Sat 24 Feb 2007
I recently found this commentary by Jason Calcanis on what he calls 'Wikipedia's Technological Obscurification'. Basically, Jason argues that there are three primary factors that keep many folks from contributing to Wikipedia:
- The lack of a WYSIWYG editor (what you see is what you get)
- The user of discussion pages that are hard to understand
- The use of IRC for many of the meta-discussions about how Wikipedia is run
Jason quite rightly points out that these are not intentional mechanisms for blocking participation, and neither are they necessarily a bad thing. He comes down with the point that these conditions are remnants of old technologies, and that Wikipedia has lacked the resources to move to more modern ones. I don't buy this last argument, and I want to reframe the question a bit.
First, I think this example shows us that although Wikipedia's rhetoric has been all about openness, in practice it doesn't really get there. My adviser Coye Cheshire often points out that even the most open of public goods on the internet end up enacting what he calls 'rings of hegemony'. In other words, we can think of the openness as starting only once we get to a certain point on the totem pole. Above that, there are still heirarchies of power that grow out of the need to do things like make rules, pay bills, and manage servers. I don't think this is a knock against Wikipedia at all. It's just a reality check.
Second, I take a completely different view from Jason about why these technologies persist. A lack of resources may be a part of it, but more important is the fact that Wikipedia is a culture with entrenched practices. Its core contributors apparently ascribe some meaning and value to technologies like Wiki markup and IRC that help them persist even when they become outmoded. This reminds is that many of these open projects are driven by a small group of zealots, even when the number of contributors overall gets very large.
Finally, Coye and I have recently written an article (forthcoming) which makes the point that online public goods system may tend to move from less order to more order over time and as they get larger. We define order as the degree to which the process by which the public good is produced and the product which constitutes it are clearly defined. Certainly wiki markup and IRC present a barrier to entry (which may or may not be intentional), but we can also think of stubbornly adhering to older technologies as one way of imposing order. By doing nothing, they essentially set up a structured process that is controlled by access to certain skills. Another way to impose order, of course, is to create new technologies and hierarchies (which they are also doing).
Think about it this way: why does Congress continue to adhere to a set of highly complex and arcane rules and procedures? Because they're necessary? Probably not. I'd argue it's more because the fact that they're so hard to understand gives a measure of power to more experienced lawmakers, thereby implying an order to the body. Imposing new rules to provide order would work too, but it would not necessarily privilege older lawmakers.