Questions of democracy and social responsibility within Wikipedia

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By Lionel Scheepmans - (Lire ce texte en français)


For the past 15 years, the Wikipedia has been a success in terms of organizational governance despite many actors with so many points of view coming from completely different cultural backgrounds. Beyond governance, active members within the free encyclopedia are also confronted with issues of social responsibility and a possible drift related to the iron law of oligarchy. Let's take a closer look at the subject and conclude with some recommendations.


Depuis 15 ans déjà, le projet wikipédia est une réussite en termes de gouvernance et ce en dépit d'un grand nombre d'acteurs partageant de nombreux points de vues divergeant et venant parfois d'horizons culturels complètement différents. Au delà la gouvernances, les membres actifs au sein de la libre encyclopédie sont aussi confrontés à des questions de responsabilités sociales et une possible dérive liée à la loi d'airain de l'oligarchie. Abordons le sujet plus en détailles pour conclure sur quelques recommandations.

Wikipedia is not a democracy?

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On the 26th of January 2005, approximately four years after the English Wikipedia project was started, Jimmy Wales wrote on the WikiEN- mailing list:

"Wikimedia will give everyone an encyclopedia. The new organization will give everyone a piece of paper explaining: it's an encyclopedia, not an experiment in democracy. We *are* a grand social experiment of course. But not primarily."[1].

However, according to various authors[2], Wikipedia seems to be precisely one of the most amazing social democratic experiments in the field of organization governance. Indeed, Wikipedia is incredibly democratic in different points of views: democratic in term of price (access and use), democratic in term of community governance and even democratic in terms of reflecting current mainstream understanding of words and concepts [3].

"Wikipedia is not a democracy" claims that the English Wikipedia project is not a democracy,[4] but Wikipedia is obviously one of the biggest democratic organizations on the web if not the biggest.

Wikipedia's governance

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But how can works an organisation including millions of partners, from hundred different geographical part of the world and thousand cultural horizons?

The trick system seems to be a decentralized (Forte, Larco and Bruckman 2009), bureaucratic (Butler, Joyce and Pike 2008), "relativism democracy", in which there is no universal, rigid answers and no expert recognition in decision process (Grassineau 2007).

Of course there is opposite trends within the community. For example, one part of the community promote the transgression through a creative fecundity in view of the objective of Wikipedia, when an other part promote strict compliance of the frame of the device (Jacquemin 2012). This well-known opposition is identified in the community meta website[5] as Wikidemocratism versus Wikindividualism. In all different language communities there is also an opposition between Inclusionism and exclusionism specialy during decision on whether a topic could be included or not in the project.

Definitely, creating a free online encyclopedia with so many people and so many point of view is a real political challenge and this challenge seems survey for fifteen years. But look at this more closely.

Wikipedia and the Iron law of oligarchy

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In 1911, Robert Michels claims in his book, Political Parties (Michels 2009): "Who says organization, says oligarchy [... because] The masses are incapable of taking part in the decision-making process and desire strong leadership [... and] Large-scale organizations give their officers a near monopoly of power ".

In 2009, Piotr Konieczny argued that we should follow the Iron law of oligarchy with a caveat: “who says wiki-organization, says no to oligarchy.” (Konieczny 2009) but in 2014, Aaron Shaw and Benjamin Mako Hill "observed hierarchies and inequalities within peer production projects [including Wikipedia] are associated with enhanced oligarchic organizational structures and behaviour" (Shaw & Mako 2014).

From this divergent points of view, I will add my personal one based on five years of participations and observations in Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects. A first thought appeared clearly during my ethnography analyse of the French Wikipedia community (Scheepmans & Servais 2011): in one hand, there is no statutory hierarchy foreseen in the project organization, but in the second hand: there is a factual hierarchy inside the community organization. This hierarchy is indeed based on values, such as merit and seniority which increases the knowledge about the project's history and organization, but also on technical skill, which seams to be the origin of the community's gender gap (Hargittai & Shaw 2015). On these hierarchic scale, we can start on the bottom with a contributor making his first edit identified by an IP address, before the new user account who don't have enough seniority and edit for voting in decision process to the rest of registered editor sorted by seniority, number of edits and knowledge about project bureaucracy.

An other thing became clear to me when I've started to be more involved in out line Wikimedia activities (Scheepmans 2015): In the Wikimedia movement, governance are completely different between on line and off line activity. Wikimedia Foundation or Wikimedia Chapter[6] are much more hierarchic and oligarchic than Wikipedia project for example. Between the on line and out line governance stand up the site Meta-Wiki[5] where we can found some think mixed. During the Wikimedia Grantmaking for example, are working together various committees (s)elected on basis of a list of membership criteria, Wikimedia staff employed through classical engagement process and usual editors free of participation. Ultimately, any decision will be subject to supervision made by the rest of the Wikimedia hierarchy with on the top the "Board of Trustees".

Thus, unable to truly affirm the presence of an oligarchic power, inequalities are evident between the actors of the overall project, and in both online and offline activities.

Wikipedia and social responsibility

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In April 8, 2015 Wikipedia was the fifth most visited website in the world [7], and probably the first site consulted by a growing number of smartphone users regarding general information research. From this perspective, some authors report an ethical problem, based on the fact that "Wikipedia has the appearance, but not the reality, of responsible, transparent information production" (Santana; Wood 2015). This ethical issue starts to be even more problematic when professional editors are paid by third parties in order to influence the content of the encyclopedia [8].

Beyond this issue and the previous "bias in biographical coverage is related to the gender bias in positions of social power" (Klein; Konieczny 2015), another ethical and social responsibility issue is "the fact that it is widely used around the world, Wikipedia is characterized by highly uneven geographies of participation [edition ...] Complicating this issue is the fact that participation from the world's economic peripheries tends to focus on editing about the world's cores rather than their own local regions. These results ultimately point to an informational magnetism that is cast by the world's economic cores, virtuous and vicious cycles that make it difficult to reconfigure networks and hierarchies of knowledge production." (Graham, Straumann & Hogan 2015)

A third question about social responsibility concerns the political implication of the community, for example, during a blackout protesting against two proposed laws in the United States Congress[9] or more recently for promoting amendments to the copyright reform proposal to the European Parliament. A vote was done on French Wikipedia before starting the campaign[10]. On the voting page we can observe than wikipedia's community members don't share the same point of view about the opportunity of using Wikipedia web site like a tool on political affair, event when the political affair concern directly the future of the encyclopedia.

Why and How to improve equality among actives editors on the Wikipedia project and movement governance?

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According to these previous observations, I would like to introduce some arguments in favour of renewed democracy in, Wikipedia, the Wikimedia projects, and in the movement in general. The idea is not to promote vote in the decision process, but providing more equality among active contributors for, in one side avoid oligarchic drift, and in the other side empower all Wikimedia actors in social responsibility related to projects supported by the Wikimedia Foundation. Parallel to this, a better participation of editors in decision precess will probably make these decision more acceptable for them, and will probably also prevent the lose of new contributors demotivated by early arbitrary revert edit.

If "community participation is more often driven by intrinsically oriented motivations, including altruism and a sense of belonging to the community." (Xu; Li 2015) why not trusting this idea ?

Here is three simple thinks which in my opinion could be concretely done to improve the actual situation :

  • Avoid the use of the term "election", during recruitments of administrators, bureaucrat or other person which take access to specific tools to accomplish the projects maintenance as the control and protection of contain. Administrators are not leaders of projects and they never represent the community in whatever political aspect. Using terms election and elected make trouble in community members minds and sometimes creates unwanted pretensions among contributors designed for these posts.
  • Use technical implementation to inform and invite all interested users to participate in decision making process. The use of the MediaWiki extension named MassMessage[11] in use in the French Wikiversity community[12] could be an successful example.
  • Replace the actual grant-making by an intern crowd founding in which active contributors choose which projects to fund respecting the priorities established by donors through a consultation page. The use of external crowd-funding platforms was already done in the past[13] and a community Wish-list Survey are already organized within the Wikimedia community[14]. Regarding to this, implement an internal "active editors funding" based on donors recommendation could be possible. If this experience woks well, apply it to other types budget allocation could be then envisaged.

Much more than promoting this three recommendations, this paper should be read as an invitation to prevent the risk tied the iron law of oligarchy and by the same way improve the project participation with the sense of social responsibilities all over each project actors.

Governance and social responsibility seems to me being a case of every one.

References and notes

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  1. This citation come from the mailing list reccord web page:
  2. Descy 2006, Foglia 2008, Noveck 2009, etc.
  3. For example, D. F. J. Campbell used the keyword of democracy on wikipedia for reflecting current mainstream understanding of democracy to implement (Campbell 2011).
  4. See the web page:
  5. 5.0 5.1 See the web page: Meta-Wiki's discussions range from coordination and documentation to planning and analysis of future Wikimedia activities on the website:.
  6. Wikimedia chapters are independent organizations founded to support and promote the Wikimedia projects in a specified geographical region. More information on this web page :
  7. Information dated from
  8. "Wikipedia bloque des éditeurs payés". Le Figaro. 2015. Retrieved 2015-12-21.
  9. The protest was again the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA)
  10. See the survey on this web page :
  11. More information on :
  12. More information on
  13. More informations on
  14. More informations on


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  • Foglia, Marc (2008). Wikipédia média de la connaissance démocratique? Quand le citoyen lambda devient encyclopédiste. (in fr) (Essai ed.). FYP EDITIONS. ISBN 2-916571-06-X. 
  • Levrel, Julien; Cardon, Dominique (2009). "Contribuer et surveiller : l'autorégulation sur Wikipédia". Documentaliste (Paris) 46 (1): 56–58. ISSN 00124508. 
  • Michels, Robert (2009) [1911]. Political Parties. "Introduction" by Seymour Martin Lipset. Ransaction Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4128-3116-1. 
  • Noveck, Beth Simone (2009). Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful. Washington: Brookings Institution Press. ISBN 978-0-8157-0346-4. 
  • Scheepmans, Lionel; Servais, Olivier (2011). Monographie ethnographique de la communauté des contributeurs actifs sur l'espace francophone de Wikipédia. Louvain-la-Neuve: UCL.