Wikipedia: How do you reform a horizontal organization?

Yesterday, I attended a discussion at the office of Wikimedia Germany on Wikipedia’s notability guidelines. There has been a heated debate going on in Germany for a few weeks now, provoked by a series of controversial deletions. So yesterday’s meeting was thought to be an opportunity to articulate criticism and exchange ideas.

There was a lot of anger aimed towards the behavior of Wikipedia’a administrators in general, which I think I don’t need to write about here (for my German readers: I have covered the discussion for netzpolitik.org). One thing that I think was notable is Pavel Mayer’s understanding of notability as a minority right: “If a [strong enough] minority deems something notable the majority doesn’t have the right to say ‘that’s not notable’.”

But a lot – I would even tend to say most – of the criticism was aimed at those attendees that are active members or even administrators of Wikipedia in some kind of accusation. You could always hear the undertone saying “Why don’t you do something about this?”

Which would have been absolutely o.k. if it had been at a meeting with politicians or members of an administrative body. But it was Wikipedia which we were talking about here, and while Wikipedia has some kind of hierarchy (there are about 300 elected administrators for the German language version, elected by those members who have written a certain, but small number of edits), it has no president, no CEO and no king – nobody who could pass a directive to get the ball rolling.

So what has to happen within a community that consists of 600.000 members, 7.000 of which are more or less frequent contributors, to reform a project that has become both very complex and hieratic on its way to success?

Some important obstacles to renewal were already named during the debate. Leon Weber, an active Wikipedia contributor himself, criticized: “He who proposes changes will be cut short.” Long-standing members of the community will position themselves against reforms. And while they may not have formal administrative powers (Wikipedia’s administrators may only execute its rules, but do not have additional rights to invent or abolish them), they do have their influence on the community.

This informal power comes from knowing other active members just as well as being known among them oneself. Reacting to criticism that long-standing Wikipedia contributors could get away with deeds that would newbies get banned, Martin Zeise, an administrator himself, argued that while this was indeed a problem, there was no way to change it. People would always be more forgiving to those who they recognize as an individual – to the bad of newbies who are just an unknown name and an IP number.

At this point, the seemingly non-hierarchical Wikipedia has to deal with the problems of traditional top-down organizations. A homogeneous (young, white, urban, educated, male) caste of long-standing members is blocking of needed reforms. These people have seen the project’s rise to success. They therefore position themselves against radical change, acting on the assumption that what has lead to prosperity will continue to do so.

It was again Leon Weber who pointed this out. In the beginning, when Wikipedia was still struggling to gain credibility, rigorous notability guidelines helped keeping the number of possible articles low and therefore enhanced the quality of those articles meeting the requirements. But nowadays, that’s not timely any more, Weber said: “One has to lower the notability guidelines”.

It is a problem of scaling. While some rules may be of general importance – such as copyright – others are not. They need to be adapted, either because the project has changed (with a stronger community and many articles that are basically completed, lower notability guidelines would be fine), or because its environment did (Wikipedia in German does not deem blogs admissible sources. When it was founded in 2001, blogs were still a tiny niche, but since then, this medium has emerged and is now used by scores of people working according to journalistic standards).

A vivid community should manage this change on the way. In some cases, this might be hard to achieve – software that is continuously enhanced by adding functionalities will at some point develop a performance problem. Radical steps might need to be taken from time to time, like a general relaunch.

Social problems cannot be solved this way. The German-speaking Wikipedia community has waited far too long to face the challenge of adapting itself to changing circumstances. Anne Roth, well-known in Germany for blogging her family’s life under surveillance, pointed out Indymedia Germany as an example for a once vivid open publishing platform she co-founded eight years ago that after a development “similar to Wikipedia’s” she now describes as “a dying community”.

“One cannot try to get through the storm safely without changing anything”, Anne Roth warned. Whether the German Wikipedia community will manage to take the necessary steps is to be seen. If yes, it could set an example how those internet-empowered horizontal organizations that have become an important part of our life can cope with the challenges of renewal.