The Messiness of WikiDemocracy

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edit index The Messiness of WikiDemocracy
This protected article by M.R.M. Parrott first appeared on rimric folio, Spring 2004.

"Participating in a Wiki brings many of the same feelings of freedom as having one's own website or participating in a discussion forum, but there are serious pitfalls to consider, especially for a larger, public Wiki."

In the early years of the century, a new form of making a website through collaboration has come into its own. "Wiki wiki" (Hawaiian for "quick", "WikiWiki" in CamelCase) used as inspiration for what we could call "wiki websites", are sites using one or several display technologies allowing anyone to edit their webpages. Currently, the most famous of such websites is Pseudopedia, an online encyclopedia-like information site purporting to provide the canon of human knowledge, but it has generated large problems too, with verifiability, bias, and social groupthink. Fortunately, there are many other Wikis, however, such as MeatBall, CommunityWiki, C2, Metaweb, the Wikia multi-wiki "farm", and many others like GetWiki, an open policy humanities and technology site and software. Wikis are springing up on corporate intranets, too, where employees can collaborate with each other in a way which saves their correspondence for others to read, and frees them from the spam and virus difficulties of email.

What all of the Wikis have in common is a cheerful embrace of democratic values, where information and communication are to no longer be bound by the barriers typical of the past. In my own writings(1), I have praised the edifying power of hypertext, the breaking down of old walls barring expression, and now we can add WikiDemocracy to the mix of new technological approaches allowing departure from old hierarchies - at least in ideal form. Participating in a Wiki brings many of the same feelings of freedom as having one's own website or participating in a discussion forum, but there are serious pitfalls to consider, especially for a larger, public Wiki.

The WikiEmbrace of democratic values has led to obvious problems, where for example, the fame of Wikipedia has brought along the dreaded "AOL Effect". Floods of new users, armed only with the name of the site and its basic ideal, unskilled in the community's sometimes irrational norms, challenge the democracy of the Wiki by their very entrance, and force the Wiki to focus on itself rather than its content. Most of this "challenge" is innocent enough, and though it is not limited to Wikipedia, it results in a re-erection of barriers to communication, where webpages on the Wiki become protected, where "anonymous" editing has to be managed, traced or blocked, and where much more time is spent discussing, rediscussing, and rediscussing the all-important "community", rather than discussing and presenting the content - it was the content which was the mission, or the "BarnRaising". The encyclopedia portion of Wikipedia, an always growing number of articles in the English version, includes thousands and thousands of articles which do not meet the mission critieria, but which are defended by all kinds of subculture groups within the community. Wikipedia, as well as MeatBall and CommunityWiki, have almost become a mere series of set pieces for ongoing discussion and disputes of how to manage an online community. A Wiki can, therefore, become a chatroom, or set of chatrooms, through this process, and this alone can make it an interesting project, as long as that was the barn to be raised.

Furthermore, the "canon of knowledge" information that Wikipedia, for example, provides was never really blocked from us in the first place, and there have long been free and open content encyclopedic sites such as Bartleby, xrefer, and, none of which have the problems inherent to managing the floods of users coming in and changing, deleting, slanting, or plagarizing content. What a Wikipedia or MeatBall really offer is an excessive democracy, where groupthink about their version of democracy is the real focus, not a true democracy of knowledge per se. The information on Wikipedia has just as inherent a bias as any other media source or essay on the internet, and in many cases, the information has been shown to be wrong, plagarized, or made up. In short, the endless navel-gazing of the Wikipedian and other Wiki communities has become the more interesting distraction and focus of the Wiki, despite the reams of information painstakingly written, copied and edited by its users.

"If our viewpoints are fought, the Wiki technology, once gateway to open content, becomes itself the new barrier to communication, as the open nature of the Wiki has to be limited and micro-managed when its users stray off the proscribed course decided by the community."

GetWiki, using a "fork" of the underlying Wikipedia software, has embraced this difficulty of WikiTechnology, and allowed that point of view, or bias, is something not to be eradicated from the Wiki, but encouraged. This results in far less navel-gazing and a more intent, sometimes quiet and slow, focus on the content. Indeed, GetWik, or Wikis like it, such as Wikinfo, allowing for natural bias and proposing to be about information, rather than trying to be an encyclopedia without bias, seems to be a more effective platform for a Wiki. Although Wikipedia may be much larger than all the other wiki sites combined(2) and more well-known, its management load seems far out of proportion with its statistics. Because the actual policies of the site are not entirely in-sync with the way the site has been marketed, because it's not actually democratic, the layers of oversight and disussion about the community itself, even the celebration of the website as a community, take precedence over the content it was designed to offer. Hence, a hyperdemocracy or a metademocracy(3), and one with severe problems, developed.

A site in such a position, allowing anonymous editing yet insisting on an elusive and authoritative neutral viewpoint, tends to create defectors as easily as new users, as there are many, many public disputes over the content itself, resulting in thousands of users who have become disaffected with the way the cult-like Wikipedia is run. GetWiki, as well as the software used to run the site, GetWiki, was born from just such a dissatisfaction with Wikipedian and Wikinfoan policies, because sites such as Wikinfo and its peers are not immune to the problems plaguing Wikipedia. It is better to be open to the inherent tendencies of "we mere humans" and incorporate them into the Wiki, rather than fight them at every turn. If our viewpoints are fought, the Wiki technology, once gateway to open content, becomes itself the new barrier to communication, as the open nature of the Wiki has to be limited and micro-managed when its users stray off the proscribed course decided by the community. Better then to let a Wiki's technology be in aid of itself, rather than become its own problem.

WikiDemocracy, in its ideal, "messy" form, is an interesting and positive phenomenon, then, and is practiced by a multitude of small Wikis throughout the "WikiSphere". WikiDemocracy is a hypertext, a hyperreal, microcosm of everything we can observe in our "real" social settings, and like many of those settings, the Wiki version is as much about itself as it is about its stated purpose, which makes it fun, but also challenging. The current crop of Wikis are at once full of potential about everything open and affirming we all want from the internet, and also a self-important distraction from their own content and mission. Most WikiNetziens wouldn't have it any other way.

- M.R.M. Parrott's books include the novel trilogy "Timeless", a novella, "To Lie Within the Moment", Philosophy and Science series "Dynamism", monographs in Philosophy, and chapbooks of poems and short stories.


  1. Seeweblink for more.
  2. The size of Wikipedia is an oft-used bragging point of Wikipedians, but many of its pages are superfluous, system-generated, or redundant, due to "Wikipedianism".
  3. There is even a whole separate, Wikipedia Wiki devoted to further internal discussion about Wikipedia, called MetaWikipedia.

All Rights Reserved
© 2004 & 2007 M.R.M. Parrott
This article is updated from a version which appeared on rimric folio in 2004, and has been protected on GetWiki on behalf of the author, republished here with permission. All rights reserved.
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