Wikipedia as Expert NGO

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I spent last weekend at a small conference in Leipzig, organized by Johanna Niesyto, Geert Lovink and others, called Wikipedia: Der Kritische Standpunkt (A critical point of view) , which brought together researchers studying Wikipedia and 'Wikipedians', mainly admins and high-ranking editors.

What follows relates mainly to the German language Wikipedia, but I assume some issues are similar in other large Wikipedia, not the least the English language one.

What came to the fore, at least for me, was that the 'inner circle' -- foundation people, admins and high-ranking editors who take responsibility for the project as a whole -- are feeling increasingly beleaguered by hordes of people who are either a) ignorant/stupid and thus have nothing to contribute b) hostile trolls out to cause troubles c) people who only criticize yet will do no actual work.

In many ways, this is an understandable feeling, after all, running Wikipedia is a major thing, time and man power are always scarce and the pressures from the public are high. Any significant misktake, and it's front page news within hours. Yet, there are no clear procedures how to handle many of the tasks (e.g. when to block editing an entry).

This is all not terribly surprising, given the exponential growth of the last couple of years and the need to create policies and procedures on an ad-hoc basis.. But it leads to a shift in what this project is about.

The sociologist Christian Stegbauer described a shift within the inner circle from an ideology of liberation (FREE encyclopedia ANYONE can edit) towards an product ideology (BEST encyclopedia in the world, GOOD AUTHORS are always welcome). This shift is also expressed in the widespread view among that Wikipedia (again, mainly the German and the English) is nearing completion and that the main focus should now be on improving quality, a task that most people are not sufficiently qualified for. In the German context this had created bitter discussion regarding the deletion policy, which many outsiders see as arbitrary and draconian, while the insiders see it as essential to their quality focus.

It's clear that Wikipedia is in a process of institutionalization. This is necessary and in itself not a bad thing. The question is, what kind of institutions are being created and what is their impact on the knowledge that is produced within and through the project.

In my view, the most likely trajectory in terms of institution-building is that of a professional, expertise-driven NGO. Think Greenpeace. There, you have relatively small group of professionals, who make all the key decisions and hold all the expertise. They are well networked with experts outside the organization with whom they collaborate depending on the strategic objectives they themselves have established. Around this is a group of volunteers who are doing small scale, routine tasks reflecting strategies they do not set themselves. Around that is a large group of people who have little knowledge of the organizations about feel sympathetic enough to donate money from time to time.

Organizationally, this might be a relatively stable arrangement, but a problematic one never the less.

For one, it's quite far away from its anti-credentialist beginnings and unless very well and transparently communicated, likely to produce endless tensions with those still believe the Wikipedia tag line and want to get involved without being properly acculturated. Their edits will most likely be deleted.

Second, it's likely that the variety of knowledges that flow into the making of entries is being decreased, in favor of more conventional, mainstream expert knowledge. Thus, reproducing the dominant point of view, rather than highlighting controversies around main of the issues covered. Something a collaborative open process would be uniquely capable of. This tendency towards the dominant center is already strong through the policy of the Neutral Point of View and the somewhat antiquated notion that there is an uncontroversial state of the art, that describes the world out there. Yet, this is acerbated by the informal changes in the organization itself.

I think the fact that Wikipedia depends on donations, rather than on advertising, is counterbalancing this tendency, but as long as the knowledge & expertise gap between the insiders and outsiders is growing, this will be very hard to turn around.