The ignored cabal

No Big Deal: How Wikipedia’s Administrators Help Shape and Influence the Project

Research of Daniel Angel Bradford

A review by Juliana Brunello

Wikipedia states that being an administrator is “no big deal“, but is this true? Daniel Angel Bradford, a PhD candidate at Monash University in Melbourne puts this statement into question. In his MA thesis on Wikipedia (not available online) he points out that such a position, in which one has the power “to veto or control the content of articles, can hardly be described as ‘no big deal’“. Moreover, a person in control of such powers ends up gaining a “higher power of interpretation” as well as “superior social standing“. The potential for abuse is inherent in this case and constitutes a danger to the project’s success.

Taking this into consideration, Bradford asks whether it was necessary to create higher privileged editors, if they are still needed and what the consequences are of having them around. In order to answer that, he applies a qualitative content analysis methodology, by retrieving information from the community discussions and non-article namespaces randomly; as well as “interviewing a small number of administrators and prolific editors“.

In Wikipedia, conflict appears on a daily basis, what could explain the proliferation of rules and tools for mediation. Angel comes to the conclusion, that “completely unsupervised projects can […] be considered nothing but utopian” and that minimal guidance is needed in order to defend the project against obvious offenders. However, this is not the only reason for the proliferation of rules. “A growing number of rules and policies may […] be a symptom of power struggles“. The problem is that the increase of internal power struggles in Wikipedia has a negative effect on a number of editors, who get discouraged in the face of that.

It is known that it takes “months of laborious work and buildup of social capital” to be promoted. After acquiring the title, one also acquires “power and control over one of the web’s most visited and well-known websites“, what also increases control over the content pages.

The process has become more and more political over the past five years. In general, it is the number of votes one candidate becomes that make him win the election, even though deliberation and the building of a consensus is encouraged in the community instead of simple quantitative methods. Either way, the question about legitimacy arises concerning the RfAs. This is a tough matter: consensus can be manipulated by the so called ‘cabals’. Also, a bureaucrat can grant the request of administratorship unilaterally, if he wishes so. As Angel points out, “some editors [have proven] to be more equal than others“. In addition to that, there are also cases of sockpuppets, or cases that are judged so, even though they are not.

Cabals: In Wikipedia one can witness the formation of unofficial groups, which acquire the power to control content and set the agenda. Often, cabals will deliberately misinterpret policy in their own favor. Bullying will occur in the form of blocks, which are kept for a short time, so they do not become public.

Moreover, Angel points out to the dangers of Wikipedia not acknowledging their existence. One problem that arises is that systematic abuse of power has no consequences to the abusers. He suggests a revision of the administrative roles, such as splitting their tools, revising the block policy, removal of privileges, reviewers with proven academic credentials, etc.

Overall, Daniel Angel’s essay is a good read. There are, however, some downpoints.
Angel makes reference to several sociologists in the beginning of his writing, relating their theory to the online community/organization/bureaucracy of Wikipedia. They open up different possibilities for interpretation and further researching, they are however left in a superficial level. He also presents a new definition for a type of community that can be partially applied to Wikipedia, called the Dilettante Networked Organizations (DNOs), a sub-classification of the concept of networked publics. It was not clear to me, what the use of such a definition could be in answering his proposed questions. Furthermore, this theme is not tackled later and is, once again, left on a superficial level. The real theme of his thesis start to appear by chapter two, being fully developed only in the third chapter of his essay. In short, there is an abundance of themes that lack a clear connection to the central theme. Angel’s writing is nevertheless interesting and I recommend its reading , as the author points out to critical aspects of the community, which I hadn’t read about before.

About the author:

Daniel Angel Bradford’s research interest is about young people’s online interests and activities (particularly grassroots collaboration and activism) and their influence on skill sets and future professional outcomes. Prior to academic life, this native Spanish speaker spent over a decade researching and developing online platforms for a number of organisations, including a major airline and an online auction company.

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