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Facilities Induced by ICTs

With the introduction of ICTs, many technical constraints that had influenced the realization of traditional encyclopedias were lifted. Briefly speaking, below are some of these disappearing constraints.

1. It is no longer necessary to print an encyclopedia for broadcast.

2. Since there is no mass printing, the cost of distributing the encyclopedia is extremely small, ultimately becoming quasi-negligible.

3. The encyclopedia is accessible anytime, anywhere, without any routing problem. As a result, the potential audience is vast, since all humans who read the language in which the encyclopedia is written are likely to use it.

4. With the point-to-point communication, readers can easily send comments and exchange on the articles they read. They can also rewrite them.

These four points have two major consequences:

1. Since the cost of production and distribution are virtually nil we can easily multiply versions, to the point of making local changes whenever it seems appropriate, without waiting for a global revision. Nothing prohibits a permanent rewriting or even a continuous writing of the encyclopedia.

2. Since readers can send their comments, nothing prevents us to take advantage of their contributions and—why not?—to offer them the opportunity to write articles and become authors.

All of this leads to evolve the classical triad “author—publisher—reader” (Ganascia and Lebrave 2002). The results of these changes have brought about new modes of governance for the editorial process. However, technology is not deterministic: it does not induce a single mode of governance; several online encyclopedic editorial organizations coexist today. Not to extend the text of this contribution too far, we restrict ourselves here to the depiction of the governance model for Wikipedia, but there are many others (de Laat 2011).

Wikipedia Editorial Governance

The Wikipedia model was developed from 2001. It has totally changed the game by claiming to refuse any social hierarchy and any form of stratification.

To assess the impact of this model, it is difficult to speak of success or achievement, because it is a massive social phenomenon.

The numbers speak for themselves: more than 4 million articles in English (September 2012), over 22 million articles in 285 languages, 77,000 active contributors and some 470 million visitors per month (February 2012).

Behind this surprising success, there is a social project. The designers of this encyclopedia purport to create a new form of democracy based on a model of selforganization completed by a few basic ethical principles, for example, the requirement of neutrality and the prohibition on intervention in an article on an issue that concerns us directly.

More precisely, the encyclopedia Wikipedia involves different categories of actors that perform different function, but between which it claims not to establish any hierarchy, rather just regulations or rules:

• Jimmy Wales, nominally in a position of ultimate authority,

• The arbitration committee (15–18 members)

• The “Bureaucrats” (34)

• The Administrators (700 vicinity),

Note that administrators, “bureaucrats”, and Arbitration Committee shall ensure that the principles of the encyclopedia are respected. They do not intervene in the article contents.

• Thematic editors (elected—70–80 % acceptance rate), these support items they

monitor developments

• Contributors (77,000 registered)

• Registered readers who vote,

• Visitors (15 million visits per day in February 2012), finally,

• Bots (i.e. intelligent artificial agents) that automatically correct spelling errors,

syntax or presentation items.

This organizational structure is completed by oversight mechanisms. Through them, specialized editors examine the corrections of the items they support so as to locate abnormal activities, which are mainly recurring corrections on the same items. This helps to fight against what the developers of this encyclopedia use to call “vandalism” and which consists, for the most part, in large corporations or associations altering articles that concern them in order to improve their image.

So regularly there are representatives of institutions, corporations, political parties or philosophical positions (e.g. creationists), who attempt to correct articles on themselves more or less directly, which goes against the principle of neutrality on which Wikipedia relies. Considered inconsistent with the basic ethical rules, such behaviors are strictly condemned. Users considered as guilty are no longer allowed access to the encyclopedia. More precisely, they can continue to consult the encyclopedia, but are not able to edit and to modify articles related to their business.

An Unexpected Success

In conclusion, let us first recall that the success of Wikipedia was very unexpected. Before Wikipedia, the models of collaborative encyclopedias, which were based on free and spontaneous public contributions, surprised most of the experts in encyclopedia publishing. For them, it was more of a naive utopian view than a possible reality.

As a consequence of the success of the new models, it seems that old models, based on respect for skills and knowledge, are at risk of disappearing. Moreover, the new models, especially the one that Wikipedia represents, raise many questions about the status of knowledge in society, its financing and control, and on those who can and must exercise control. In this regard, there is concern that low-skilled groups, groups funded by governments or private pressure groups outweigh experts. Or, conversely, that the rules too strictly applied restrict the freedom of authors.

Regardless of these issues on the new status of knowledge in society, we have here a concrete example of a modern model of governance brought about by the development of ICTs. This model of governance is interesting by itself. But it could also be generalized to other online institutions.

 
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