i dream of being possible

One of my favourite things, is being proved right.

Those who know me well, know that I’m also a petty person. I’ve made my peace with this.

After putting out my first article on the tyranny of open, I encounter this delightful article on the decline of wikipedia, which works as a very neat case study of exactly what I was talking about. While the article is good, it rarely seems to be aware of the inherent contradiction of it’s main thesis:

When Wikipedians achieved their most impressive feat of leaderless collective organization, they unwittingly set in motion the decline in participation that troubles their project today.

The author maintains that:

Without any traditional power structure, they developed sophisticated workflows and guidelines for producing and maintaining entries.

While also asserting:

The loose collective running the site today, estimated to be 90 percent male, operates a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers who might increase participation in Wikipedia and broaden its coverage.

Okay. This doesn’t make any sense, when you consider the two assertions together. And relies on exactly the kind of mythical structurelessness which has served as, perhaps, the biggest deterent for diversity in tech. This history of Wikipedia shows exactly how a ‘structureless’ or leaderless, open project comes to have unaccountable elites that maintain hegemonic control over a community. Even with this largely critical article it still buys into the belief that Wikipedia is a “loose collective” at the same time it notes that the demographic running the site is largely homogenous (while it doesn’t mention race, I’d not be surprised that most of the English language articles are written by white men and that, on the admin level, the elite groups are mostly homogenous groups of white men). Even taken as a whole, it is clear that the Wikipedia community, rather than being a loose collection, is a homogenous elite that consistently strives to maintain hegemonic control over the community by purposefully maintaint and creating structural barriers to prevent outsiders and diversity. And this elite is unaccountable simply because they’ve maintained the fiction of being structureless or a loose community.

It gives rise to this sense, pervasive in the article, that it is happenstance that has led to Wikipedia’s current predicament, rather than an informal policy that relies on intrinsic but unstated values that create structural biases. It is all just an accident of chance that since event A happened and solution B was applied, which in turn created situation C, which elicited solution D, and magically we are here.

The reality is that Wikipedia was never the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”. This ideal, while lovely in theory, is and was a lie, even at the early stages before it created formal, structural barriers to new participants. And the planned initiatives to lower some of the formal, structural barriers will all fail unless Wikipedia is willing to address the informal, structural barriers. Which seems unlikely given the way the visual text editor failed.