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Wikipedia: Maybe It's Democratic After All

Posted by: Rob Hof on September 04, 2006

Lately, some skeptical folks, notably Nick Carr, have been wondering how democratic a process Wikipedia really has. Even founder Jimmy Wales has noted that a very small number of people do the lion’s share of editing. But Aaron Swartz dug a little deeper and found that’s not the whole story. It turns out, according to his research, that most of the entries are actually written by people who are not in that inner cabal. As Swartz, who’s running for election to the Wikimedia Foundation’s board of directors, writes:

When you put it all together, the story become clear: an outsider makes one edit to add a chunk of information, then insiders make several edits tweaking and reformatting it. In addition, insiders rack up thousands of edits doing things like changing the name of a category across the entire site — the kind of thing only insiders deeply care about. As a result, insiders account for the vast majority of the edits. But it’s the outsiders who provide nearly all of the content.

So, it appears that Wikipedia might be pretty democratic after all, at least when it comes to initial contributions.

Swartz also explains why this matters hugely to the future of Wikipedia:

This fact does have enormous policy implications. If Wikipedia is written by occasional contributors, then growing it requires making it easier and more rewarding to contribute occasionally.

Hat tip to BoingBoing.

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Reader Comments


September 5, 2006 11:00 AM

I like Wikipedia okay, but I wish I could set my Google preferences to block results from Wikipedia. I think I am becoming a believer in the theory that it's unnaturally up in rank.


September 6, 2006 02:21 AM

Wikipedia is not a democracy. What you explain above is that Wiki isn't actually an oligarchy, which is true, but the notion that Wikipedia is a "democracy," often spread about the internet, is simply false. With the exception of the board-of-directors election going on now, there really is no official voting that goes on. Often there are consensus-building processes in which different sides will weigh in one way or the other, but it is consensus regarding policy that pushes things one way or the other, not (ever) a raw vote count.

The basic thrust of this article is correct: it is the casual editors that help Wikipedia continue to grow. But the notion that this makes Wikipedia a _democracy_ is a misconception that really ought be stopped.


September 6, 2006 02:33 AM

It is true that most content is added by non-cabal members. This does not, however, make Wikipedia "democratic." The cabal members are there to enforce an overall ideological perspective, and they do this not primarily by participating in constructive debate over the content, but by harassing, intimidating and ultimately by banning editors who do not conform to the desired point of view. One Wikipedia administrator who objected, publicly, to these tactics, was recently stripped of his administrative powers, and was admonished, "don't try to hunt with the hounds and run with the hare."

Daniel Brandt

September 6, 2006 05:34 AM

And the flip side of that theory is that is unnaturally down in rank. It's been almost a year since it started, and every single one of its pages has a PageRank of zero.


September 6, 2006 09:34 AM

Wikipedia is the best online source for content. Most of the contents in the articles are well consolidated and rich in content. I think google should just wiki: to Wikipedia!


September 6, 2006 10:19 AM

dude: it's not that hard to simply append "-wikipedia" to your search queries to scrap all that.

Mike Reardon

September 6, 2006 12:50 PM

Wikipedia is the first "massive" democratic document the size of it is impressive, it also points to other democratic histories and documents that could be created by wiki format. I live near San Francisco, for ever block in every neighborhood, getting a history from people contributing their vision of the shifting city seem a great wiki format next to the formal history's. Every race should have its own central democratic document, and the nations and peoples that contributed to this nation should get a place to define their own history. Wikipedia is the first but lets hope not the last democratic document.

Heather Green

September 6, 2006 03:51 PM

Very interesting. But I still don't have a sense of how many of the remaining facts in the text are the ones originally written by the "drive-by" contributors, or how much the edit ends up taking those facts out.


September 7, 2006 09:49 AM

This is not a credible line of reasoning.

Of course Wikipedia accepts contribution from many people (or at least many IP addresses). But it isn't democratic, because those contributions are on issues that the Wiktators don't care about. And you can still get a lot of contributions from many, many different liberals.

The Wikipedia universe is politically skewed left about as far as it can. That's why guys from San Fransisco like it (see above). It's an obnoxious version of groupthink. Look at "Campaigns Wikia" about homosexual marriage. It's all just liberal propaganda and it isn't very original or intelligent. They win all the "consensus votes" because Conservatives like me refuse to touch it. Which is similar to how public universities have fallen apart.

So it's not Wikipedia=Democratic, it's Wikipedia=Democratic Party.


September 12, 2006 10:26 AM

Wikipedia's dirty little secret is that many real experts contribute content or at least clean up the really bad errors. Otherwise, the entries tend to be complete cr@p. Unfortunately, the systemic antielitist bias and constant harassment from the Wikipedia "Children's Crusade" eventually drives most experts out.

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