How online communities work well

In 1999, while I was a fellow at the Berkman Center, I wrote a paper on Why the Internet is Good; in it, I noted 10 factors in Internet community policy formation (e.g., IETF) that contribute to their success. When I consider other open content communities I still find this framework to be useful, even in the case of the Wikipedia.

  • Open Participation: IETF (mostly), WP (more so).

    No one is really excluded from the IETF, but you do have to pay the meeting attendance fee and have the interest in this sort of technical subject. Nearly any literate person might have an interest in the Wikipedia.

  • No Kings, but Elders?: IETF (mostly), WP (slightly less so).

    Both the IETF and the Wikipedia have meritocratic governance structures, which I now call paramount leadership. I think the main difference here is that many Wikipedians can live very happily without ever encountering questions of governance; they can work on their own particular interests and make substantive contributions as they are. At the IETF, everyone is striving for a single standard.

  • Consensus and Competitive Scaling: IETF (partly), WP (partly).

    In my 1999 essay I speak about the difficulties of consensus scaling but note it can work when combined with many of the later factors: "This is because of competitive scaling: a small group of people get to produce their best work under consensus, and then compete, coordinate, cooperate, and learn with other groups." In the standards arena it is possible for small groups of people to work on informally competing specifications, and let the best one win. (I talk further about this in design by committee and the possibilities of red/blue team design.)

  • Implementation and Enforcement: IETF (mostly), WP (not really).

    At the Wikipedia it can be difficult to dispassionately test whether a given policy is unambiguously better than another policy. In the technical domain one has the capability to implement alternatives and see whether they work.

  • Limitation of Scope: IETF (yes), WP (yes).

    Just as "a Working Group to be extremely rigorous in defining and enforcing the scope of its activity" the Wikipedia community has been strict in specifying what their mission is, an Encyclopedia, and what it is not.

  • Funded Mandates and Lack of Fiat: IETF (mostly), WP (mostly).

    "The implementation and operational use of a technical policy demonstrate an interest and ability to deploy the policy at large."

  • Uniform Enforcement: IETF (mostly), WP (mostly).

  • Descriptive Policy: IETF (mostly), WP (mostly).

  • Policy Deprecation: IETF (partly), WP (not much).

    "It is useful for a policy that is no longer in operation to be stricken from the books; it simplifies the understanding one must have about one's regulatory environment." This is basically Shirky's observation about the formation of policy.

  • Metrics: IETF (mostly), WP (less so).

    This is tied to the implementation issue, but in the technical domain it can be very nice to know that a particular algorithm works 20% faster than the old way of doing things. The realm of natural language and human meaning is less amenable to these types of metrics.

Ported/Archived Responses

Joseph Reagle on 2006-10-16

Hi Stuart! I think the core norms are fairly well established such that if Wales was no longer there the work would continue. However, I think it would be more difficult if no other paramount leader appeared.

Stuart (Librarian of C. Gardens) on 2006-10-13

You show how the Wikipedia community has been able, perhaps improbably, to be collaborative and value "editorial egalitarianism" in creating an open-content online reference work. The Wiki software makes it relatively easy for many to create entries; leadership in the community arises from persuasive contribution, merit and dedication to the project. However, you also give major importance to leadership qualities in those whose merit and hard work  places them at "the top," even if its through earned respect among those in the larger community. Wales, with his great skill in balancing decisiveness  with permitting "self-organization" among Wikipedians would seem to be a hard act to follow. Do you think that the structures of the Wikipedia community are now firmly enough in place so that even with paramount leaders whose skills might not equal the pioneering skills of Wales the project will flourish, or could that create difficulties that would impede some of the community's work?

Trackback from Interprete on 2007-02-06

On a somewhat related though different note, check out Joseph Reagle’s excellent summary of how online communities work well.

Cathy on 2006-08-29

Good retroexamination of the Internet and WP...  I am using Social Capital as a theoretical frame in examining how the community develop Wikipedia collectively and hence what the threats are.  Let me know if you'd like to read the draft of this thesis?

Good to see you in Boston.  Take care.

Joseph Reagle on 2006-09-04

Always happy to get a draft, the real question is when I get around to reading them! :)

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