Wikipedia is one of the (potentially) great social experiments of our time. A large self-organizing community built from the bottom up. Ah! freedom! And what got built? According to an exhaustive study that examined the sight, which records every action taken in its construction an maintenance, what got built is a standard corporate hierarchy. Writing in Gizmodo, Jennifer Ouellette reports:
One of their most striking findings is that, even on Wikipedia, the so-called “Iron Law of Oligarchy”—a.k.a. rule by an elite few—holds sway. German sociologist Robert Michels coined the phrase in 1911, while studying Italian political parties, and it led him to conclude that democracy was doomed. “He ended up working for Mussolini,” said DeDeo, who naturally learned about Michels via Wikipedia.“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,” DeDeo explained. “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.”He and Heaberlin found that the same is true of Wikipedia. The core norms governing the community were created by roughly 100 users—but the community now numbers about 30,000.
There goes the neighborhood! But then, how could it have been otherwise? Top-down hierarchies are all the most of us know, right?
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Here's the study:
Future Internet 2016, 8(2), 14; doi:10.3390/fi8020014
The Evolution of Wikipedia’s Norm Network
Bradi Heaberlin and Simon DeDeo
Abstract: Social norms have traditionally been difficult to quantify. In any particular society, their sheer number and complex interdependencies often limit a system-level analysis. One exception is that of the network of norms that sustain the online Wikipedia community. We study the fifteen-year evolution of this network using the interconnected set of pages that establish, describe, and interpret the community’s norms. Despite Wikipedia’s reputation for ad hoc governance, we find that its normative evolution is highly conservative. The earliest users create norms that both dominate the network and persist over time. These core norms govern both content and interpersonal interactions using abstract principles such as neutrality, verifiability, and assume good faith. As the network grows, norm neighborhoods decouple topologically from each other, while increasing in semantic coherence. Taken together, these results suggest that the evolution of Wikipedia’s norm network is akin to bureaucratic systems that predate the information age.
And a related study:
Intellectual interchanges in the history of the massive online open-editing encyclopedia, Wikipedia
Jinhyuk Yun (윤진혁), Sang Hoon Lee (이상훈), and Hawoong Jeong (정하웅)
Phys. Rev. E 93, 012307 – Published 22 January 2016
Abstract: Wikipedia is a free Internet encyclopedia with an enormous amount of content. This encyclopedia is written by volunteers with various backgrounds in a collective fashion; anyone can access and edit most of the articles. This open-editing nature may give us prejudice that Wikipedia is an unstable and unreliable source; yet many studies suggest that Wikipedia is even more accurate and self-consistent than traditional encyclopedias. Scholars have attempted to understand such extraordinary credibility, but usually used the number of edits as the unit of time, without consideration of real time. In this work, we probe the formation of such collective intelligence through a systematic analysis using the entire history of 34534110 English Wikipedia articles, between 2001 and 2014. From this massive data set, we observe the universality of both timewise and lengthwise editing scales, which suggests that it is essential to consider the real-time dynamics. By considering real time, we find the existence of distinct growth patterns that are unobserved by utilizing the number of edits as the unit of time. To account for these results, we present a mechanistic model that adopts the article editing dynamics based on both editor-editor and editor-article interactions. The model successfully generates the key properties of real Wikipedia articles such as distinct types of articles for the editing patterns characterized by the interrelationship between the numbers of edits and editors, and the article size. In addition, the model indicates that infrequently referred articles tend to grow faster than frequently referred ones, and articles attracting a high motivation to edit counterintuitively reduce the number of participants. We suggest that this decay of participants eventually brings inequality among the editors, which will become more severe with time.