Is the Free Encyclopedia a Democratic Encyclopedia?

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This term “democratic”
gets tossed around a lot, usually in a positive, “power to the people
rather than some arbitrary ruler” sense. By that meaning, Wikipedia
is indeed democratic. Yet, unlike a state democracy, 51% at the
polls will not necessarily trump a Wikipedia adversary. So in the
sense that the word “democracy” comes loaded with a “one man, one
vote” ideology, Wikipedia is not democratic at all. And it is a
good thing that Wikipedia isn’t a democracy.

In pure democracies,
majorities get to dictate terms to minorities. In the real world,
this means murder, mayhem, involuntary wealth transfers, and subjugation.
Thankfully, Wikipedia content disputes do not deal with controlling
people, but only control the Wiki-canon. However, it is not only
this incidental feature that differentiates Wikipedia from democratic
political systems. Wikipedia does not purport to be a democracy
at all. Rather, it is a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.
It is both “free as in speech” and “free as in beer,” as the old
copyleft saying goes. That is, all of the original encyclopedic
content is published under an open license (GFDL,
CC Attribution,
public domain,
etc.) that allows commercial republication by third parties, even
in modified form, for free.

Jimbo Wales,
the founder of Wikipedia, first conceived of the notion of a free,
user-content-driven encyclopedia after economist Mark
Thornton
pointed him to an essay on “The
Use of Knowledge in Society”
by Nobel Prize-winning Austrian
economist
F.A.
Hayek
. Hayek too was a proponent of “democracy,” in the “power
to the people” sense, but his prize-winning economic views were
not in favor of monolithic, bureaucratic, social democratic systems.
Rather, Hayek’s work showed the superior efficiency of resource
allocation by decentralized information analysis among many voluntary
actors in the marketplace, each acting to bring about his or her
own self-interested ends. Centrally planned bureaucracies cannot
do what the market does because, “[t]he ‘data’ from which the economic
calculus starts are never for the whole society ‘given’ to a single
mind which could work out the implications and can never be so given.”
No one can know everything that is potentially relevant to everything
else, and since no one can know everything, no one mind can rightfully
be charged with efficiently allocating all scarce resources. It
is only through the distributed information processing of the market,
rather than the linear processing of any one entity, that an optimal
result can be reached.

For Wikipedia,
distributed information processing is facilitated by a few things:
(1) software that can track changes and allow for collaborative
editing, (2) free licenses that allow everyone to legally modify
everyone else’s work and also allow wide enough distribution to
entice new users, and (3) a set of subcultural norms that function
well as the basis for productive interaction between strangers with
competing perspectives on many different topics.

The subcultural
norms are the basic content and behavior rules for all Wikipedians.
Content rules include the Neutral
Point of View
, Verifiability,
and No
Original Research policies
. These policies are designed to limit
the encyclopedia content to that which other editors view as neutral
and fair, verifiable, and attributable to sources other than the
Wikipedian performing the edit. Behavioral policies are norms that
are surprisingly applicable to life outside of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia
enforces a policy that prohibits
legal threats, since the threat of personal liability has a chilling
effect on free and open social interaction. For the same reason,
policy requires editors to interact in a civil
manner
with each other. That the exhibition of good manners
and a non-threatening disposition are helpful in social situations
is no revelation to most. However, there are more sublime Wikipedia
rules that go beyond formal prohibitions on certain troublesome
behavior. Take for example one of the most important behavioral
guidelines, the one which advises editors to Assume
Good Faith
. The application of this rule, which requires that
one assume good intentions on the part of other editors in a content
dispute, is designed to prevent misunderstandings to be sure, but
its most important role is to steer discussions away from excited
accusations that inevitably devolve into ad hominem flame wars that
aren’t helpful in producing a useful encyclopedia article. This
guideline goes beyond the “No
Personal Attacks
” policy, which prohibits outright name-calling
and actually encourages editors to limit discourse to what is relevant
to the subject matter of the article. Because no editor’s original
research is at issue, accusations between editors are not germane
to what is intended to be a discussion about what information should
go where in an encyclopedia article.

What finally
distinguishes Wikipedia from democratic systems is the policy requiring
that all edits be reflective of community consensus.
There are content disputes on Wikipedia, and factions do exist.
However, showing majority support in polling will not always result
in a faction’s victory. This is because, as a popular Wikipedian
essay declares, “polls
are evil
.” The essay explains that “[h]aving the option of settling
a dispute by taking a poll, instead of the careful consideration,
dissection and eventual synthesis of each side’s arguments, actually
undermines the progress in dispute resolution that Wiki has allowed.
Wikipedia
is not a democracy
.”

This is not
to say that Wikipedia is a utopia of voluntary cooperation. Every
reasonably experienced Wikipedian knows that the wheels of the Arbitration
Committee
(“ArbCom”) turn slowly, if ever, and POV-pushing administrators
are sometimes using their “mop
and bucket
” powers in inappropriate ways, blocking users and
protecting or semi-protecting articles in order to entrench and
defend partisan views. Claiming that current processes on Wikipedia
are optimal would be silly. Yet editors are encouraged to be
bold
in making even drastic edits, so long as they are in good
faith compliance with the basic pillars of the project. Consensus
decision-making by interested parties, rather than electioneering,
moves the Wikipedia status quo. Majorities still rule, but not in
the nearly absolute way that a purely majoritarian system would
allow. Alternative views are almost always given ample coverage,
with ideological or scientific controversies spinning off into independent
articles with scores and sometimes hundreds of footnotes documenting,
categorizing, and hot-linking a hopefully representative sampling
of the reliable sources of vitriol on all sides of the discussion.

With
more than ten million articles divided between 253 languages (almost
two million more articles than when I last
wrote
about Wikipedia a year ago), Wikipedia is easily the largest,
most extensive encyclopedia project in human history, having long
ago surpassed the fifteenth century Yongle
Encyclopedia
of China. It is the eighth most highly trafficked
destination on the web, and it is dependent almost entirely on volunteer
labor and the financial support provided by user donations. The
question once confronting Wales and co-founder Larry Sanger – “Will
it work?” – is no longer an open one. The Wikipedia model has undeniably
worked and has produced an historic result. The only question now
is “Where will it go from here? ”

October
6, 2008

Dick Clark
[send him mail],
a native Southerner, currently lives in exile in Boston, MA. He
is a 2L at Suffolk University Law School.

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