Is Wikipedia an experiment in anarchy

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Crystal wordprocessing.png This is an essay. It expresses the opinions and ideas of some Wikimedians but may not have wide support. This is not policy on Meta, but it may be a policy or guideline on other Wikimedia projects. Feel free to update this page as needed, or use the discussion page to propose major changes.

Is Wikipedia an experiment in anarchy?
Repeating the title here so as to include the question mark.


November 1, 2001, 11:40 AM -- I maintain that removing a copy of vandalism from someone's personal pages, that that person saved there for the sake of posterity, does not itself constitute vandalism. Why not? First, there is no inviolable right to do whatever you want with your personal pages. (Lee Crocker beat me to the punch on this, having already said it on my own personal page.) You could not, for example, put copyrighted materials there; you could not slander people there; and it is very arguable indeed that you have no right at all to preserve copies of vandalism, which simply hurts Wikipedia, on your personal pages. I imagine that if someone were to post essay after essay of hurtful, damaging screeds on their personal pages, that too would have to be removed as well and the perpetrator asked to leave. I wouldn't like to do this, because I want to make Wikipedia an open place; but we're writing an encyclopedia here, and given that goal, if it becomes necessary, I won't hestitate to do what I think is my duty.

Let me give some background for this thinking.

Why might someone want to preserve vandalism for posterity on personal pages? I can think of two reasons.

First, one might think no one should ever delete anything whenever it might smack of censorship, even if what's being deleted is vandalism. One might want to use Wikipedia as a way to illustrate, highlight, and promote certain political (anarchist) views; and if I (the founder and, let's just say, manager of Wikipedia) removed the pages in question, this is likely to look like censorship to the anarchist. By moving them to one's personal pages, one requires me, the manager, to come in and delete the pages if I want them deleted. This then allows one to raise the issue of abridgment of freedom of our personal pages; it's a fairly firm tradition that we allow people broad freedom to do what they want in their personal pages. So there are two issues here, one concerning censorship and the other concerning freedom. And I look like quite the big meanie.  :-)

Second, one might think that there is some merit or value to the vandalism itself, or to preserving it. (On HomePage/Talk, some praised the aesthetic and historic virtues of the vandalism.) Otherwise, there would be little reason to preserve it on his pages, unless the reasons under the first point were to suffice (which I doubt very much).

For me this allows us to focus on a very important and timely issue: what role does total freedom and openness--to the point of anarchy--play in the Wikipedia project? I think its purpose is to help build the encyclopedia, no more and no less. Is Wikipedia an experiment in anarchy? I don't think so. Is anarchy of such extreme, perhaps intrinsic, value that we ought to try to preserve it at the cost of other values? Absolutely not.

Let me try to defend these views.

Our avowed purpose is to create an encyclopedia, and it is not to do a lot of other things that would detract from this purpose. For example, among the things Wikipedia isn't doing is creating a dictionary and providing a discussion forum for political issues. The reason Wikipedia exists is to create an encyclopedia. We have personal pages and there is a commentary page for the purpose of making the writing of an encyclopedia easier, more attractive, and more fun. Usually, that is precisely how these pages are used.

But Wikipedia is also extremely open: anyone can edit any page. Those who do not like this aspect of the project (and there are many who do not) can go elsewhere. Wikipedia has never been an experiment in anarchy per se, but it has resembled one so closely that it has captured the imagination of quite a few anarchists and libertarians, who have supported Wikipedia's openness with gusto. This group of Wikipedians has come to treat the openness of Wikipedia as something rather close to anarchy, and any perceived threats to it--particularly from anyone who is regarded as an authority (as distinguished from a rank-and-file member)--immediately become the subject of heated controversy.

There is, it turns out, in a few cases a tension between the goals of anarchy and encyclopedia creation.

Some tensions spring immediately to the minds of the uninitiated, and I don't mean those. For example, some people would say that anarchy will lead to poor quality and invasion by cranks and vandals. We've learned that, while there are a few problems in that direction, the freedom each of us have to edit others' contributions more or less ensures that we'll remove the vast majority of egregiously bad stuff, crank productions, and vandalism. (See Wikipedia/Our Replies to Our Critics.)

But there are other, more subtle tensions between Wikipedia-the-encyclopedia and Wikipedia-the-anarchic-community to consider. Here are several (without naming any names--I'm trying to write in the abstract, and I do not intend to accuse any particular person here):

  • Someone might feel inspired to start a project that has considerable intrinsic merit in itself, and might nicely complement an encyclopedia--but for a variety of reasons it would overly complicate work on the encyclopedia, and distract our attention. If Wikipedia were entirely anarchic, we would permit such projects to be started, no questions asked. But the focus on writing an encyclopedia is the higher priority, so we avoid such projects, as a rule.
  • Someone might want to write a series of inflammatory essays on Wikipedia commentary or his personal pages that have nothing to do with Wikipedia and its improvement, and which have the effect distracting the attention of the community away from work on an encyclopedia. Anarchist principles applied to Wikipedia would, I suppose, dictate that such a thing be allowed. But here, again, I think we should ask such people to write elsewhere, perhaps for Kuro5hin.
  • We all feel inspired from time to time to use talk pages to express our personal views on a subject, in many cases when in no clear way will this lead to the improvement of an encyclopedia article. Simply to grease the wheels of production, to make Wikipedia a fun place to be, that seems acceptable, more or less. But if someone were to get into the habit of using Wikipedia for doing nothing but that, and for stirring up needless controversy, I think we should ask the person to get to work on the articles themselves, or leave.

In these cases, the goal of creating an encyclopedia entails that we disallow certain behaviors that would otherwise be permitted in a state of anarchy. Upon consideration of cases such as these, I conclude the following. The purpose of Wikipedia's anarchism--to the degree to which it is anarchic--is entirely subsumed under the purpose of creating a great encyclopedia. The remarkable success of the project so far is in very great measure due to this anarchy, or freedom, or openness, or whatever you'd like to call it. That is undeniable. But we must make sure that the tail doesn't start wagging the dog here, so that the Wikipedia project becomes as much or more a test of the principles of anarchism as it is an encyclopedia.

How might it become such a test? Well, perhaps we have been undergoing some such test recently. I think that one way of interpreting a series of recent controversies is as a test of the respective importance we accord creating an encyclopedia and anarchy. In particular, in the last month or two a group of self-appointed guardian-guards ("Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?") have constantly been calling into question quite a bit of what I, Jimbo, and Tim do. We are given the choice of engaging in a time-consuming, impassioned debate, or simply foisting our will on the unwilling masses. In the case of someone putting up copies of vandalism on his personal pages, and my removal thereof, several people have lined up on the side of anarchism and freedom and against abuse of authority. In a way, one has to admire Wikipedia's custodian-custodians and their commitment to their ideals. But there is, I maintain, a proposition that they either have failed to realize, or that they disagree with: the freedom to put something up on a personal Wikipedia page is entirely subsumed by the goal of creating an encyclopedia.

If, by contrast, we committed 100% to anarchy, so that we were going out of our way to see to it that absolutely nothing that could be construed as "censorship" were permitted, then of course my action would be certainly in the wrong. But because we are not thus committed, it is perfectly justifiable to remove vandalism from the wiki's pages.

I have one last thing to add.

I need to be granted fairly broad authority by the community--by you, dear reader--if I am going to do my job effectively. Until fairly recently, I was granted such authority by Wikipedians. I was indeed not infrequently called to justify decisions I made, but not constantly and nearly always respectfully and helpfully. This place in the community did not make me an all-powerful editor who must be obeyed on pain of ousting; but it did make me a leader. That's what I want, again. This is my job.

Now if, as I have been recently, I am constantly forced to justify my every action, I can act far less, and my effectiveness as a leader of the project becomes much less effective. This is precisely what has been happening recently. Instead of writing this essay, for example, I could have been doing some much-needed weeding on the wiki, designing a Wikipedia-Nupedia interface proposal, or any of a zillion other things I am paid to do.

I trust that those whose priorities are firmly with the encyclopedia can agree that my actions should not be held up to constant, harsh, time-consuming scrutiny against principles of anarchy that are at best subservient to the goal of creating an encyclopedia.

But for those whose priorities lean at least as much to making Wikipedia a test of the principles of anarchy as to making Wikipedia an encyclopedia, I am not sure what to say. I want you to be involved, and your commitment to openness and freedom is admirable and one that, I hope it is obvious, I share with fervor. But I ask you please not to try to co-opt my time. When Wikipedia grows to ten times its present size, if I must deal with ten times the number of the likes of you all, all of my efforts to gently guide this project I've started would be completely undermined.

There is a talk page.

(See the green "talk" link below!)

Responses from others[edit]


No, but it does have anarchic elements: see power structure


How about setting up a sister project with a more relaxed "NPOV" policy where we can have opinionated essays and debates as articles? See Sister project for POV essays and debates.