Limits of commons-based peer production at Wikipedia  28.9.10

I’ve just returned from an inspiring weekend at a conference on Wikipedia in Leipzig, Germany. The title of the conference, CPOV, Critical Point of View, a bit awkward at first, is derived from Wikimedia Foundation’s demand for “neutral point of view“, which all Wikimedia articles should adhere to.

Geert Lovink, professsor at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and one of the conceptual figures behind this conference series with previous stops in Bangalore and Amsterdam, pointed out that the location of the conference and the conference language, German, were not chosen by chance. The German-language Wikipedia still is the second largest behind the English one, and the German-language Wikipedia research community appears to be larger than the English counterpart.

Furthermore, one of the, well, peculiar things about Germany culture, it’s Vereinswesen (culture of associations and chapters), has become the organisational role model for Wikipedia. Under pressure by the successful Spanish Wikipedia fork, Enciclopedia libre, Jimmy Wales & Co decided to transfer the Wikipedia assets (e.g. it’s domain name) away from their tits&porn business bomis.com to the newly and specifically founded Wikimedia Foundation.

From my perspective as a student of community-driven internet security operations, two things were particularly interesting: The concept and model of peer production – or, to be precise, the commons-based mutation as defined by Yochai Benkler – starts getting wider acceptance in the scientific community as a theoretical starting point for researching non-hierarchical and non-market governance approaches. Until now, I had the impression I would almost be the only one using it as a framework for empirical analysis.

The second observation: Wikipedia, which is always mentioned as the poster-child of collective, distributed, peer-producing collaboration on the internet, has numerous layers of control built into its organisational and operational structure. While access to resources is unrestricted, the right to edit and commit changes is getting ever harder, at least for those 0.4% of all Wikipedia articles that are on average protected at any point in time (as of 2008), a sharp increase from 0.05% in 2003. These “protective” measures are taken to defend existing pages from being vandalised or deteriorated in edit-wars.

Wikipedia thus loses some of its openness (““The encyclopedia anyone can edit”). The authority over the revocation of general edit rights lies with a relatively small group of administrators, who have turned into a de facto club with high entrance barriers. Newcomers have to invest substantial amounts of time, efforts and cultural adaptability to climb up the administrative Wikipedia ladder. Lengthy process instructions put increased demands on administrators and authors, new roles increase the organisational complexity within Wikimedia/pedia.

Historically, one could argue that Wikipedia has grown out of its infancy. From an institutional perspective, it sheds some light on the viability of common-based peer production in an unfriendly environment which attracts malevolents and informational opponents to get engaged in vandalism and edit-wars. While access to Wikipedia’s products, its articles, remains commons-based, the definition of its products doesn’t. It has, in part, been clubbified.

I’ve discussed the session on “Digitale Governance” in greater detail at the CPOV website (in deutsch, though).