces at play, but a small minority of Wikipedians make the bulk of site's edits and contribute the lion's share of its content (see 276). Moreover, a small group of Wikipedia bureaucrats--usually prolific editors themselves--wield exclusionary powers such as deleting articles, protecting pages from future edits and blocking IP addresses altogether. The result is a classic conflict of interest.

Editors who contribute the most have the greatest "skin in the game" and are highly motivated participants. But, these editors also have the expertise and power to impose non-trivial, exclusionary costs on new and infrequent participants, and it is unlikely they are immune from confirmation bias or other natural impediments to complete objectivity. For example, an inexperienced user can contest the deletion of a new entry, but "debates about the merits of articles often drag on for weeks, draining energy and taking up far more space than the entries themselves. Such deliberations involve volleys of arcane internal acronyms and references to obscure policies and guidelines . . . . The result is that novices can quickly get lost in Wikipedia's Kafkaesque bureaucracy."

Thomas Hou noted in response to my request for comments that having one's edits subsequently edited is a slight disincentive to future participation--this could be due to time, education and energy costs required to successfully contest edits or deletion, the negative psychological feelings accompanying what one perceives as "unjust" edits, or both. This disincentive is magnified by an editorial process that unequally rejects the work of non-prolific contributors. As Wikipedia's reputation shifts from egalitarian and open to unequal and anti-newcomer, its credibility among potential and current non-prolific editors will erode, further disincentivizing participation.

To Delete: A Way of Life

Beyond this conflict of interest, a strain of thought called"deletionism" has become a cause célèbre for many administrators. In contrast to "inclusionists, deletionists favor strict standards for accepting entries and emphasize the "objective significance" of an entry when deciding whether to keep a new addition to the encyclopedia. As Andrew Lih, a prolific administrator himself, explained after noticing the deletion of entries on the first ombudsperson for PBS and Pownce.com, "It's as if there is a Soup Nazi culture now in Wikipedia. There are throngs of deletion happy users . . . tossing out customers and articles if they don't comply to some new prickly hard-nosed standard."

Even if the data suggest deletionists are "winning the battle for Wikipedia's soul," it is important to understand why.

First, deletionists have forced out a not insignificant number of prolific contributors who became discouraged by excessive deletion and rulemaking. While the first order consequence of this is the exclusion of valuable Wikipedians, the important second order effect is a shortage of savvy allies for new and infrequent contributors in the fight against overzealous deletionists.

Second, deletionists can leverage the proliferation of Wiki rules (see 191-200) and their familiarity therewith to amplify the costs new and infrequent users face. As Suh et al. conclude, the growth of Wikipedia is "limited by available resources in Wikipedia and advantages go to members of that population that have competitive dominance over others." For instance, I recently edited the Wikipedia page for the Hobbs Act--as a tech-unsavvy Wikipedia novice, I found it difficult to understand how to properly cite and reference secondary sources, and I eventually resorted to citing cases as one would in a traditional legal document. If another user reverts or challenges my edits on this ground, much less a more complex one, I will have a difficult time adequately responding or adjusting my additions notwithstanding their substantive merits.

Conclusion

Though property rights do not determine who contributes to Wikipedia's content production, Wikipedia is not without serious exclusionary features. While this Paper does not address whether this exclusion undercuts or enhances Wikipedia's quality, it argues that, taken together, Wikipedia's elaborate bureaucracy, unequal content production, increasingly complex rules and deletionist tendencies combine to raise the costs of participation for non-prolific and new contributors. This effect should at least give us pause before crediting Wikipedia's anarchic roots with its qualitative superiority.

-- MatthewLadner - 23 Jan 2012

 

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r31 - 07 Sep 2012 - 16:49:44 - IanSullivan
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