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Wikipedia’s open source model—its defining quality—is fundamentally built on the idea that there are no grounds for power, but the sheer number of people who become active as a result should be enough to offset those who post misinformation. In order to understand this idea, we need to understand both the concepts of Rancière’s democratic paradox and Mayer-Schönberger and Kukier’ concept of big data (these explanations will be fairly similar to those I used in my paper on video games, big data, and the democratic paradox.) As a contributor to Wikipedia, I was able to experience firsthand how accurate this assumption is and how well the model works.

Starting from the notion that democracy is defined by a lack of grounds for authority, Rancière essentially argues that democracy as a form of government is essentially indistinguishable from democracy as a form of social and political life. Political activity thus becomes a struggle against categorization, putting these boundaries into play and disrupting them. This implies that policy and institution are both legitimized and delegitimized by the people. That is to say two things: while the peoples’ approval determines whether or not policies are enacted, the people as a whole both give rise to these policies and render them powerless because those the policies governs have equal grounds to rule as those who wrote it. Thus, the lack of grounds for authority would seem to necessitate an excess of political activity; a constant challenging and restructuring of these policies and institutions against categorization and oppression. This is one of the assumptions behind Wikipedia’s edit policy: each article will be constantly challenged and edited, a perpetual work in progress, getting infinitely closer to the objective truth. This only works, however, if there are enough edits to maintain this perpetual improvement.

Thus, the second component of Wikipedia’s assumption behind this model is that there is enough edits to offset poor quality ones. This is a fundamental component of Mayer-Schönberger and Kukier’s idea of Big Data: we need not be concerned with the “why” so long as we can observe and apply the “what”, and further, we need not be concerned about low quality data, so long as we have enough data that its effect is negligible.

In my experience as a contributor, Wikipedia was relatively (although far from perfectly) successful by both of these measures. I initially submitted an article for review, which was denied by a senior editor to be an independent article due to the relatively journalistic style in which I had written it. This creates a hierarchy which Rancière would argue technically defies democracy for two reasons: firstly, it creates a qualification for power which goes against democracy’s most essential value. Secondly, according to him, any structure that is created in a democratic society can (and should) be immediately demolished. However, this is paradoxical in itself because it is precisely this structure which allows the encyclopedia to be maintained more efficiently.

In order to make a successful contribution, I added my content to an article I believe it was relevant to. Although there have been no subsequent edits since my own in several days, a look at the article’s edit history and talk page reveal an extensive process of editing and reshaping which have created quite a thorough and robust product. Although the edits are not constant, in my view, they are frequent and extensive enough to be successful in maintaining a high standard of neutrality and accuracy.

Overall, Wikipedia’s policies and structures can certainly not be classified as inherently perfectly democratic, nor is there enough data to prove unequivocally that the articles are without serious flaws. However, it works reasonably well according to what the encyclopedia was designed to do, and presents a strong case study to observe how democracy is compromised in many areas of the internet in order to maintain a sense of reputability.

 

Link to the article I edited

Link to my edit