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This paper presents a new conceptual framework for the analysis of authority in anti-authoritarian environments. Legitimate domination in commons-based peer production projects such as Wikipedia rests on two main principles: the extraordinary qualities of charismatic individuals and collectively-formulated norms and rules. Self-governed authority is in turn based on a critique of separated power in the realms of expertise and justice. It thereby constitutes a prefigurative response to widespread democratic aspirations in technologically advanced societies. However this conceptual framework also raises analytical and practical questions. In the first instance, critiques of separation on Wikipedia are hindered by the persistent regard for outside expertise, and by perceptions that justice is unfairly applied because of the ever-increasing power of the administrative caste as well as the anonymity of some participants. Second, the proposed sociology of critical actions in Wikipedia requires discussions of specific decisions by project officers and may thus contradict traditional ethical prohibitions regarding the identifications of online research subjects, suggesting the need for a clarification of the aims of research into peer production projects.

by Mathieu O’Neil

1. Introduction

Wikipedia is now perceived as a universal collective good, a part of the networked public sphere. The project’s openness and extraordinary development have led to the online encyclopedia embodying the democratic promise of commons-based and oriented peer production: ‘anyone’ can shape how the world is defined. Domination and its contestation, a familiar topic for the social sciences, assumes renewed interest in this context, and a wealth of studies have examined the manner in which power is distributed amongst autonomous agents in Wikipedia (see Spek et al., 2006; Kittur et al, 2007; Reagle, 2007; Beschastnik et al, 2008; Forte et al, 2009; Aaltonen & Lanzara, 2010; Konieczny, 2010; Loubser, 2010).

Less attention has been given to the issue of what this distribution of power means for the contesta-tion of domination in technologically advanced societies. What does Wikipedia’s abandonment of centralised authority tell us about contemporary challenges to the social order, about the articulation of an unambiguous alternative to dominant practices? The central thesis of this paper is (a) that the modes of legitimate power or domination operating within the English-language Wikipedia are typical of self-gover-ned forms of civic engagement, which is to say they are based on a critique of separation, (b) that in this sense Wikipedia represents a successful response to democratic aspirations which traverse wider society, and (c) that on Wikipedia this critique of separation is hindered by obstacles deriving from the project’s historical development and conditions of production. The paper’s second section summarises the manner in which legitimate domination has been analysed in the online context.

Section 3 outlines different kinds of critique. In the context of this paper ‘critique’ will refer to the analysis of critiques deployed by participants. I present in section 4 two main types of ‘authority’ (modes of legitimising expert or administrative actions) which respect the autonomy of participants. Online legitimation is based on the critique of separation, and section 5 defines the Wikipedian critique of separated expertise and justice, focusing on occurrences when these critiques fail. Section 6 considers the issues which the analysis of legitimate domination and critique in Wikipedia raise not only for participants, but also for observers. The conclusion reflects on the political implications of peer production research.

2. Domination on the Internet

2.1. Anti-authoritarian leadership

The Internet is widely perceived to constitute a ‘permanent autonomous zone’. The reasons are many: the network’s horizontal structure means that all functioning websites are equally retrievable or viewable and every website that is contained in the ‘strongly connected component’ of the web can be accessed either directly or indirectly by following hyperlinks from other websites in this component [1]. Social factors should also be taken into account, such as the informality of interpersonal relationships, or anonymity. Online groups are stereotypically presen-ted as less hierarchical and less discriminatory, more inclusive and democratic than traditional communities, where recourse to visual markers of identity often results in prejudicial exclusion, silencing and mistreatment (Barney, 2004). It is nonetheless clear that peer projects require a range of ‘leadership’ functions involving coordination, recruitment and administration. Free software project maintainers must welcome new participants and facilitate the integration of their contributions; evaluate and criticise proposals to ensure they do not degrade the quality of the project; keep the project dynamic (discussing and summarising ideas); and ensure discipline (by confer-ring privileges, arbitrating disputes and excluding troublemakers). The catch is that, with the exception of the last actions, which are of a strictly administrative or judiciary nature, none of these tasks lend themselves to a command-obey relationship. In fact, maintainers must take care not to antagonise or disappoint participants by not meeting their expecta-tions, failing to pacify conflicts and establishing unrealistic objectives (Weber, 2004) or participants will exercise their exit option and desert the project.

2.2. Approaches of online authority

Two analytical approaches to online domination can be broadly distinguished (for a more detailed review see O’Neil, 2011b). Some scholars have focused on the personal qualities required of leaders. Maintainers in free software projects need to demonstrate program-ming skills as well as idiosyncratic personal appeal; eschewing authoritarianism, they must ‘speak softly’; prove that they will accept the better ‘patch’ (contribution); and give credit where credit is due (Raymond, 1999). Such leaders are said to adhere to the Platonic ideal of always working for the good of the commonwealth, proving their worth through their strong moral commitment to the values of the project (Coleman, 2005). Leaders in Wikipedia, who emerge informally as the project develops, must demonstrate a range of characteristics, such as patience and humility, the use of persuasion, humour and politeness, rather than heavy-handed or autocratic tactics. Most importantly, they must continue to contribute to the project (Reagle 2007). A second set of scholars focuses on the emergence of regulatory mechanisms. Steven Weber’s (2004) ‘political economy’ account of free software presents leadership under four distinct angles: technical design, such as component modula-rity; sanctioning mechanisms such as flames; legal licenses which operate as Constitutions; and formal governance structures such as voting procedures. Political scientists have also examined the manner in which online social groups conform to Ostrom’s (1990) criteria for deciding whether traditional offline communities are autonomous. Usenet (Kollock & Smith, 1996) and Wikipedia (Forte et al, 2009) have thus been evaluated in terms of the absence of externally imposed rules, the control of member behaviour by the community, and other criteria. These two perspectives, focusing on the personal qualities of leaders and on regulatory mechanisms, share an important characteristic: they position themselves exclusively within the system being investigated, forbidding the possibility of a critical distance which would enable the object of study to be placed in the wider context of the social order, understood as class-based subdivisions of dominant and dominated people.

3. The forms of critique

Who performs critique, who is the critical agent? Three main types of critique can be distinguished (Trom, 2008). One has a historical dimension, denouncing the present in terms of an anticipation of the future. A second variant criticises the present situation in the name of a scientific posture: unveiling the reality hidden by ideology, illusion, alienation. Finally a third critical stance is based on indignation: reality is denounced not in the name of the future or of science, but because it makes us subjectively feel the weight of injustice. The strength of Marxism was, or is (depending on how one feels about its relevance) to combine, or juxtapose, all three types. In the following section, I assess the relevance of these distinct critiques to online projects such as Wikipedia.

3.1. Critique as historical process

Peer production echoes earlier forms of production of commons, where work is voluntary, engaged on a contractless basis, and actors follow norms which have emerged following a ‘bottom-up’ process (Ostrom 2000). Benkler (2002) suggests that peer production represents a real alternative to the dominant production models organised around commands and hierarchies, as in firms, and prices and monetary rewards, as in markets. Decreased communication costs and the fact that digital goods are non-rival (one person’s use does not hinder another’s) contribute to matching best available human resources to the best available information inputs to create information products (Benkler, 2002: 444). If huge numbers of people contribute, all the better: participants are best able to decide themselves how much they can contribute. It is true that people may mistake or misstate their capa-cities, and originally Benkler (2002: 415) argued that peer review or statistical averaging (if the number is large enough) will be enough to control bad self-assessments, though he has since added the notion that projects require established, low-cost means of weeding out incompetent and malicious contributions (Benkler & Nissenbaum, 2006: 401). Projects should be modular (they can be broken up into distinct com-ponents which can be independently developed, allowing investments at different times of distinct individuals with varying competencies) and granular (modules need to be fine-grained) so that they can be performed by individuals in little time, and motivation needs to be very small (Benkler, 2002: 378).

Trom (2008) argues that the first type of critical activity, based on historical destiny, has been discredited by the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Nonetheless some authors believe that a future society is being built now by historical agents not united by their class, but by their shared embrace of new processes. Peer production by the autonomous multitude replaces the proletariat as the fetishised subject of history. Zizek (2002) remixed Lenin’s famous slogan (‘Socialism = electricity + power of the Soviets’) to come up with: ‘Socialism = free access to Internet + power of the Soviets’. Activists of the P2P Foundation argue that peer to peer work already constitutes the direct creation of value by civil society, whereby individuals do not abdicate their property rights to corporations or the State but remain share-holders of their production: ‘democratically governed’ commons are becoming ‘the core institution of the new political economy’ (Bauwens, 2010). Members of the Oekonux network write that commons-based peer production such as Free Software and Wikipedia represent the harbinger or ‘germ form’ within capitalism of a new social order (Meretz & Merten, 2011) based on the free provision of goods or on commonly constituted ‘pools’ (Siefkes, 2007), thereby renewing with Marxist visions of ‘post-scarcity’ societies of abundance.

This stance raises a number of questions. Dyer-Witheford’s seminal Cyber-Marx had pinpointed the central contradiction of informational capitalism: commerce now depends on the creativity of a ‘mass of informal, innovative, intellectual activity – “hacking” – … even as it criminalizes it’ (Dyer-Witheford, 1999: 228). Ten years later the editors of a special issue of Capital & Class on peer production noted that prime examples such as GNU/Linux development and Wikipedia initiated a new mode of production but also reasserted ‘very old-fashioned trends of profit-making and the colonisation of knowledge’ (Karatzogianni & Moore, 2009: 11). Let’s face it: informational capita-lism seems to be able to handle a zone of free digital goods reasonably well. You might even say that portraying cyberspace as a cornucopia brimming over with free or pirated content creates in consumers the need to purchase the requisite hardware and band-width; and it urges them to do so in the name of rebelling against the power of corporations intent on protecting their private intellectual property (O’Neil, 2006). As the Apple Computer slogan once infamously had it: ‘Rip. Mix. Burn. It’s your music.’ The Internet-as-free-content -for-all ideology erases the distinction between producers and spectators of content, so that everyone will be an artist or a journalist; a heroically active ‘prosumer’ or ‘produser’ instead of an abject consumer. Another issue is that the exact identity of the aforementioned production-owning ‘shareholders’ (Bauwens, 2010) is not addressed. In the online environment, participation is not only limited to those who possess the requisite economic and cultural resources; participation may in fact operate as the means to perpetuate the hidden advantages of elites – precisely what the second type of critique aims to uncover.

3.2. Critique as scientific unveiling

A paradigmatic example of this positioning was Pierre Bourdieu’s critical sociology which aimed to reveal forms of the social unconscious through which the socially dominant reproduce their domination (Bour-dieu 1983, 1984). By revealing the truth about the world, critical sociology aims to achieve justice in the world. If Bourdieu had spent any time thinking about the Internet and online peer production, he might have said something like the following: what we have here is a classic example of a para-artistic autonomous field with its specific forms of anti-economic value or ‘capital’. Incumbents endowed with disproportionate amounts of this capital are educated white males. They distinguish themselves as the exclusive repositories of technological expertise; coding for code’s sake allows hackers to profit from the interest in being perceived as disinterested; they monopolise the capacity to say with authority which persons are authorised to call themselves hackers, hence the disparagement of ‘script kiddies’ or ‘hacktivists’ who are not interested in pro-gramming per se, but in the use of applications for fun or activism (Jordan & Taylor, 2004).

In short, free online projects should be understood as expressing the values of the dominated fraction of the dominant social group. Hence these projects are structured by a rejection of ‘corporate’ values whilst reproducing the advantage of those who are endowed with cultural, rather than economic capital. The early social Internet was indeed strongly imbued with a logic of distinction: possessors of exclusive email addresses such as the WELL (Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link, one of the first alternative online communities) or of research universities, were viewed in a better light on Usenet than users with com-mercial accounts. The profusion of terms developed in computer-mediated-communication environments to describe the implementation and violation of beha-vioural norms (‘netiquette’) also points to the importance of cultural capital on the Net (Lawley, 1994). Though the democratisation of online commu-nication and production thanks to tools such as blogs and wikis (‘Web 2.0’) has stretched the boundaries of belonging, the Internet remains an exclusive enclave. Within this protected universe, strong divisions persist, deriving from the identity of its first inhabitants. Like Free Software, Wikipedia constitutes an environment with a highly skewed gender distribution. According to a United Nations University survey, only 13% of Wikipedians are female (Glott & Ghosh, 2010). Though it would be unfair to assert that Wikipedia communication conforms to a familiar online pattern whereby criticism of aggressive behaviour is disqua-lified as constituting an intolerable censorship of freedom of speech (Herring, 1999), the agonistic spirit of netiquette lives on: it is still perfectly acceptable to communicate aggressively on Wikipedia, provided that the comments are not ‘personal’ (Ross, 2009).

The critique of masculinity as a social super-structure of domination is justified and necessary, but appears problematic in the context of this paper. First, it is hardly specific to peer production projects. Second, it raises an analytical issue: in the ‘critical unveiling of domination’ model, the only agents equipped to perceive and uncover injustice are sociologists themselves.

3.3. Critique as action

Critical sociology’s psychoanalysis-inspired notion of cultural unconscious does not mesh with people’s observed capacity for self-reflection. In other words, critical sociology does not sufficiently account for the critical operations undertaken by actors. People are not ‘cultural dopes’ who lack insight into the normative underpinnings of their actions (Garfinkel, 1969: 37). Instead Boltanski (2009) suggests that people are endowed with reflexive and critical capacities (not necessarily expressed in public) which question the superior status of sociologists as sole possessors of truth. People use arguments which display similar features to sociological or scientific reports: valid arguments rest on a system of proofs, on the selection of pertinent facts, on unveiling operations. The impermeable division between the everyday activity of ‘ordinary people’ and the scientific activity of sociologists has dubious validity. Boltanski et al.’s ‘sociology of critique’ aims to place the actions and moral judgements of ordinary people at the centre of its analytical project (Boltanski, 1990; Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006; Boltanski & Chiapello, 2004). In this configuration people are understood as formulating criticisms, justifications and compromises by referring to common conventions (known as ‘cités’).

4. Legitimate Power in Wikipedia

In the context of peer production projects, the analysis of legitimate domination constitutes a useful means to elucidate the connection between local and societal critical practice. The legitimation of actions and decisions in peer production projects can be based on the qualities of an individual (in the case of charisma-tic hacker authority) or on the values of the group (in the case of collectivist online authority). Some authors have described legitimate power in peer production projects – Arvidsson (2007) and Reagle (2007) both refer to ‘charisma’ in regards to ‘social production’ and Wikipedia respectively, whilst Auray (2005) as well as O’Mahony & Ferraro (2007) analysed ‘sove-reignty’ in the Debian GNU/Linux distribution (a distribution is an operating system and a collection of software applications). Building on these insights, I argue that the classic Weberian concept of ‘authority’ (1978) can be applied to anti-authoritarian projects provided it is founded on a critique of the social order, understood as alienated separation (defined in the next section). This section outlines how charismatic hacker and collectivist online authority operate in Wikipedia. A third variant, index authority, is not dealt with here, as it plays a minimal role within Wikipedia. Index authority refers to the fact that sites with more in-links tend to be ranked higher in search engine indexes such as Google (Ackland & O’Neil, 2011). Wikipedia itself, as a website, has very high index authority, as evidenced by Google rankings.

4.1. Hacker Authority in Wikipedia

Levy (1984) defined the ‘hacker ethic’ as the commitment to the free access of computers and information, the mistrust of centralised authority and the insistence that hackers be evaluated solely in terms of technical virtuosity and not ‘bogus’ criteria such as degrees, age, race or position. Charismatic hacker authority is based on the extraordinary skills of a person. Since it is intimately linked to the characte-ristics of the individual, it is not transferable to anyone else. On Wikipedia, hacker charisma is, of course, first embodied in the person of Jimmy Wales, the project’s remaining founder: his extraordinary status allowed him to intervene in disputes by summarily blocking users or content (O’Neil, 2009). Though these actions were arbitrary and generated controversy, they were not seen as illegitimate on Wikipedia. Since 2009 Wales remains a ‘charismatic leader and has a seat on the [Wikimedia Foundation] board, but he has much fewer permissions in community governance’ (Fuster Morell, 2011: 333).

Charismatic authority derives from the gift of grace: from a higher power or from inspiration. It rests on the qualities of an individual personality, by virtue of which he or she is deemed extraordinary and treated as endowed with superhuman or at least specifically exceptional powers and qualities (Weber, 1978: 241). At the same time charisma never remains long in its unadulterated form, before being ‘routinised’ into a more stable incarnation, usually incorporating chara-cteristics of bureaucracy or patrimonialism. In Wikipedia the routinisation of charisma takes the form of the recognition by the community of the dedication shown by participants to the project. In Weber’s typology (1978), merit-based promotion distinguishes legal systems from patrimonial and charismatic ones. But in the hacker universe, and by extension in all volunteer-staffed peer production projects, if project work constitutes the basis for recognition, this recognition is ‘paid’ in affect, in the shape of the respect and affection given by one’s peers, and not by an official promotion, commendation or financial bonus awarded by a hierarchy. Charismatised merit, which Arvidsson (2009) refers to as ‘philia’ (commu-nity standing, affective proximity) is most clearly manifested on Wikipedia in ‘barnstars’, tokens of appreciation which are publicly conferred by one participant to another and appear on the personal pages of project participants.

4.2. Online collectivist authority in Wikipedia

The second form of legitimation on Wikipedia, collectivist online authority, is based on regard for the common good. In an earlier work (O’Neil, 2009) I also referred to this variant as ‘sovereign authority’ to emphasise the bottom-up constitution of a sovereign political entity. However I have found that when the term is translated from English into other languages it can be confused with notions of national sovereignty. I will from now on solely refer to online collectivism, in line with significant past instances of organisational analysis of communal groups (Rothschild-Whitt, 1979). The anti-authoritarian roots of peer production mean that online projects are held to contradict the more dysfunctional connotations of ‘bureaucracy’, such as vertical control, sclerotic aversion to change, blind deference to authority, and the like. For example, the founding members of the Internet Engineering Task Force, the body which establishes Internet trans-mission protocols, contended that the IETF resembled a ‘happening’ without managers, politicians (‘suits and neckties’) or formal structure (Hoffman & Harris, 2009). Wikipedia similarly claims that it is ‘not a bureaucracy’ (Wikipedia, 2010).

Nonetheless Wikipedia, like most large peer produced projects, comprises typically bureaucratic features such as the maintenance of archives of deci-sions, the existence of rules, and the separation of roles and persons: any Wikipedia editor can become an ‘administrator’ and hence exercise authority over other participants; these officers can be replaced by some-one else. The difference with traditional corporate bureaus are the stated transparency of decisions and commitment to consensus-building. Collectivist online authority can be defined as a fusion of direct-democratic and bureaucratic traits and has two central components: roles and rules.

Roles in Wikipedia

A complex hierarchy has emerged, composed of administrators (aka ‘admins’ or ‘sysops’), stewards, and bureaucrats, each of these categories being endo-wed with specific tools and competencies (blocking articles or participants, nominating people to positions, etc.). Since the legitimate domination which admins possess has been entrusted to them by their peers, it can in theory be withdrawn by the community. In reality, though they were initially meant to operate only as janitors, admins, who are never subject to re-election, have taken on increasingly greater responsi-bilities, of a behavioural and editorial nature (Forte et al, 2009). A particularly telling example is that 46% of page blocks effected by administrators of the English Wikipedia between December 2004 and January 2008 had to do with the question of whether articles should be deleted. In other words, 1.500 people are determining what deserves to be included in the encyclopaedia, whilst the project has 12 million user accounts (Loubser, 2010).

Rules in Wikipedia

Wikipedia is characterised by ‘self-similarity’ in that governance is incorporated in the wiki technology which underpins the creation and coordination of encyclopaedia articles (Almeida et al., 2007). In other words, governance mechanisms such as policies and guidelines are transparently created on the wiki through a process of ‘writing about writing’ (Aaltonen & Lanzara, 2010). In the absence of centralized editorial oversight, interactions on Wikipedia are regulated by an overlapping thicket of editorial and behavioural principles or protocols such as WP:NPOV (neutral point of view), WP:RS (reliable sources), WP:NOR (no original research), WP:AGF (assume good faith), etc. As participants become more and more involved in the encyclopaedia, they become more and more familiar with its rules, and seek more and more to apply them to enable the project’s functioning, as a form of personal engagement which is also a moral initiative (Auray et al., 2009).

5. The critique of separated domination

An influential attempt at articulating how peer produ-ction impacts the social order is that of Benkler & Nissenbaum (2006). In their view, this impact should be framed in strictly ethical terms: commons-based peer production is a ‘distinctive socio-technical system’ which does not only favour ‘cultural and intellectual production’ but also ‘constitutes a venue for human character development’ (417). Economic cost and industrial organisation can no longer restrict the production of culture and information, so vast amounts of people can contribute to the public good; ‘virtuous action’ is multiplied (418). In my view, this perspective, whilst accurate, does not sufficiently account for the manner in which peer production constitutes a conscious rejection of alienation. Beyond virtuous collaboration, there is active resistance to prevailing conditions, not just in terms of collaborative production but also when it comes to such fundamen-tal notions as truth and justice.

The critical operations of people in commons-based peer production projects are critiques of separa-tion: in a world which denigrates solidarity and promotes division into ever-smaller market segments, participants in these projects seek a feeling of unity between their identities as consumers and producers, between their status as experts and amateurs, between their roles as leaders and followers, between their activities of work and play, and between themselves and their fellow participants in the project – a project which they see, more often than not, as a cause to defend. Forces that contradict this holistic fusion are to be denounced, whether they appear in the guise of separated expertise or justice (O’Neil, 2011).

Contemporary domination bases its legitimacy on the authority of experts, to the detriment of legitimacy based on popular representation (Boltanski, 2009). Citizens are dispossessed of their political autonomy by a system in which technological and economic stakes outpace their understanding and capacity for decision-making. In contrast, when it ope-rates as it is supposed to, hacker expertise is demo-cratic: the only criteria is correctness, participants are equal, and deliberations and criticisms are public. It constitutes a rejection of technocracy which operates in secret and does not always seek the common good. As for collective regulation, the spirit of online projects is that the law applies to all and it is open to criticism and debate by all. This represents a stark contrast with non-virtual society where a defining characteristic of the power of dominants is the ability to laugh at the rules which the dominated observe, without ever paying a price. This section reviews how critique operates as well as the factors which hinder critique.

5.1. The critique of separated expertise in Wikipedia

Wikipedia is premised on the critique of separated expertise, but (in contrast to hacking) does not require esoteric knowledge. Hackers affirming that their solution is the best are quickly subjected to their peers’ evaluation: either the code runs, or it doesn’t. In contrast to hacker projects where technical excellence forms the basis for agreement, Wikipedia’s collective process aims to democratise knowledge production. Every article can generate a debate as to what is correct. This is meant to be resolved by a manner of scientific process (WP: Reliable sources), so that any-one can claim the title of expert. The project stands for the most radical form of anti-credentialism: expertise is no longer embodied in a person but in a process, the ‘wisdom of the crowd’, that is to say interactions between individual authors and a massively distributed peer community (Wales, 2008; O’Neil, 2010).

The critique of separated expertise will primarily be exercised against the pretensions of those who claim to be the sole possessors of truth and knowledge because of their outside accreditations. A well-known example were the charges laid against William Connolley (Wikipedia, 2005). When Connol-ley, a Wikipedia editor who in his day job was a climatologist at Cambridge’s British Antarctic Survey, attempted to correct mistakes on Wikipedia’s climate change article, he was accused of ‘promoting his own POV [Point of View] and of having systematically erased any POV which did not correspond to his own’. His anonymous opponent brought him before Wikipedia’s high court, the Arbitration Committee, and Connolley was sentenced to making only one ‘revert’ a day, apart from cases of vandalism. Though this sentence had more to do with breaches of etiquette, with Connolley’s not suffering fools gladly, than with the promoting of a biased perspective, the case highlighted the fact that possessors of specialised expertise were now placed on the same level as everyone else.

Impediment to critique: Persistent respect for fake or genuine traditional expertise

The critique of expertise is not applied uniformly; separated forms of scientific legitimacy still play a role in Wikipedia. The case of Essjay illustrates the point. This person, whose conflict-mediation work had led him to the top rungs of the project’s bureaucracy, routinely presented himself as a Professor of Divinity Studies to ‘win’ content disputes, whereas he lacked any academic qualifications whatsoever (Cohen, 2007). Participants also show respect for genuine competence in complex technical disciplines which discourage opinionated amateurs (Sanger, 2009).

5.2. The critique of separated justice in Wikipedia

A corollary to the manner in which the truth-making process is open to public scrutiny in Wikipedia is that judicial procedures and decisions are also meant to be completely transparent. However online peer projects struggle between their non-separate ideal and the constant recreation of divisions. This is particularly the case in Wikipedia, with its participatory premise (‘you can edit this article right now’) at odds with the emer-gence of a caste of specialised regulators. A number of structural factors have also contributed to the perce-ption of injustice.

Impediment to critique 1: Uncertainty over identity

Many Wikipedia editors will happily work on their preferred topics without ever coming into contact with an administrator. However uncertainty over the relationship between physical and digital identities causes a significant amount of turbulence, as the regulation of the activities of vandals or propagandists who use duplicate identities (‘sockpuppets’) is a poten-tial breeding ground for discriminatory treatment. Participants on the French Wikipedia who have not registered on the site and instead just use an IP address are more likely to be involved in semi-protected articles, where disputes and insults typically occur (Auray et al, 2009). Yet the ease of contributing anonymously represents an important part of the Wiki-pedia process. One study found that anonymous contributors contributed a quarter of the mainspace content, but only 1/20 of the policy and regulation content (Aaltonen & Lanzara, 2010). Another determi-ned that edits by anonymous ‘Good Samaritans’ who are experts in their field were of consistently high quality (Antony et al, 2009). The lack of confidence towards users who do not register an identity (even if it is pseudonymous) on the French Wikipedia means these users’ contributions are much more liable to be reverted than that of registered users (Auray et al, 2009). Similarly in the English Wikipedia, the percentage of reverted contributions has grown from 2.9% in 2005 to 6% in 2008, with the contributions of non-registered or ordinary users much more likely to be reverted than that of the administrators (Suh et al., 2009).

Impediment to critique 2: The perception that power is unjustly concentrated

What is not in dispute is that as the number of admins rises, they apply ever-more precise regulation to en ever-shrinking pool of creatable articles: proportio-nally, the number of pages defining rules has been growing at a much faster rate than content pages (Kittur et al., 2007). Statistical analysis supports the notion that far from the wisdom of the crowd, Wikipedia is managed by a tiny elite (Ibid.) and that this minority is producing a great amount of both article and policy content so that ‘the few do most of the job and have the wisdom too’ (Aaltonen & Lanzara, 2010: 22). Indeed, as the number of partici-pants has grown and as new governance tools such as the Administrator’s Notice Board have been created, ‘for better or for worse, the role of administrator carries with it more social authority than it ever has in the past’ (Forte et al., 2009: 66), with sysops making decisions that would previously have been made by the Arbcom, such as interpreting policy and excluding people from the site. There has reportedly been a dip in recruitment numbers in recent years (Ortega et al., 2009; Suh et al., 2009). Though no direct correlation has been established, it is not inconceivable that an increase of disciplinary control, and its unequal appli-cation to everyone, would result in a plateauing of recruitment.

Participants have occasionally alleged that exclusionary power in Wikipedia has been concentrated in the hands of a core group of administrators. Whilst no evidence exists of systematic abuse, it seems logical that people benefiting from such advantages as incumbency, intimate knowledge of site procedures, networks of supporters, and in some cases administrative tools, would be statistically more likely to see their point of view prevail during disputes, irrespective of the correctness of their position (O’Neil, 2009). However since persistent critiques of administrative authority are often coupled to strongly held views on controversial topics they are viewed as disruptive, and those who formulate them are sometimes banned from participating in the site. When the site’s democratic promise is not realised and domination appears unjustly concentrated, reactions can be violent, prompting for example accusations that Wikipedia operates as a ‘cult’ (Finkelstein, 2007). Some participants who feel they have been the victims of unredressed injustice on Wikipedia migrate to hypercritical sites such as Wikipedia Review and Encyclopaedia Dramatica, where the perceived mis-deeds of the ‘Cabal’ which runs Wikipedia are pored over and derided, sometimes in juvenile fashion.

6. Critique and research

Wikipedia research is heavily skewed toward the macro-level analysis of huge amounts of data ‘dumps’ (Viégas et al., 2004; Antony et al., 2009; Ortega et al, 2009; Aaltonen & Lanzara, 2010). Focusing on the macro level has several advantages for scholars, starting with the intrinsic epistemic value of large-scale quantitative research. In addition this type of research sounds impressive and is likely to attract funding, as well as Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and Ethics Committees approval, something which North American researchers are expected to obtain. But this research focus has less positive consequences: the field becomes only accessible to computer scien-tists, who tend to concentrate on the inner workings of technical systems, forbidding critical distance; IRBs are unlikely to look favourably on possibly contro-versial topics. All this has contributed to a reduced examinations of specific instances of possibly abusive behaviour.

The challenge for critical Wikipedia research is to bring together two contradictory imperatives: protecting the integrity of subjects whilst dealing with the actions of people occupying powerful positions. Whilst new or inexperienced users may not be aware that all edits on Wikipedia can potentially be subse-quently referred to, the same cannot be said of experienced editors and particularly of administrators: Wikipedia has a culture of public ‘rational-critical’ discussion (Hansen et al., 2009). This does not alter the fact that whilst Wikipedians may be prepared to see their words and actions evaluated and criticised by their peers, they would not necessarily feel the same way if these critiques and evaluations were performed by outsiders. This raises the question of the necessity of the independent review of judicial and admini-strative actions on Wikipedia. But before addressing this issue, it is necessary to briefly review the principles of online research ethics.

The ethics of the external monitoring and analysis of online communities has long been a concern of Internet researchers. Since the 1990s, the US-centric position has stressed the Internet’s blurring of the categories of private and public, signifying that technical accessibility does not equal publicness, and making anonymity and informed prior consent necessary (King, 1996; Wascul & Douglas, 1996). Authors have advocated the search for a consensus between researchers and subjects so that the latter may correct or change what is written about them before publication (Allen, 1996); others have suggested working together with subjects to produce research outputs (Bakardjieva & Andrew, 2001), practising an ‘open source ethics’ (Berry, 2004).[2]

Bruckman (2002) provides a useful spectrum of situations requiring ‘light’ to ‘heavy’ disguise – the heavier variant being premised on the transmogrifying of the website, something which research on Wikipedia would obviously find hard to achieve. Further, since wiki-activity is highly contingent, invol-ving precise technical capacities and administrative procedures (rather than simply discussions on an email list), the concealment of subjects would potentially involve changing the nature of the tasks being analysed, which might render the specific stakes of an incident somewhat hard to follow.

Herring (1996) had previously formulated some more general criticisms of the conventional stance in Internet research ethics, which all apply to Wikipedia:

(a) False anonymity: since the Internet is a written medium, in publicly archived projects it is trivial to perform a search and find the authors of a particular quote. Anonymising subjects would there-fore simply be a convention, a way of protecting the researcher’s ethical reputation;
(b) Lack of verifiability: how can results be reproduced by other researchers if distinguishing features are scrubbed out?;
(c) The issue of scale: in large projects, who should the researcher seek prior consent from? In the case of Wikipedia literally hundreds of people may opine during a conflict;
(d) Finally, and most problematically, the possible censoring of research: how can researchers conduct legitimate critical research (in Herring’s case, she was investigating gender bias in email lists) if prior consent is sought out? Would informing subjects of the research project not entice them to modify the very behaviour which the researcher is documenting? In particular, what of participants who wield power over other users?

In short, the ethics of not doing harm to subjects needs to be balanced to the ethics of potentially not addressing injustice unearthed by research (Herring, 1996). The early days of Internet research produced stimulating examinations of the emergence of commons-based legal systems in MUDs and MOOs (see for example Maltz, 1996; Mnookin, 1996; Lemley, 1997; Perritt, 1997). In contrast, there has been relatively little examination of Wikipedia’s internal legal structure. Now, the evaluation of the correctness of judicial decisions or administrative actions implies an examination of particular cases and decisions. Since Wikipedia-law is unstable, as it can potentially be challenged and rewritten, it is understandable that legal scholars would hesitate to comment. Yet if the point of critical research is to identify problems in reality in a reasonably precise manner, it is difficult to see how this could be achieved without referring to specific examples of practices and procedures – which then runs the risk of identifying individuals, even when their identity is disguised, for the reasons outlined above.

7. Conclusion

This paper has outlined a critical research framework based on the actions of participants, rather than on the uncovering of master narratives of domination. In technologically advanced societies, where domination occurs through soft control, political activism is rarely a mass phenomenon. The radical impulses of the dispersed multitude instead adopt sideways strategies of resistance: constituting digital commons as alterna-tives to proprietary goods (though these may also operate as justifications for capitalism) and inaugu-rating new kinds of agencies, communities, and practices. The activity of participants in massively distributed commons-based peer production projects such as Wikipedia are prefiguring a type of society where expertise and justice are not in the exclusive service of dominants, but democratically available to all. The characteristic of peer production is that people are motivated to form a collective which is not based on class identity (as in traditional social movements) or on a cause such as environmentalism or feminism (as in new social movements) but on collective owner-ship of the means of production and on democratic control over justice and expertise. In the process of working together for personal satisfaction and the common good, Wikipedians are criticising and over-coming separated domination, rejecting the power of offline scientific knowledge and justice specialists. However personal and structural factors such as the presence of outside experts on the one hand, and first-mover advantage and uncertainty over identity on the other restrain this critique of separation. Possible solutions include reassessing the role of anonymity on the project as well as the drafting of a Constitution which would more clearly lay out the roles and respon-sibilities of authority-holders (both these suggestions contradict core elements of the Wikipedia ethos).
The role of researchers in a legal system which is de facto impermeable to outside scrutiny has also been evoked. Should researchers strictly obey the ‘golden rule’ by only conducting quantitative analysis at the macro level (‘there may be cases of abusive authority because of structural factors x, y and z’), thereby staying out of Wikipedia’s embodied arrangements of power? Wikipedia administrators, bureaucrats and especially arbitrators are effectively operating as judicial authorities: a Wikipedia arbitrator (who happens to be a lawyer in the offline world) once referred to his role in the project as that of a ‘judge of a multi-member appellate court with a discretionary jurisdiction’ (Matetski, 2009). Legal scholars do not ask for the permission of judges when reviewing and criticising their decisions. Declarations by the Wikimedia Foundation inviting scholars to join in the process of managing the relationship between researchers and Wikimedia projects show that the issue has not gone unnoticed (Moeller, 2010), but it is not clear to what extent such developments extend to fully independent review by outsiders. Beyond Wikipedia, this is a central question for emerging organisations that promote participatory, horizontal distributions of power. If such organisations are to constitute a viable alternative to corporate hierarchies, their administrative and judicial processes should be able to withstand a similar, or higher, level of scrutiny. In other words, it is time to seriously debate the merits of oversight mechanisms for commons-based peer production projects.


[1] A strongly connected component is a set of nodes where for each node there exists a path (direct or indirect) to every other node in the set. Broder & al. (2000) estimated that in 1999, 28% of websites formed a giant strongly connected component while 8% of sites were disconnected from this component.

[2] Some countries’ ethical guidelines do not adhere to the strict prescription against identifying subjects. For example French-language articles on Wikipedia, such as Auray et al’s (2009) masterful exploration of conflict in the French Wikipedia, clearly identify participants.

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How to cite this article:

O’Neil, M. (2011) CSPP, RS 1-2: 1-11.


Thanks to the three reviewers for their great input. Thanks to those who helped along the way such as Athina Karatzogianni and Christian Siefkes.

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