Thursday, November 4, 2010

Good News for Democracy

It's nice to see Wikipedia getting some respect from the scholarly community. After all, everybody seems to use it, and it seems to work pretty well. This review of scholarship on Wikipedia's "Good Faith" culture points in some interesting directions about the democratized encyclopedia.

Wikipedia provides its excellent content because it has a wide variety of input, yet produces a class of users who are incredibly engaged. Partisans (called POV warriors in wiki terms) are certainly present in the wikipedia ecosystem, but their efforts seem to produce a synthesis with the moderating influences of the more engaged editors. It should be noted that this group operates as a sort of privileged class, but without any structural privilege. Highly engaged contributors are not paid, and their comments are subject to the same systems of feedback as any other users. They gain a larger influence by the brute force of how much they work on wiki edits, integrate into the community, and gain recognition from their peers.

Why is this good news for democracy? If we are to believe Joseph Reagle's theory that Wikipedia's culture results from the dictum to "assume good faith" and enshrining "neutrality" as the goal, we can gain some insight into how true democrats should approach voters. Respecting the views of others seems to have tangible results in wikispace; it might have similar results in a political culture. Secondly, a purported stance of neutrality does seem to create lasting consensus. Consensus building is a particularly neglected goal in the current political environment, as power is conferred once one candidate gets 50% of the vote plus 1. Wikipower certainly seems more likely to come up with good policy than electoral power.

I'll take the two most obvious objections in turn: (1) Wikipedia represents a tiny portion of the population. The self-selecting nature of joining an online community based around working to create an encyclopedia is wholly different from engagement in the political process. (2) No real power is at stake in wikipedia edit wars, whereas politics creates more incentives for bad-faith action. The procedural axiom to "assume good faith" does not work when assignment of societal value is at stake.

The assumption that wikipedia represents a different user structure than government is slightly faulty. Just as most people have only very cursory interactions with government (e.g. paying taxes to receive police and fire protection), the vast majority of wikipedia users are operating at the lowest level of interaction with the service. Heavy users of the political system are also self-selecting; they choose to organize their coworkers and neighborhoods. While we generally think that people engage in politics to pursue specific policy goals, that assumption forgets the fact that people willingly choose political methods over alternative methods to achieve their ends. Just as a wikipedia user has chosen not to use Encyclopædia Britannica, your neighbor who wants to put in a stop sign at the end of your block chooses politics over litigation or armed revolt to achieve the same ends. Maybe we should be more precise: democratic politics is the preferred mode of pursuing a public good. Wikipedia has the aim of making the truth available. Democratic politics aims to maximize public goods. Your neighbor has begun to inscribe her values into the polity much like a first-time editor of wikipedia. Whether she repeats and increases that engagement with democratic politics is a function of the feedback she receives and the culture of the institutions that she confronts. Wikipedia started with the core culture of respect, which is why it has succeeded in attracting editors and creating content. Democratic politics shares the same requirements: users and content.

As to the second objection, that wikipedia is not analogous to politics because no power is at stake, I'm not convinced that this is quite right. First of all, information precedes values. The service that wikipedia provides is already a political function. If you're not convinced, why else would political conservatives have founded Conservapedia to counter what they perceive as Wikipedia's liberal bias? In less esoteric terms, wikipedia pages do affect images of corporations and their bottom lines. Corporations already do invest resources to astroturf support on wikipedia to reflect the company's viewpoint. The policies and procedures in place are sufficient to prevent asymmetric editing. If wikipedia more overtly affected interested parties' power and money, we would certainly expect to see more generous corporate budgets going into rewriting wikipedia (corporations spent an estimated $2.6 billion on lobbying the federal government to write laws in 2010, plus an unknown and unknowable amount on campaign expenditures. Lobbying is certainly asymmetrical in its current form. Wikiing governance could hardly cause more asymmetry, and it might go a long way towards reducing structural inequality in political speech.

So that's my pitch- government should be more like wikipedia. But how? One thing that could be done tomorrow is that each party opens a website which would allow citizens to write the party platforms in a collaborative, respectful process. More radically, actual legislation could also be written on wikipedia with the Congress's role diminished to agenda setting, persuasion, and organizing. They would maintain the power to hold hearings and produce findings of fact, but actual legislation would be open to full public debate. Once the bill reached a consensus form, a member of Congress would introduce the text, and the normal process would ensue. That would certainly be an impressive step towards a more democratic government. I like this idea because it would allow for the continuation of our republican tradition. Direct democracy requires too much of its citizens to be effective, and this system requires representatives to act on their constituent interests. Democratizing the drafting of legislation provides for more creative solutions which could gain consensus support. Instead of having one shot to hold representatives accountable for votes, voters would be able to send forceful signals to their representatives (and Congress at large) about their policy ideas. While not everyone will have the time or drive to participate in making law, those that do will create a representative body of concerned citizens. After all, no party or clique has a monopoly on intelligence and ambition to improve the law.

Of course, this article is a good news/bad news sort of thing. The bad news is that the American political process assumes bad faith and is geared towards self-interest instead of public good, and there is a lot of evidence that the status quo isn't going anywhere for a long time.


  1. Great post! I launched a project a couple days ago that is almost exactly this idea - a wiki for collaborative legislation writing. My major concern, however, is that legislation takes to long to write and is simply too complicated for the wiki process. What do you think?

  2. That's a reasonable concern. Building a consensus about what needs to be done (and exploring alternatives) is certainly a lengthy and complicated process. Crowdsourcing might work, but it will require a lot of time (and users) to arrive at a viable consensus, especially one that represents the views of the American electorate at large.

    Perhaps instead of starting from scratch with a public inexperienced at crafting legislation, we should invite the people who already write the bills (Congressional staffers) to participate. That would allow citizens to provide a more active commentary than "posting the bill online for public comment" which the Congress promised to do, and it would provide for direct edits to force explanations from staffers about their preferred legislation. I think transitioning staffers to the wiki would be a more effective way to start this project than attempting to create a user community from scratch.

  3. I thought you might be interested in this – someone has given our idea a shot.