Organizations and Public Goods

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Given the publication of Aaron and Eszter’s new article Pipeline of Online Participation Inequalities and some of the interesting conversation around it, I’ve been thinking about how to think about inequalities in Wikipedia editing.

There are a few different ways to see Wikipedia editors. One way is as members of an organization. Through their contributions, editors gain power and opportunity to shape the organization in their image. From this perspective, inequalities in Wikipedia are deeply troubling. Even though Wikipedia is nominally “the encyclopedia anyone can edit”, the same privileged groups that run traditional organizations have appropriated the power and influence in Wikipedia. Unsurprisingly, the interests of educated white men are overrepresented on Wikipedia while other topics are underrepresented. Even the way articles are written reinforces biases and stereotypes (Wikipedia’s summary of the problem).

However, Wikipedia editors are also contributors to a public good. Public goods are non-rivalrous (my reading of Wikipedia doesn’t diminish your ability to read it) and non-excludable (everyone has access to Wikipedia, not just those who edit it). Public goods sound really great but there’s a catch (there’s always a catch!). According to standard economic and game theory models, public goods are related to prisoner’s dilemmas - everyone would prefer to let others contribute, since you get the benefits of the good whether or not you contribute.

In these sorts of games, an individual’s goal is to get the good without paying for it. When viewed through this lens, a situation where privileged groups are overrepresented as editors is preferred. Wikipedia acts as a means of transferring resources (knowledge) from the resource-rich to the resource-poor. Less privileged groups–who benefit from Wikipedia without contributing to it–are the beneficiaries.

So which of these perspectives is right? I think they both are. If we focus only on Wikipedia as a public good, we might turn a blind eye to structural problems and organizational solutions. On the other hand, if we treat Wikipedia as only a troubled organization, we might miss out on the fact that Wikipedia represents a massive investment by (mostly) privileged groups that we all benefit from.

Many thanks to my fellow CDSCers for discussing and debating with me about this. By acknowledging their input I am not claiming that they agree with my conclusions. :)

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