Presentation: Wikipedia governance and culture

Below are notes for a 1 hour, 45 minute participatory workshop at the first Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit meeting in Boston, July 2011. The topic is “governance and decision-making on Wikipedia.” This topic is enormous; the intent, however, is to limit the presentation to about 30 minutes, skimming the surface and identifying major themes rather than diving into detail. Pete Forsyth will lead the presentation and workshop. The initial presentation will include a 15 minute presentation by Michel Aaij on the Good Article and Featured Article assessment processes.

  1. Intro presentation (15 minutes, Pete)
  2. Overview of article quality assessment (15 minutes, Michel)
  3. Participatory exercise (1 hour)
  4. Report findings to group (15 minutes)

The bulk of the time (1 hour) is reserved for a participatory exercise. As individuals or in small groups, participants will:

  • choose an active decision-making process on Wikipedia (from list of suggestions)
  • read the page(s) carefully
  • write down some observations
  • participate in the discussion

(Pete and Michel will be available for questions during the exercise.)

In the final 15 minutes, participants will report their observations to the rest of the group. If time permits, we will have a brief discussion or Q/A session.

(In a future version of this workshop, it would be good to explore splitting it over two or more sessions. This would permit revisiting decision-making pages, and considering the responses prompted by participants’ entries.)

(Also, the detailed overview of decision-making (which will undoubtedly need to be trimmed as this document matures) may be useful for a future paper about decision-making on Wikipedia.)


Wikipedia was initially designed not as a product, but as a tool to support Nupedia (a free/volunteer-produced publication that nonetheless had a very traditional editorial model). With a group of contributors small enough that everybody knew each other, and with a collective understanding that producing lots of content was the most pressing objective, Wikipedia’s central innovation was that it was a “do-ocracy.” Action was encouraged; if a disagreements arose, they could be sorted out. Write first, ask questions later.

Consensus was established as a guiding principle. The core idea that it was essential to get more or less everyone to agree, and that disagreement had to be expressed in terms of broadly-accepted policies and principles to be considered valid, established a robust framework for all that followed.

Online, text-based communities have been home to a wide variety of social behavior since long before Wikipedia. Much of it is counterproductive: trolling, disruption, flame wars, sock puppeting… Wikipedia is no exception; indeed, because of its preposterous ambition to produce an authoritative, factual basis on every notable topic of interest to humans, and its increasing visibility, it has undoubtedly fanned the flames of bitter disputes even more than prior projects.

Oddly enough, though, the core mechanisms of governance and decision-making have weathered a decade of staggering growth, from 1 language to 270, from a few dozen volunteers to 100,000. Many things have been clarified and expanded, but the core driving principles have remained, and are staunchly defended by project contributors.

Historical basisEdit

Wikipedia has drawn on a number of traditions as its decision-making mechanisms have evolved:

government (slide)

  • consensus-based systems (Iroquois, Quaker…): silence implies consent, promotes shared values above special interests, meritocracy
  • democratic government: surprisingly minimal in its influence, apparent with later structures like ArbCom, board elections

tech culture (slide)

  • Internet culture (Usenet, Slashdot…): right to anonymity, numerous “in-jokes”, use of tools like email lists and IRC
  • Open source culture: freedom to share and collaborate as a strong central value, free license as an essential foundation for collaboration, forking is OK, innovation encouraged, software needs to be free
  • Wiki culture: BRD, assume good faith

established practices (slide)

  • Academia: sourcing, peer review model
  • Journalism: Fact-based writing akin to reporting, contrasted with opinion pieces
  • Science: Strategic Plan revealed that community may be persuaded with carefully-executed and communicated evidence

Social/organizational aspectsEdit

  • consensus, determining consensus, need for “functionaries” (slide)

anonymity, privacy, conflicts of interest (slide)

  • sock puppetry (surprisingly easy to identify in many cases)
  • canvassing (such blurry lines!)

roles (slide)

  • role of experts
  • scarcity of participants in many decisions

policies (slide)

  • 5 pillars (slide)
  • policies, guidelines, essays
  • individual articles: talk pages, FAQs
  • “be bold, revert, discuss” – don’t invoke complex processes unless it’s been proven they’re needed
  • ArbCom, WMF board, staff, chapters

Technical aspectsEdit

Here are a few tools that will help you in the workshop component of the session:

  • Namespaces
  • Acronyms
  • structure: categorization, disambiguation, redirects, naming conventions, portals
  • noticeboards

Types of decisionsEdit

(break for Michel's presentation)

  • article quality: separating the great from the merely good (assessment and focused improvement)

(back to Pete, to introduce the workshop exercise)

  • w:en:WP:WP:RFA: selecting administrators, arbitrators, board members…
  • WP:COIN: identifying and dealing with content policy violations, including conflicts of interest, non-encyclopedic entries, etc. (example)
  • article categorization
  • WP:RFBOT: bot approval (example)
  • software improvement and bug fixes (example)
  • dispute resolution
  • individual articles: how to cover the topic
  • related articles: WikiProjects
  • how to welcome and initiate new contributors
  • collective action: how to engage with a local newspaper, museum, or school


  1. Choose an area
    • FA candidate
    • DYK
    • RfA
    • article deletion/notability
    • bot approval
    • conflict of interest
    • dispute resolution
    • WikiProject
  2. Observations (10 minutes) Briefly survey recent discussions in your chosen area.
    • How many people are generally involved in a given decision in this venue?
    • How long do discussions persist? (hours? Days? Weeks?)
    • What is the tone? Contentious? Collegial? Is sufficient consideration generally given to reach a reasonable conclusion?
    • Do the participants appear to have necessary expertise? Pay attention to the right things?
    • Is it easy/possible for you to ascertain how decisions are made there, and how you might contribute to the process?
    • Anything else that stands out
  3. Choose one active discussion. Act quickly; ideally, we will have some responses before the end of the hour.

One possible approach:

    • Research the background
    • Write down your initial opinion
    • Read the previous “!votes” and comments.
    • If relevant, post your responses or questions to other participants.
    • Cast your !vote, with explanation.
    • Read an article in advance if interested in FA!
Last modified on 21 September 2012, at 14:40