Late last month, it was reported that Wikipedia’s all-powerful Arbitration Committee banned five users from editing the entry on the ‘Gamergate controversy’, and any other article on ‘gender and sexuality, broadly construed’. The banned users* were feminist, and had been attempting to wrest control of the entry from editors identifying with Gamergate, which has recently consolidated itself as a full-blown, online reactionary movement.
For those of you who don’t know, Gamergaters notoriously claim to be concerned with ‘ethics in games journalism’, but they relentlessly harass prominent feminist critics of the culture and aesthetics of ‘AAA’ gaming, and are obsessed by what they see as a growing feminist influence on the industry. The movement also has considerable overlap with Men’s Rights Activists, Pick-Up Artists, Race Realists and self-described Neoreactionaries of what Jay Allen usefully christened as the Redpill Right.
It’s worth pointing out that no established gamergater accounts were banned in the judgement, and hypertext theorist and Wikipedia commentator Mark Bernstein was so shocked by the one-sidedness of this decision by the predominantly male committee that he wondered whether ‘feminists are to be purged en bloc from the encyclopedia’. It seemed that Wikipedia’s powers-that-be were backing one side in a complex, ongoing culture war.
To some, this might sound like a storm in a teacup, or the merest slice of Internet drama. But let us remember that Wikipedia possesses considerable cultural authority. A YouGov survey in Britain last year found that 64 per cent of respondents thought that the authors of entries told the truth ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’, making them more trusted than journalists in any outlet, from the BBC to The Sun.
While media bias is a topic that many people all over the political spectrum delight in discussing, the politics of Wikipedia entries is a more marginal concern. Yet, the Pew Center surveys suggest that the online encyclopedia has become integral to the practice of US primary and secondary school teachers, with nine out of ten seeking information from it in the course of their work. In further confirmation of the way that Wikipedia has become bound up with education, Pew found that in general, the more education a person has, the more likely they are to seek information from Wikipedia.
So Wikipedia matters. And since its entries are often treated as settled fact, there is something undoubtedly at stake in the way that particular topics are presented. Nevertheless, most of us have a ‘read-only’ relationship with the project that was once held up as proof of the democratisation of knowledge production.
Only a tiny and shrinking proportion of the audience are active editors on the site, and of those active users, a mere ten per cent perform more than five edits. Moreover, the work of editors is subject to the decisions of an even smaller coterie of administrators, who take their place in a Byzantine hierarchy which can be bewildering to outsiders. For years now, even founder Jimmy Wales has admitted that the site’s work is carried out by a tight-knit group of super-users. The declining base of active users is often attributed to the way in which established users intimidate newcomers, partly as a result of a siege mentality developed over years in which Wikipedia has been vandalised and attacked.
The Arbitration Committee (or ArbCom, to give it its faintly Orwellian abbreviation) that decided the Gamergate dispute is the ‘court of last resort’ for editorial conflicts. That such an organ of decision exists shows the limits of the ethos of collaboration that is supposed to underpin Wikipedia. It also shows the limits of the site’s vaunted ‘openness’, recently subjected to an outstanding book-length consideration by Nathaniel Tkacz.
This internal hierarchy has evolved to mediate the frequent, persistent and otherwise unresolvable conflicts that roil vast areas of the site. When Wikipedia was young, it was assumed that disagreements over matters of fact would be solved with the addition of more editors, and errors would collapse under the weight of ‘collective intelligence’. This optimism was underpinned by a creed I call ‘communicative liberalism’.
It was assumed that advances in communications technology would lead to a more connected world, and that this would not only lead us to converge on consensus, but on truth. In the actual everyday life of Wikipedia entries however, erasures, additions and substitutions are the product or the cause of ‘edit wars’, in which ideologically committed Wikipedians battle for control over the way in which knowledge on particular topics is recorded and presented. Rather than moulding consensus values, Wikipedia is just one more place where our existing values come into conflict. While the site’s official aspiration for its entries is a ‘Neutral Point of View’, on the Talk and History pages of entries for Israel, Nikola Tesla, Adolf Hitler, George W Bush, race and intelligence, etc., we witness forms of political antagonism that the goal of neutrality can never wholly repress. Wikipedia’s internal bureaucracy can’t excuse itself from these conflicts, it can only come down on one side or the other.
By now, the wisdom of crowds has given way to the decision of admins.
Just as groups associated with the Gamergate movement earlier bemoaned the demotion of ‘cultural marxism’ from a stand-alone entry to a section entitled ‘cultural marxism conspiracy theory’ in the Frankfurt School entry, they are celebrating the exclusion of an active group of feminist users from an entry that has become an extension of an internet-wide culture war.
The resentments behind gamergate, and the reactionary politics that power it have been simmering online for a long time. Indeed, contrary to much of the civic optimism that has framed the reception of the internet since the beginnings of the World Wide Web, there’s a case to be made that reactionaries got there first. White nationalists created their first Bulletin Board Service in 1984, a year before the storied WELL community came online, and the first major social movement to use networked electronic communications was the US Militia Movement in the mid-1990s.
To go along with the liberal assumption that new technologies lead us only in the direction of collaboration and consensus is not only to deny this history, but the lived experience of those who are pursued by reactionary culture warriors. The left should affirm the persistence and importance of political conflict online, and develop strategies for combatting the right in those places where fact and history are rendered.
*Update: the banning of editors has been disputed. See this Slate piece for more detail.