Evolving Governance and Media Use in Wikipedia: A Historical Account

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This is an abstract for a paper that I will be presenting at Media in Transition 6, which will be held at MIT from April 24th to the 26th.

Wikipedia, the self-proclaimed “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” is emblematic of our always-on, rapidly-expanding media landscape. In some ways a microcosm of the Internet itself, the project’s size is immense, with over 12.1 million encyclopedia articles in 265 languages. However, a statistic that is even more staggering about Wikipedia is 31.3 million: the number of wiki pages which are not encyclopedia articles, instead used by the worldwide community of editors to coordinate in such a massive media environment. While much scholarly and popular attention has been focused on how editors contribute to particular Wikipedia encyclopedia articles, far less research has been performed on these ancillary pages.

These non-encyclopedic wikispaces in and around Wikipedia are used to organize most of the largely invisible work required to maintain and further develop the encyclopedia. In fact, some of the project’s most active pages are not hotly-contested encyclopedia articles, but rather these ‘meta’ pages which are used to make collective consensus decisions about various issues. In maintaining and developing this aspect of the encyclopedia, the Wikipedian community takes advantage of the wiki media to do so in a unique form of digital governance. Social power structures still exist, but the wiki-based nature of the site allows authority to be largely distributed and decentralized, in stark contrast to traditional forms of knowledge production.

However, such a social structure and media use has not always been present in Wikipedia. In the first year of its existence, most of the coordination of invisible maintenance work and resolution of ‘meta’ issues took place almost exclusively on e-mail listservs. I demonstrate that this media use corresponded to a social structure that took founder Jimmy Wales to be the unquestioned leader of the project, in charge of resolving issues when they arose among the small community of editors. Yet as the project grew, this listserv-mediated, “benevolent dictator” governance model did not scale to meet the rapid increase of both individual editors and editorial issues.

In response to various controversies in which the benevolent dictator model led to backlashes from the project’s growing editorial base, I show how pages in the wiki began to be used for a new, distributed form of governance. Instead of a monarchical model tempered by a centralized discussion forum, this model took advantage of features in the wiki media to enable a more direct and participatory system of governance. However, both the wiki media and the governance model proved inadequate and were subsequently refined in response to various issues faced by the project. The result, I show in this historical account, is the current instantiation of authority and media technology in and around Wikipedia, which has evolved significantly since in the project’s seven year history.

Scholars have long theorized how media technologies fundamentally reshapes the way in which we exist both as individuals and as a society. In an age of information overload, the history of Wikipedia’s co-evolving media use and governance model gives us a powerful lesson regarding the way in which the development of social structures and media technologies are fundamentally interrelated in the digital era.