Wikipedia and the Oligarchy of Ignorance

In a recent story on Medium called “One Man’s Quest to Rid Wikipedia of Exactly One Grammatical Mistake: Meet the Ultimate WikiGnome,” Andrew McMillen tells the story of Wikipedia editor “Giraffedata”—beyond the world of Wikipedia, a software engineer named Bryan Henderson—who has edited thousands of Wikipedia pages to correct a single grammatical error and is one of the 1000 most active editors of Wikipedia. McMillen describes Giraffedata as one of the “favorite Wikipedians” of some employees at the Wikimedia Foundation, the umbrella organization that funds and organizes Wikipedia along with other projects. The area he works on is not controversial (at least not in the sense of hot topics like GamerGate or climate change); his edits are typically not reverted in the way that substantive edits to such controversial topics frequently are. While the area he focuses on is idiosyncratic, his work is extremely productive. As such he is understood by at least some of the core Wikipedians to exemplify the power of crowds, the benefits of “organizing without organization,” the fundamental anti-hierarchical principles that apparently point toward new, better political formations.

McMillen describes a presentation at the 2012 Wikimania conference by two Wikimedia employees, Maryana Pinchuk and Steven Walling:

Walling lands on a slide entitled, ‘perfectionism.’ The bespectacled young man pauses, frowning.

“I feel sometimes that this motivation feels a little bit fuzzy, or a little bit negative in some ways… Like, one of my favorite Wikipedians of all time is this user called Giraffedata,” he says. “He has, like, 15,000 edits, and he’s done almost nothing except fix the incorrect use of ‘comprised of’ in articles.”

A couple of audience members applaud loudly.

“By hand, manually. No tools!” interjects Pinchuk, her green-painted fingernails fluttering as she gestures for emphasis.

“It’s not a bot!” adds Walling. “It’s totally contextual in every article. He’s, like, my hero!”

“If anybody knows him, get him to come to our office. We’ll give him a Barnstar in person,” says Pinchuk, referring to the coveted virtual medallion that Wikipedia editors award one another.

Walling continues: “I don’t think he wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m gonna serve widows in Africa with the sum of all human knowledge.’” He begins shaking his hands in mock frustration. “He wakes up and says, ‘Those fuckers — they messed it up again!’”

Neither the presenters nor McMillen follow up on Walling’s aside that Giraffedata’s work might be “a little bit negative in some ways.” But it seems arguable to me that this is the real story, and the celebration of Henderson’s efforts is not just misplaced, but symptomatic. Rather than demonstrating the salvific benefits of non-hierarchical organizations, Giraffedata’s work symbolizes their remarkable tendency to turn into formations that are the exact opposite of what the rhetoric suggests: deeply (if informally) hierarchical collectives of individuals strongly attached to their own power, and dismissive of the structuring elements built into explicit political institutions.

This is a well-known problem. It has been well-known at least since 1970 when Jo Freeman wrote “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”; it is connected to what Alexander Galloway has recently called “The Reticular Fallacy.” These critiques can be summed up fairly simply: when you deny an organization the formalpower to distribute power equitably—to acknowledge the inevitable hierarchies in social groups and deal with them explicitly—you inevitably hand power over to those most willing to be ruthless and unflinching in their pursuit of it. In other words, in the effort to create a “more distributed” system, except in very rare circumstances where all participants are of good will and relatively equivalent in their ethics and politics, you end up creating exactly the authoritarian rule that your work seemed designed specifically to avoid. You end up giving even more unstructured power to exactly the persons that institutional strictures are designed to curtail.

That this is a general problem with Wikipedia has been noted by Aaron Shaw and Benjamin Mako Hill in a 2014 paper called “Laboratories of Oligarchy? How The Iron Law Extends to Peer Production.” Shaw and Mako Hill are fairly enthusiastic about Wikipedia and peer production, and yet their clear-eyed research, much of which is based on empirical as well as theoretical considerations, forces them to conclude:

Although, invoking U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, online collectives have been hailed as contemporary “laboratories of democracy”, our findings suggest that they may not necessarily facilitate enhanced practices of democratic engagement and organization. Indeed, our results imply that widespread efforts to appropriate online organizational tactics from peer production may facilitate the creation of entrenched oligarchies in which the self-selecting and early-adopting few assert their authority to lead in the context of movements without clearly defined institutions or boundaries. (23)[1]

In the current case, what is so striking about Giraffedata’s work is that, from the perspective of every reasonable expert angle on the question, Giraffedata is just plain wrong.

Continues in source:  Wikipedia and the Oligarchy of Ignorance