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Wikipedia, a Realized Utopia

Evolution of the Editorial Governance

With the development of ICTs, the physical constraints related to the production and reading of books were significantly reduced. Very soon, many rejoiced in the new possibilities that seemed to be opening. They saw a great flexibility in the development and updating of encyclopedias and their consultation. They also saw the possibility to greatly reduce manufacturing and distribution costs, since it was no longer necessary to resort to printing on paper. Very early, some hoped to exploit these techniques to transform the validation procedures and to have the reader play a more important role in the creation of encyclopedias. Some even imagined that everybody would be able to freely contribute to the content of encyclopedias.

More precisely, the structure of the Internet allows readers to participate in the writing process by giving their opinion and by initiating or modifying articles. Readers become writers and may decide for themselves the items they want. The role of publishers is then transformed: they don't create order any more. They arbitrate conflicts between authors/writers and ensure that the basic rules of ethics, for instance the rule of neutrality, are respected.

This has resulted in new forms of editorial governance for encyclopedic corpuses characterized by a reversal, more or less extensive, of the social hierarchy for the administration of these projects. This text gives an account of the governance of some of encyclopedic editorial projects, notably that of Wikipedia.

Note that in the beginning, many of the well-informed specialists thought that it was impossible to make the reader a writer. For instance, I organized a working group in 1995 on the evolution of books (Ganascia 1995). While some had suggested the possibility, with the web, of building an open encyclopedia, the most eminent specialist in this group, Sylvain Auroux, a famous linguist and editor of many collective books and encyclopedias, affirmed that an encyclopedia needs a closure. What is interesting with the Wikipedia project is that it has denied such authoritarian claims. However, as we shall see, it substitutes a new social organization for the old one, which is interesting to analyze.

Traditional Governance of Editorial Projects

To understand what has happened, let us first recall that the word “encyclopedia” comes etymologically from “cycle”: an encyclopedia aims to surround and to enclose all the human knowledge at a given time. To this end, use is made of the best specialists in all the fields of knowledge. The Encyclopedia of Diderot and d'Alembert, in the eighteenth century, is quite illustrative of this idea: it has resorted to 160 contributors, with various training and jobs. Together they wrote 72,000 articles.

To implement such a project, a rigorous organization had been erected. The Encyclopedists have distinguished three functions between which they established a strict hierarchy:

• Publisher: responsible for recruiting authors, ordering and monitoring their

work,

• Authors, appointed and controlled by the publishers and

• Readers, who were neither supposed to contribute, nor participate in any way to

the making of the encyclopedia.

The publishers ordered the authors to write articles on pre-specified topics. The authors made their copy under the authority of publishers and had to revise their contribution according to the publishers' comments. Finally, the readers were happy to get the finished product, without intervening at any time in its realization.

 
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