Wikipedia is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, to the surprise of skeptics who never thought a volunteer-written, open-access encyclopedia would make it. To them, the online encyclopedia appeared doomed to suffer from either a lack of participation or, alternatively, the whims of overzealous or malicious users. Yet, Wikipedia has become, as BusinessWeek put it, “the first stop for bar wagerers, high school paper writers, oppo researchers, and anyone trying to figure out what the Peace of Westphalia did or when the mortgage-backed security was invented or whom Ringo Starr replaced as the Beatles’ drummer.” By May of this year, Wikipedia had published 18 million articles in 281 languages.
Why has Wikipedia survived, and flourished? One reason is that it’s easy for anyone to contribute. But another reason is that Wikipedia has a set of rules or five “pillars,” and a fairly intricate bureaucracy to enforce them. These pillars are: that Wikipedia function as an encyclopedia (not a dictionary or a newspaper or anything else); that it have a neutral point of view (NPOV); that it be free; that editors interact respectfully with one another; and that its rules not be firm.
Professors Sorin Adam Matei and Caius Dobrescu took the second pillar, that of the neutral point of view, and gave it close examination in the January 2011 Information Society. They analyzed discussions on Wikipedia’s “Neutral Point of View” page (through early 2007) to explore how the policy works in practice. They observe that NPOV, while apparently widely accepted in principle by Wikipedia users, has been a source of continual conflict. “Many of its core statements, including its compulsory nature, have been attacked or discounted,” they write.
The authors found that Wikipedia users often disagree about how to apply NPOV. Wikipedia’s own five pillars entry encourages readers “to avoid advocacy and . . . characterize issues rather than debate them.” Some users on the NPOV page, however, argued that remaining neutral is impossible when users are expected to determine for themselves which points of view were “significant” enough to be represented in articles. Others held that the NPOV policy favors presenting conflicting points of view over commonly agreed upon facts. According to Matei and Dobrescu, this encourages users to enter into “edit wars” with one another. Users suggested on Wikipedia’s NPOV page that more passionate users can push their viewpoints through simply by wearing down their detractors.
The authors found that most debates they read on Wikipedia’s NPOV page ended without resolution. That led them to conclude that ambiguity is at the heart of NPOV’s success. For them, the NPOV policy “is ambiguous and its ability to guarantee objectivity and neutrality questionable.”
Although it’s easy to see how the authors reached this conclusion, policy-related conflicts do get resolved at Wikipedia. In fact, its dispute-resolution process is pretty complex. Wikipedia has become more bureaucratic since its inception. Contributors are granted varying levels of access, from “stewards” down to “unregistered users.” One level is even reserved for nonhuman contributors. Wikipedians have created hundreds of so-called bots that “detect and revert vandalism, monitor certain articles and, if necessary, ban users,” according to Sabine Niederer and José van Dijck, who wrote about Wikipedia’s structure in the December 2010 New Media and Society.
Wikipedia’s bureaucratic structure kicks in to settle NPOV-related conflicts. When users are unable to resolve disagreements on the discussion pages of particular entries, they can post a public call for outside opinions, bring in a mediator, or, as a last resort, take the dispute to Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee. The committee is made up of eight users who are elected annually. In 2010, the committee ruled on disputes over climate-change and transcendental-meditation pages, among others, and banned users who were found to have violated Wikipedia’s policies.
Ambiguity and conflict are contexts of NPOV policy, but not its heart. Wikipedia operates in the face of an irreducible sum of uncertainty—as do journalism and science—so people discuss, debate, and negotiate in the service of a common principle, sometimes without resolution. Disputes over NPOV may not be ironed out using a single, unerring interpretation of policy, but reasonable processes are in place to take them on.Michael Schudson and Katherine Fink are contributors to CJR.