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Do as I do: Authorial Leadership in Wikipedia

Joseph Reagle


A theory of authorial leadership

Working within the cotext of what I call "open content communities":

  1. I identify features of leadership in related communities (e.g. emergent leaders and discussions of cabals);
  2. I confirm and extend such features -- with qualifications -- within the Wikipedia community;
  3. I pose these features as a theory of "authorial" leadership.

Seven features follows.

Emergent and with a Soft Touch

Leaders tend to be emergent; founding a community or arising from an initially leaderless context by way of merit and "speaking softly" (Raymond 1998). Emergent leaders are friendly and have a considerate (person) orientation, a goal (task) orientation, competence and significant level of activity. This activity provides the heartbeat of the community. (Alavi, Ferraro, Fleming, O'Mahony, Waguspack ... )

Mixed governance

Leaders operate within a mix of governance models: meritocratic (setting the direction by leading the way), autocratic (acting as an arbiter or defender of last resort), anarchic (consensus) and occasionally democratic (voting) (Coleman 2005, p. 7).

Informal status

Leadership is not often granted formal status -- meritocratic action and egalitarian discourse reign. Informal status as "Benevolent Dictator" (Raymond 1998; Wikipedia 2006bdl) may be accorded to a prominent leader, such as a founder.

Channel momentum

Early leadership (i.e. founders) lends direction and momentum to the development of a community's culture (Schein 2004): it is more of a guiding force than coercion. (Coleman 2005)

Persuade, arbitrate, defend

Leaders often convince by persuasion and example, occasionally exercising charismatic authority. Actions of merit accrue as "idiosyncrasy credits" (Hollander 1960) or "reputation" (Raymond 1998) and can be expended in order to act, as a last resort, as an arbiter between those of good faith or as a defender against those of bad faith. Such autocratic behaviour is often more "efficient" in difficult circumstances "than authority deriving its legitimacy from well-established rules" (Garzarelli and Galoppini 2003)

The danger of overreaching

Leaders whose autocratic actions exceed their accumulated merit/charisma risk community dissent or even forking (Wheeler 2005).

Humor and good faith culture

Humor and a "culture of good faith" facilitate camaraderie between all participants and eases the exercise of authority and the related anxiety about it. We've also seen this in concerns of cabals in Usenet (Pfaffenberger 1996) and Debian (Coleman 2005, p. 23).

Examples of "good faith" virtues of patience, politeness, humility, and a willingess to apologize is also evident.

Conclusion: the tin crown

Only those leaders that tread carefully and continue to make important contributions (including, now, the judicious exercise of autocratic authority) are granted the "dictator" title.

While this term might not be the most appropriate in capturing the genuine character of this role, it serves as a warning: a good-natured joke balanced on the edge of becoming a feared reality.

It serves as a caution to such leaders, as well as a metaphoric yardstick for discussing any participant's action.


Comments and questions are welcome!