Institutions vs. Norms

In Noam Cohen’s recent New York Times article about “The Wars of Words on Wikipedia’s Outskirts” (i.e., the recent ArbCom decision about Scientology edit wars) I note that organizations often develop towards bureaucratic forms (citing Max Weber) but even in their more free-form states communities still have structure, even if informal and implicit (citing Jo Freeman). I believe this means that while we might enjoy the informal and personal touch of working within a small community, if it is successful, that community will likely move towards more bureaucratic forms. Also, this can also have some benefits if the informal/implicit structures were unsavory. (As Mitch Kapor wryly noted, “Inside every working anarchy, there’s an Old Boy Network.”) As I said to Noam, rather than lament the passing of the good old days, I think it better to ask how to address issues in the present (including the maintenance of earlier values). (And actually, while it has slipped a bit from its original mission/intention, I think the ArbCom is doing a good job.)

Richard James asks if this sentiment is contrary to my focus on informal social norms, particularly in my blog entry about “Morality and the Dilemma” (i.e., Olson, Ostrom, and Hardin). Also, am I not abusing notions of “technical solutions” with institutional governance? To be clear, Wikipedia production might be explained by any number of approaches including: technical features, institutional governance, and social norms. In trying to complete my dissertation, I had lengthy, and sometimes stressful, arguments about to what extent one of these is more important than any other. Granted, all of these are important and to deny otherwise is silly. However, I found the initial focus upon technical features in accounts of FOSS/Wikipedia to be insufficient, and therefore offered a complementary social/cultural account of Wikipedia in response. But I’m not excused from trying to understand how each of these things interrelate and affect one another. My argument is that informal “good faith” social norms (supported by wiki features) are good at dealing with good faith participants, but more formal and autocratic forms of authority are often necessary to deal with those of bad faith or to make decisions as a last resort when no community consensus emerges – hence the existence of Benevolent Dictators in open content communities. If such leadership or institutional governance persistently fails, the community might then fork.

Comments !