The dream of the Internet was to create a free-flow of information, unbounded by any form of top-down, centralized power, which history has shown can easily become corrupt and self-serving. Wikipedia is seen as a particularly well-known stronghold of this optimistic idea.
But according to a new study in the open-access journal Future Internet, the online community of Wikipedia has become a highly conservative “oligarchy,” where a select few elite editors hold all of the power and influence – no different to the systems of governments and corporations it was trying to get away from.
When Wikipedia was set up 15 years ago, despite there having never actually been an official policing authority on the website, the self-governing community established a set of rules and norms to give their community shape. But, since it was set up with an “open” structure, that should mean technically anybody can remove or change any of these rules as they see fit.
Researchers from Indiana University studying the evolution of social norms took advantage of Wikipedia’s treasure chest of freely available data on the interconnected pages that lay out, discuss, and interpret the English-language website's rules and norms. These norms serve as a foundation and filter for all the content that users upload. As the study describes, “These core norms govern both content and interpersonal interactions using abstract principles such as neutrality, verifiability, and assume good faith.”
However, the problem lies with the small number of people who can influence what becomes a norm. The ones with power are the old-timer editors who have been in the community since its early days in 2004, when the population of the community was just 3 percent of its peak membership. Even as the community grew from around 100 to around 30,000, the few old-timers still closely guard and amplify the old norms.
Their initial principles eventually become gospel – in a kind of “it’s the way it’s always been” fashion – and any reinterpretation of the rules is shunned. As such, very few of the rules and norms have been readapted or changed since a select few editors set the majority of them in the first few years of the page.
Speaking to Gizmodo, one of the lead authors, Simon DeDeo said: “You start with a decentralized democratic system, but over time you get the emergence of a leadership class with privileged access to information and social networks.”
He added, “Their interests begin to diverge from the rest of the group. They no longer have the same needs and goals. So not only do they come to gain the most power within the system, but they may use it in ways that conflict with the needs of everybody else.”
The researchers said their findings suggests that Wikipedia has fallen to the “Iron Law of Oligarchy.” This piece of political theory was developed in 1911 by Robert Michels to describe the idea that power will eventually and inevitably become concentrated among a select few individuals in every organization, regardless of how equal and democratic they start off.
When asked why this research was important, DeDeo explained, “We need to understand how these systems work if we’re going to understand how the economy of the future will run. They don’t have laws, they have traditions and norms”