Demystifying Algorithmic Processes: The Case of Wikipedia


Panel at The 21st Annual BCLT/BTLJ Symposium, Berkeley, California

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This talk is part of a panel session on “Demystifying Algorithmic Processes: What is the role of algorithms in online platforms, what can they do and not do, and how should they be governed?”

Summary: Lawrence Lessig says “code is law” (1999) because code has the force of law and puts programmers in situations where they have to make governmental decisions. I’m using the case of Wikipedia to argue that code can also be law in the sense of a text that is deliberated – something that looks more like public policy, which Wikipedians have been doing for over 10 years. Rather than draw a clear line between “program or be programmed,” I have seen a broader spectrum of participation in the spaces where Wikipedia’s algorithmic infrastructure is debated. People who do not have programming expertise (much less ML/AI expertise) can and do participate in discussions about what kind of automation they think should take place on Wikipedia. However, this requires more than a generic commitment to openness or the assumption that openness is achieved if everything is just open sourced in a public source code repository. Like with public policy, it requires specific kinds of processes, discourses, and structures of accountability and translation work, which come with their own expertises and barriers to participation.