In a faraway domain, a fragile democracy is fighting for survival. Everyday we watch on our screens it struggles to maintain order amongst chaos and defend its day-to-day operations against dissent and malicious attacks. What? No, not Iraq! I’m talking about Wikipedia.
We think of the internet mostly as consumers – we read sites, use them, buy from them. But the internet started off as a community. The first websites were bulletin boards, designed to let academics share information. They didn’t have staff or managers, and they certainly wouldn’t get sold for millions of dollars. They belonged to the people who use them: they were democratic.
Wikipedia is the biggest democracy on the internet. It’s the 15th most-visited site on the web, and every one of its millions of users can take part in its decisions. Not only can anyone edit pages, but anyone can vote – or stand – in elections to its managing boards. One American academic thinks it might even be “the greatest effort in voluntary collaboration the world has ever known.”
But as Iraq is finding out, it isn’t easy maintaining order in a democracy of equals. Wikipedia has its own insurgents: vandals. It suffers thousands of vandal attacks every day – entries are deleted, defaced, or altered for political or personal reasons. “George W. Bush” is its most frequently edited pages. Politicians have admitted having campaign staff edit their pages to cover up criticism. And workers campaigning for better conditions have been known to alter their employer’s entries to put their points across.
In the early years of the project, such insurgencies plunged Wikipedia into civil war – between its co-founder and “chief organizer,” Larry Sanger, and a mysterious anarchist called “The Cunctator.” Sanger wanted a certain amount of authority to ensure the site’s quality; “Cunc” was in favour of total equality. After months of deleting each other’s edits to pages and sparring in the sites’ talk pages, the war ended with Sanger leaving the project.