The Scale of Self-management

This past Friday I attended the Long Now‘s lecture series, featuring Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia. He’s a very personable guy, self-deprecatingly claiming that he isn’t very smart, but that he’s really really friendly. I couldn’t tell–he might be telling the truth! But what I liked a lot about his talk was his focus on the social process underlying Wikipedia as opposed to a more predictably geeky approach which might have focused on software tools. As a person who has participated for years in participatory media projects, from Processed World to Shaping San Francisco, a lot of what Wales talked about was quite familiar to me, both in terms of the magic that comes from a collective participatory project and the inevitable problems that are in its deep nature too.

If you aren’t familiar with Wikipedia, it’s an amazing sprawling on-line encyclopedia. The Wikipedia vision is “to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language.” It oddly echoes the 18th century French Encyclopedie edited by Diderot and d’Alembert, the first attempt to compile everything we know about everything in one place. One of Wikipedia’s defining features is its openness and its limited but crucial set of rules. The overriding ethic informing the contents of Wikipedia is what they call the ‘neutral point of view’.

Since I spend most of my life trying to write strongly opinionated words that inspire others to themselves share their opinions as strongly as they can, this is almost shocking. I actually don’t like a self-proclaimed ‘neutral point of view’ because it obscures so much more than it reveals. But if you’re just trying to ‘get the facts’ it fits that mission well. And for many people consulting a resource like Wikipedia, they don’t want to think the ‘facts’ they’re accessing are ‘just’ someone’s opinion. All the subjective and cultural influences embedded in the way we frame facts, knowledge, epistemology, etc. is left by the wayside.

OK. Just like reading the NY Times or any media, you have to have your own filters on full operational mode so you can decipher what you’re being told.

Anyway, there’s no disputing that the Wikipedia model is “succeeding” in interesting ways. Thousands of people are working on it, putting in incredible hours, all as volunteers. I love that about it. I also realized, as Wales was queried about the problems facing Wikipedia and he brought up the issue of scale, that this was its likely achilles heel too. The problem of depending on people who self-select as editors because they are willing to spend so much time working for free on computers is self-evident.

Nevertheless, I’m glad there are people who can spend hours every day checking the 5000 revisions that pour into wikipedia daily. But the model described by Wales, wherein a small-ish group of people get to know each other over time through online discussion and argument, seeking consensus on the tone and content of various entries, establishing reputations among themselves for talent, insight, veracity, etc., is very hard to extend to a discussion going on among hundreds, thousands, or potentially, tens of thousands of interested parties. If we want to extend the logic of this experiment to more than an online encyclopedia, but actually to a broad engagement with self-managing the details of our everyday lives, the problems quickly compound.

We’re trying to move Shaping San Francisco to a wiki format. It seems like the appropriate tool to finally make the original vision real of our project as a participatory, bottom-up living archive of SF history. As I’ve thought about what that might entail over the years, a recurrent problem I have wondered about is what to do when a persistent individual or a small ideologically committed group tries to rewrite the history to suit their own point of view. After all, if the content is open to anyone to edit freely, then what’s to prevent it? This is a common enough issue among the wikipedians and they’ve solved it in every case by banning the problematic editors. Sometimes it’s not so clearcut, and the people posting new edits aren’t obviously being abusive, but they are imposing their politics on the content, albeit subtly.

Jimmy Wales made an interesting admission about the way Wikipedia has handled these kinds of problems institutionally. Basically he’s a benevolent monarch aspiring to become a constitutional monarch figurehead. In other words, if worse comes to worse, he has retained the ultimate power to throw out individuals or groups of people who are wrecking the wikipedia community in small or large ways. He sees his mission as defending the community. Ultimately he thinks his power should wither away and be replaced by a democratically controlled system that would have the same power to banish unwelcome participation, unwelcome being defined by the “community’s rules”.

I have played a similar role, though never had to exercise it, with respect to Shaping San Francisco, and to a lesser extent at some crucial moments in Processed World‘s history. In the latter I was never in a position to unilaterally do much of anything, but I was able to exercise a fair amount of personal power to influence the way things would go (not that I was always successful either, but often enough to see the pattern). In both projects, I had (or have) a strong vision of how it ought to work, what kind of tones seem appropriate to keep it open and welcoming to new participants, and I have a strong sense of what might kill that spirit, too. But I’m committed to a democratic and self-managed process, so I see the inherent contradiction there. Ideally, the power that I might be able to exercise would never need to be exercised. I’m pretty sure Wales feels the same way towards Wikipedia.

But the fact that there exists some individuals who DO have the social power to override the conventions to “save” the original intent (as they define it) begs some serious problems of process and egalitarianism. Obviously that kind of power is renewed and reinforced in practice all the time, or it too would tend to diminish. So there is a de facto accountability inherent in the social process that continually verifies some part of the ‘founder’s power’. It must also be true, though, that inertia, laziness, and deference to power also come to play in this dynamic.

It’s very interesting to me to open up this kind of discussion. So much of my vision of the world I want to live in depends on new ways of self-managing our lives. Personality-wise I’ve always wished for a community of peers who are as opinionated and passionate and energetic as I am. Sometimes I’ve had that, but mostly not. The confusing and unsettled relationship between individual assertiveness, collective accountability, and power, remains poorly understood. At the same time I have a sense that as a society we’ve gotten a lot better in the past few decades at self-managing group processes, listening to each other, making room for new people to step up, creating dynamics of mutual respect and curiosity. So perhaps this can be chalked up to living at a fascinating transitional time, where the new world is bubbling up from below, running into old ideas and old behaviors that invariably obstruct the new paradigms for a time, before finally crumbling and giving way to something really new.

Maybe we’ll look back at this century-turning time in our old age and see more clearly the early manifestations of a different life that we’ll be living then… that’d be sweet, wouldn’t it?

The rain has been just relentless around here… but I managed to finally ride up Twin Peaks again the other day, Thursday it was, under gray skies that didn’t rain until later… here I am with the weirdly green and gray city behind me:

1 comment to The Scale of Self-management

  • Jym

    =v= Good hammer you’ve got there; you’ve hit several nails on the head.

    There is definitely a scaling-up problem with electronic fora, and it seems to persist even as the format changes (BBS, Usenet, email lists, blogs, etc.). A forum will be wonderful when it’s small, but when you add enough people it becomes unreadable. Whether Wikis are a format change that bucks this trend remains to be seen.

    I’m with you on the “neutral point of view” (or “NPOV”) thing. Supposedly neutrality allows everything to get aired, but in mediated media it’s done the exact opposite.

    There are committed dogmatists already afoot in Wikipedia. I’ve stumbled across the “vehicular cycling” crowd, busy as bees, not only pushing their dogma but naming entries so as to frame the debate their way, and pretty much ignoring the cries of “NPOV”. Some of them are the same people who’ve been doing pretty much the same thing since the dawn of Usenet in the 1980s. Time will tell how this plays out …

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