How to Fix Wikipedia’s Bureaucracy Problem: Ignore All the Rules

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June 22 2014 8:00 PM

The Unbearable Bureaucracy of Wikipedia

The legalistic atmosphere is making it impossible to attract and keep the new editors the site needs.

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There are three main reasons for procedure accrual on Wikipedia. First, the sheer amount of regulation lets more veteran editors use their understanding of the rules as leverage against the less experienced editors. As I describe in my new book, Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia, this way bureaucracy substitutes for the lack of more traditional organizational hierarchy. Experienced editors reinforce their own status by smacking newcomers with their ignorance. This process is strengthened by cryptic lingo, in which phrases such as “del per nom. Fails NPOV, relies on OR, and has a SNOW chance of improving to BLP standards” are not uncommon. (In case you’re not fluent in Wikipedian, that means: “I support the deletion of this article per the arguments of the nominator. The article is not written neutrally, it relies on original research, and does not have any chance of being improved to meet the standards of biographies of living persons.”)

Second, in open collaboration, project members enjoy their influence by generating rules and norms. Collective decision-making plays an important role in fostering editors’ engagement and their feeling of community. The only problem is that this approach works best for the veterans. When the amount of rules reaches a critical point (as it has most likely already done on Wikipedia), there is not that much vital to add. New generations of editors basically do not have any important areas left to regulate to make their marks. At the same time, a fossilized status quo additionally deters newcomers.

Third, it should not be surprising that in any population, there are people who feel better in a highly regulated context. Even though they probably do not form a majority of Wikipedia contributors, their preferences are reflected in actions. Each procedure that is approved on Wikipedia makes sense on its own, so most new rules are not vigorously opposed even by those who prefer a more flexible environment. As a result, there is a natural growth of regulations, while no one focuses on their reduction.

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This last reason may lead to a workable solution. Just as there are established ways to create new rules, and there are specialized functionaries dedicated to eliminating vandalism, Wikipedia may need a specialized, volunteer-driven, trusted task force, working to eliminate the bureaucratic creep. Whether elected or self-nominated, these editors would attempt to reduce the number and length of communal rules, as well as to simplify them and delete the ones that have gradually become obsolete. Granted, such simplification is already possible through general discussions and requests for comments. However, establishing a new group of users, with such a specific task assigned, would change the framework dramatically. A lot of their efforts would go to reducing and better categorizing existing regulations.

They could also help by making it clear which rules are most important, as currently the distinction among policies, guidelines, and essays is very fuzzy. For instance, violating some policies may not result in any consequences (e.g., the verifiability policy), while breaking the norms covered in “just an essay” documents may lead to being blocked (e.g., an essay on tendentious editing). Ideally, there should be a guardrail for a maximum number of policies, and a fixed number of additional specialized regulations for editors to follow, with a firm word-count limit as well.

A bureaucracy-busting squad of Wikipedians, who actively use and educate about the “ignore all rules” rule, should be recognized and commended within the community. The energy spent on bashing the newcomers, and patronizing them about the regulations, would be much better spent on helping them see the joy and beauty of creating new content on Wikipedia. If Wikipedia really needs administrators, bureaucrats, stewards, checkusers, mediators, arbitrators, and oversighters (all of these roles and more do currently function on Wikipedia), it definitely could use a separate role of “bureaucracy cutters,” too. It is true that it is sort of funny and perverse to try to fight bureaucracy with creating a new formal role. But the beast has grown too big to try any other way—and Wikipedia is too big and too important to let it gradually die out, stifled by overformalization.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Dariusz Jemielniak is a professor of management at Kozminski University, a Wikimedia activist, and the author of Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia.

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