Is the Free Encyclopedia a Democratic Encyclopedia?


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