Restrictions on editing and equality of users of Wikipedia

February 10, 2008

The success of Wikipedia demonstrates that regular (i.e., unvetted by some authority) people are quite willing to spend time and effort on the creation of something that they perceive as valuable without expecting any material or even reputational compensation. It also shows that regular people can cooperate on a very large scale without a hierarchical organizing structure. Those points are probably the main reasons that significant hostility was directed toward Wikipedia from some quarters – some find the absence of Hobbesian chaos disconcerting.

Even Wikipedia’s own founder tried to claim that Wikipedia is an elite project, and while Swartz’s experiment disproving this claim is very interesting, it should be evident to anyone looking up information in Wikipedia on a regular basis that no small group of people could ever muster the wealth of knowledge that is stored on Wikipedia.

Complaints about how restrictions on editing show that the idea of mass editing has failed are not convincing. First – because those complaints greatly exaggerate the scale of the restrictions. Again, anyone trying to edit Wikipedia on a regular basis can see that there are very few formal restrictions on the ability of anyone to edit any entry instantly, without any registration. More importantly, however, is the fact that putting in restrictions may actually enhance the equality of users rather than reduce it.

The guiding principle of democratic authoring should be to give users equal influence over the content of the resulting work. Allowing people unlimited ability to edit, re-edit, revert, and re-re-edit the content again and again gives single-minded people with time on their hands the opportunity to over-rule the wishes of many others who would prefer to see different content. A single user, or a small group of users, can effectively function as owners of parts of the document by regularly checking it and removing, if necessary, any content they disapprove of. Even if a large number of occasional editors make changes to the contrary, those changes would not manifest themselves on the document since they can be quickly reverted by the determined self-anointed owners.

It is therefore quite reasonable to put restrictions on editing. The important matter, however, is to make sure that the restrictions do indeed enhance equality rather than inequality. The need to identify individual users, at least to some extent, for example, seems undeniable, since otherwise it would be impossible to effectively tell a small or even a minuscule minority from a majority. Whether this should require registration or IP address identification could be enough, is a technical question that should be resolved on a technical basis. Even if IP identification could be enough, it is hard to see how requirement to register – a quick and easy procedure – would be a serious threat to equality.

If editors can be identified, it becomes possible to make sure that no editors attempt to dominate a certain part of the document. Limiting the number of edits an individual editor can make to a specific part of the document in a specific period of time, ensures that no editor can over-rule too many other editors. For Wikipedia, for example, it seems reasonable to restrict every editor to a maximum of, say, one edit a week (plus, maybe, no more than 10 a year). Far from being a restriction on free expression, such a rule would give more of a voice to more people.

It is interesting to note the connections of this issue to those of the definition of free speech and of the function of peer review in academia.


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