Factors leading to charges of Cabalism
Charges of Cabal-based decision-making may be the result of frustration with and misunderstanding of the Wikipedia community, the contested nature of some Wikipedia postings, non-neutral application of Wikipedia processes by members of the alleged cabal(s), or failure to explain decision-making processes and results in a manner persuasive to some Wikipedia participants.
Many aspects of Wikipedia decision-making are unique, and frustrating to the change agent who does not understand them. The change agent may ascribe decision-making to a secretive cabal, when other mechanisms may be at work. Some aspects of the Wikipedia community that give the appearance of cabal-like activity include:
- Presence of foundation issues for which there is no room for debate
- Instances of objectively poor decisions in particular cases, such as certain articles or disputes
- Non-transparent discussion of policy matters. Sometimes matters are discussed on IRC, via email, in non-Wikipedia online communities, or face-to-face among groups of Wikipedians. Generally, the medium of discussion is not one that all users are empowered to use equally. This can lead nonparticipants in the original discussion to believe that they walked into a discussion where everyone's mind was already made up.
- Nonresponsiveness to incitative material. On UseNet and many email discussion lists, it was common for participants to rebut, in detail, material with which they did not agree. On wikis in general, and especially at Wikipedia, ideas without support are quietly ignored.
- Strength of both positive and negative reputation (ad-hominem approval v. ad-hominem revert/delete). Negative reputation accumulates quickly at Wikipedia, and those whose edits have been questionable in the past are sometimes dealt with summarily by other editors. This has always been true in other media (UseNet, email, and the real world), but it is nowhere more obvious than it is at Wikipedia.
- Sympathy voting. Most obvious at en:WP:RFA, where it is common for someone to say, "well if User:xyz supports this person, then I do too!" Also occurs at other votes.
- Sympathy editing. Most Wikipedia editors routinely follow the actions of others who share similar interests and values. Upon observing a colleague in an edit war, some will support that colleague without first considering the merits of the individual edit.
- Decision making focus on individual cases (articles, disputes) without much regard to consistency and to the broader issues of policy raised by the case in question.
- Arguably, some users (including most of the prominent sysops) have befriended one another through IRC and other media; some know one another in person.
- There is an actual photograph of a meeting of Wikipedia editors, which one person appears to believe is the cabal; see above.
- When claimed the above photograph shows the Cabal, the claim is qualified and the claim is made that claims of cabalism are merely claims, rather than established facts.
- Many users do have certain traits in common, and may act as a group or be quick to defend each other without being consciously organized into a "cabal" - for example, many are leftist nonreligious twentysomethings.
- The tragedy of the anticommons may lead to behavior similar to what might be expected if a cabal existed. While underutilization of Wikimedia is subtle enough to go unnoticed by most, it appears suspicious to those who do notice the effect. Humans tend to search for intelligent agents controlling events rather than accept explanations which exclude conscious control, and so it seems that there must be an entity actively thwarting progress in poorly used portions of the commons.
Historically, charges that there is a cabal that "rules" Wikipedia also stemmed from these factors:
- Lack of any sort of balance of power or adversarial system: decision-making entities (e.g. Wales, Administrators as a group, developers) have no outside check on their authority
- Absence of any truly active (or inclusive) discussion forum for project-wide policy issues, lukewarm encouragement of community involvement in them, and low turnout in those discussions that do occur.
With time, Wales has begun to MeatBall:DevolvePower, and developers are less actively involved in policy matters. While some will maintain that these changes are occuring too slowly, the situation is much improved from what prevailed when this Cabal article was originally written. Increasing amounts of policy discussion are taking place at Meta, which may help with the second point.
Effect of departures
Most people who are unhappy with Wikipedia's state of affairs simply leave. Thus, those who remain tend to be those who like the status quo. As Wikipedia gains prominence for its content, this has become less true, and there is greater diversity of opinion among editors who have joined recently than among the old guard.