Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Wikipedia and COMMUNISM!

The Los Angeles Times is introducing "Wikitorials -- an online feature that will empower you to rewrite Los Angeles Times editorials."

It's an interesting idea, but it probably won't work. (Update: yep.) I agree, pretty much, with Corante, and Ernest Miller makes more good points. One thing he didn't think of is size: the Wikitorials probably won't have enough users for armies of the well-intentioned to effortlessly mute 1 or 2 trolls.

Starting a good wiki is difficult, like starting a good democracy.* It's not enough to have the dictionary-definition prerequisites in place (elections, for example, and open editing). Users (or citizens) have to have the right mental habits (that's all institutions really are). In the U.S., people revere the constitution to a fault; in South America, constitutions are changed dozens of times in as many years. In Europe, countries near-obliterated 50 years ago have successfully shied from radicalism and religion; in Pakistan, they're both rampant (and were even when the country was "democratic").

Democracy and wikis are both excercises in shared decision-making, but on wikis the groups are usually smaller (which makes things easier -- even communism really worked when it was just used in communes) and votes (in the form of edits) are unlimited: you can keep casting them until you get sick of it.

Wikis almost seem like the ultimate expression of anarcho-syndicalism -- a group of people coming in, sans rulers, and hewing out a society with their bare wit. Neither of of those models are as chaotic as they sound; the structures they rest on are just minimalist: our basic human cooperative instincts keep people clearing the grafitti off wikipedia pages and growing communal weed for the other cult members.

Which brings us back to needing good institutions and habits.

But wikipedia isn't really like anarcho-syndicalism, for two reasons:

1. Compared to water and food, computer storage is unlimited. Short of worldwide civilization collapse, Wikipedia will never fade away like a hippy commune in 1981; its memories will not die with its members. As an open source project, it can always be forked, tweaked, sifted through various filters, read and written anew.

2. There's less at stake. You can't reach through the LCD and beat someone up: the soft-l Libertarians' prohibition of violence is enforced through structural fiat.

*Update, June 2006: At this point, it's beginning to seem like Wikipedia's example has made starting a good wiki easier.

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