Open Markets, Open Projects: Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness

A decade ago, the precursors of today’s social media were known as “Web 2.0,” and came complete with a barrage of ideological presuppositions. According to rhetoric pioneered at O’Reilly conferences ...

A decade ago, the precursors of today’s social media were known as “Web 2.0,” and came complete with a barrage of ideological presuppositions. According to rhetoric pioneered at O’Reilly conferences and echoed in Wired and on BlogSpot, the “1.0” web, cluttered with proprietary plugins and e-commerce failures, would be abandoned in favor of an Internet that emphasized collaboration, participation, and transparency. Rather than building Flash websites for imitators, web enthusiasts could collaborate on projects of true importance, celebrating free culture and bottom-up infrastructure while poking holes in the musty structures of government and media that prevented systemic change. Rather than relying on the mainstream media, for instance, people could head to blogs and sites like IndyMedia to ferret out the realities of the Iraq War or fact-check Bush administration claims. Rather than having their hands tied by corporations, artists could create mash-ups and remixes from the raw materials of culture to their hearts’ content, posting the results to YouTube. And rather than depending on a cabal of Encyclopedia Britannica editors to determine which topics would be considered socially important, everyone, from tenured professors to hobbyists, could collaboratively create a wiki-pedia that would be accurate, constantly updated, and, most importantly, open.

In Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness, Nathaniel Tkacz carefully addresses one of the most enduring myths of technology’s participatory potential: openness. “Openness” is a bit of a catchall term, but generally implies unrestricted participation, transparency in governance, and widespread collaboration. (Think “open” as in open-source software, open-access journals, or Massive Open Online Courses.) As Tkacz systematically argues, openness is a political project that obscures its own inner workings, sweeping power differentials and inequality under an apolitical rug. In other words, a project that proclaims itself “open” is able to sidestep questions of power and agency—even when it’s clear, as in the case of Wikipedia, that such issues remain. As a software engineer might say, this murkiness is a feature, not a bug; it is precisely the apparent ability of openness to float above the mire that appeals to people across the political spectrum, and makes it almost invulnerable to critique.

Despite its title, the book only sparingly delves into the inner workings of Wikipedia. Instead, it uses case studies of Wikipedia conflicts to reflect on how some of the major thinkers in political philosophy and contemporary technology studies have tackled the question of openness. Tkacz locates the roots of the “open” far before the free/open-source software movement, beginning with the philosopher of science Karl Popper. Popper critiqued Plato for his advocacy of closed societies, arguing that any society based on “unchallengeable truths” or heavily centralized planning infringes on liberty, and is inferior to open societies that can better cope with inevitable social changes. Popper thus classifies all forms of governance into open or closed: guess which form is superior? Tkacz painstakingly dismantles Popper’s rhetoric around openness by arguing that the traits Popper favors in open societies are abundantly found in contemporary liberal democracies: “freedom, democracy, individualism, competition and exchange (free markets), equalitarian justice, and reason.” To Popper, open societies always change; if today’s democratic societies are open, they must, therefore, change. To Tkacz, this mutability suggests that some practices in open societies must actually be less than entirely open, since they can be replaced by something more open, meaning that an open society inevitably contains “forms of closure” within it. I found this critique less than devastating, but more persuasive when considered in tandem with the theme of neoliberalism that also runs, somewhat quietly, throughout the book.

Popper’s compatriot Friedrich Hayek argued that an open society requires decentralized markets. Tkacz likewise maintains that the philosophy of openness is almost always paired with the political project of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is not a word that should be used idly. Much like openness, it conceals more than it reveals. As Tkacz writes in the conclusion, it “has come to function in a purely negative manner, attached (often rather sloppily) to whatever is perceived as bad or wrong by that even fuzzier group, ‘the left.’” But neoliberalism’s maddening vagueness notwithstanding, it does exist as a political project, even if only as a way to frame problems so that neoliberal solutions seem inevitable. We might instead define “neoliberalism” as the ideal of the market as a primary organizing principle in society.1 Is openness, then, intrinsically neoliberal? And if it is, does it matter?

Examining the genesis of free and open-source software, Tkacz considers the different models of Richard Stallman (founder of the GNU operating system) and Eric Raymond, author of the influential essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.” While Stallman believes that software should not be commodified—that proprietary standards infringe on liberty and that free software provides a check on corporate power—Raymond advocates for the competitive market of the bazaar as a metaphor for producing superior software. The discursive turn from the potentially business-alienating “free software” to the market-friendly “open-source software” is, therefore, itself a neoliberal move. It is this strain of openness that survives, and thrives, today. Returning to Popper, neoliberalism closes as much as it opens: the free market, after all, is what produces “the invisible source code, nondisclosure agreement, and broader regime of intellectual property” that free software was originally conceptualized to combat. And, in theory, it is these conditions that projects like Wikipedia or MOOCs supposedly stand in opposition to. Tkacz concludes that, in actuality, Wikipedia draws liberally from neoliberal “techniques and epistemologies.”

Consider “collaboration,” a term that obscures the realities of group work, online or off. As every student or office drone knows, group work is rife with hierarchy, inequality, and the pesky reassertion of power differentials throughout (consider faculty seniority as an extreme example). The ideal of Wikipedian collaboration is spontaneous, meritocratic, and nonhierarchical, and collaboration is presented in many open projects as an effective way to reconcile conflicting points of view. Tkacz counters this line of thought with two examples of how decisions are actually made on Wikipedia: the debate about whether a meta-article called “Wikipedia Art,” conceptualized as a performative art project, should be deleted; and a lengthy discussion around whether pictures should be posted on the Wikipedia entry for Muhammad. Delving into the talk pages of both articles, Tkacz shows that Wikipedians repeatedly refer to policies and guidelines, relying on the exclusion of certain forms of knowledge (notably “original research”) in favor of others. The “winners” of these protracted debates are those who can best master both the politics of the organization and its rules and regulations. The hierarchy of Wikipedia, then, comes not from its elaborate system of user-access privileges, but the expert users’ “ability to act in unison with the project’s framing statements and in the ability to mobilize the relevant rule or guideline whenever that user’s contributions are challenged.” Wikipedia appears to function less as a marketplace for the free exchange of information and more as a pedantic court of appeals, with the founder Jimmy Wales as adjudicator.

A project that proclaims itself “open” is able to sidestep questions of power and agency, even when it’s clear, as in the case of Wikipedia, that such issues remain.

This is confirmed by the well-documented gender gap in people who actually participate and collaborate on Wikipedia edits (there’s a pretty good Wikipedia article on the topic). Surveys suggest that as many as 90 percent of the editors are male,2 and that fewer and fewer people are contributing—primarily because the barrier to entry, the command of arcane Wikipedian rules and regulations, is so high.3 It’s not clear, however, where this gender gap comes from. (The most recent research suggests that skill level, not gender, matters most, since controlling for skill level finds no gender gap.4) Joseph Reagle, who wrote one of the first book-length studies of Wikipedia,5 appears throughout Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness. He has since turned his attention to sexism in geek communities. In his paper “Free as in Sexist?” he argues that far from encouraging the participation of diverse groups of people, communities devoted to openness may be more susceptible to the type of endless agonistic grinding that often discourages people committed to, say, taking gender discrimination seriously from participating.6 As Tkacz shows, however, the rhetoric of openness neatly circumvents the gender critique:

1. The language of openness—“anyone can edit”—is compatible with gender equality.
2. Recruiting editors or otherwise affirmatively intervening to increase gender participation contradicts openness.
3. Sexist activity on Wikipedia is usually quickly corrected by open mechanisms.

Similarly, the Wikipedia article on gender discrimination on Wikipedia points out, somewhat defensively, that gender bias “is one of the criticisms of Wikipedia, although editor participation is free and open and Wikipedia does not recruit editors.”7 In other words, how can Wikipedia be simultaneously open and male-dominated? To Tkacz, this contradiction is less interesting than how openness continues to resist scrutiny, given such known problems with open projects. I am less convinced. Reagle shows that open communities are likely to allow known “bad apples” to spar with female members until the female members are driven away in frustration. (Banning such cranks would be antithetical to the principles of openness, and leaving a project is a time-honored alternative to participation in open communities.) Thus, members of open projects often frame participation gaps as a matter of individual choice, rather than systemic bias.8 While Tkacz demonstrates how the rhetoric of openness seems to evade its own critique, a detailed examination of interpersonal interactions (on talk pages, mailing lists, blog comments, and the like) might better have revealed how this incorporation takes place.

Soon, technologists may wax as nostalgic for “openness” or “participation” as they once did for the dot-com boom. Smartphones have replaced the browser as the platform of choice, just as Jonathan Zittrain warned us in his germinal work The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It.9 Zittrain divided Internet-enabled devices into two categories, generative and tethered. Those in the former group allow under-the-hood tinkering, or simply messing with code, are championed by the maker movement, and run on free and open-source software. Tethered devices, on the other hand, are governed by app stores and regulated by mobile carriers: this is the iPhone model. Zittrain warned that the general population would happily relinquish control of their devices for increased security and safety. Add “cool UI” and “social status” to that list of motivations, and you have the status quo. The most successful apps of today, from Uber to Airbnb to Snapchat, are participatory and open only in the sense that anyone is free to use them and generate revenue for their owners.

Indeed, Wikipedia’s continuing prominence is unusual in that many celebrated Web 2.0 projects have withered away or exist as husks of their former selves (Flickr,, LiveJournal, Digg). Sites created by volunteers or non-profits have mostly been replaced with the new giants of Silicon Valley: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and Pinterest. Most of these apps use proprietary formats, don’t play well with others, make it difficult for users to port their content from one to another, and are resolutely closed-source. Twitter, for instance, doesn’t even display previews of Instagram photos in individual user tweets; Facebook does its best to keep users from straying outside the site. While there are platforms that encourage audience contributions, such as Buzzfeed Community or Medium, they emphasize metrics, click-throughs, and audience numbers, rewarding virality and buzziness rather than investigative journalism or complex arguments. These developments have been excellent for programmers, who can make six-figure salaries right out of undergrad working for one of these behemoths (assuming, of course, a “cultural fit,”), but perhaps not as positive for democracy or participation.

Neoliberal policies may excel at stimulating competition, but they are notoriously terrible at protecting human rights or promoting equality.

Of course, complaining that things have changed for the worse presumes that the stories technologists told about “democracy” and “transparency” were accurate in the first place. This is a significant presumption. Modern tech culture, influenced in equal parts by countercultural ideals and venture-based capitalism, often looks a bit ridiculous when taken out of its Northern Californian context. When New York Magazine runs an article examining the race to create the best laundry start-up, or when a classified ad looking for roommates for a “Community of Excellence” goes viral, it’s easy to criticize tech culture, if not as deeply flawed and dangerously insular, at least as status-obsessed and juvenile. That, however, misses the point. The echo-chamber-fueled extremes of Silicon Valley may not leak into everyday life, but its underlying ideals of technology undoubtedly do.

Thus we observe how, even as today’s apps and sites no longer adhere to openness in their technology choices, they retain it as an organizing principle. Young start-ups often reject hierarchy, middle management, and old-fashioned restrictions like 40-hour work weeks and work-life balance in favor of Slack groups, open-plan offices, and incubators. In this environment, openness, or “ad-hocracy,” stands on the side of modernity, while bureaucracy is hopelessly square. It’s McCann Erickson vs. Sterling Cooper all over again. (One of my favorite parts of the book is Tkacz’s dissection of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970), which originated this “narrative of liberation” of bureaucracy as old and busted, and ad-hocracy as the new hotness. Clearly, given the choice, we’d all want to be the new hotness.)

It’s not that openness doesn’t have benefits, as there are very real problems with many of the institutions that open projects try to replace. But, as Tkacz points out, openness may contain the seeds of its own closure. President Obama, for instance, ran on a platform of open and transparent government, but has a horrendous track record when it comes to responding to Freedom of Information Act requests.10 Often, this is again due to openness’s reliance on neoliberal market rhetoric. Massive Open Online Courses began with the excellent intent to expand access to college-level learning to global audiences, but were quickly eclipsed by proprietary platforms like Coursera.11 The current trend of state and city governments making “open data” widely available without considering privacy implications or investing in longer-term solutions is likely to produce similar problems. Neoliberal policies may excel at stimulating competition, but they are notoriously terrible at protecting human rights or promoting equality. Tkacz’s book is an important reminder to be critical of any discourse that advocates technology as a one-solution-fits-all quick fix. His analysis of Wikipedia demonstrates, in fine detail, that hierarchy does not disappear when digital collaboration is added to the mix. Indeed, it is often precisely the opposite. icon

  1. I struggled with this at length in my book Status Update (I was frequently told by mentors and editors to leave out neoliberalism altogether). Ultimately, rather than expounding on neoliberalism in depth, I primarily focused my analysis on Foucault’s idea of neoliberalism as governmentality, or a way to govern people by restricting the strategies available to them for use in interpersonal relationships and self-expression. But this has very little to do with how Tkacz views the term, which is more about emphasizing competition over collaboration, in accordance with market rhetoric.
  2. Tom Simonite, “The Decline of Wikipedia: Even As More People Than Ever Rely on It, Fewer People Create It,” MIT Technology Review, October 22, 2013.
  3. Aaron Halfaker et al., “The Rise and Decline of an Open Collaboration System: How Wikipedia’s Reaction to Popularity Is Causing Its Decline,” American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 57, no. 5 (2013).
  4. Eszter Hargittai and Aaron Shaw, “Mind the Skills Gap: The Role of Internet Know-How and Gender in Differentiated Contributions to Wikipedia,” Information, Communication & Society, vol. 18, no. 4 (2015).
  5. Joseph Michael Reagle Jr., Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia (MIT Press, 2010).
  6. Joseph Reagle, “‘Free as in Sexist?’ Free Culture and the Gender Gap,” First Monday, vol. 18, no. 1 (2013).
  7. Gender Bias on Wikipedia,” Wikipedia (accessed May 28, 2015).
  8. Reagle, “‘Free as in Sexist?’”
  9. Yale University Press, 2008.
  10. Ted Bridis, “Obama Administration Sets New Record for Withholding FOIA Requests,” PBS NewsHour, March 18, 2015.
  11. John Daniel, “Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility,” Journal of Interactive Media in Education, no. 3 (2012).
A woman holding the Wikipedia logo. Photograph by Lane Hartwell / Wikimedia Foundation