Everything I need to know about democratization I can learn from Wikipedia

In February 2002, just one year after its launch, Wikipedia was rising quickly, but it was still officially an experimental project of the for-profit company Bomis.com. When then-CEO Jimmy Wales mused on the Wikipedia email list whether to put advertisements on Wikipedia’s pages to generate revenue, it hit the community like a shock wave.

Influential members of the Spanish Wikipedia were so outraged by even a remote possibility of profiting from volunteer work that within days, they broke off into their own faction. So in 2002, very early in the Web site’s history, Spanish Wikipedians copied the entire contents of Spanish Wikipedia onto their own Internet server and asked community members to abandon Wikipedia in favor of this new alternative project, Enciclopedia Libre.

It was a jarring setback and a stark lesson about the passionate community Wales had assembled. Despite pleas from Wales, Sanger, and others that advertising was only an idea for discussion, and not in the works, the damage had been done. Most of the Spanish volunteers had left. It would take years for Wikipedia’s Spanish-language edition to recover from what is now known as the “Spanish Fork.”

Some good did result from the episode. It convinced Wales and his partners that they had to spin off Wikipedia into a nonprofit entity to convince the community never to doubt its intentions.

From the book The Wikipedia Revolution by Andrew Lih, which I’ve been reading in relation to my WIkipedia-based course (on which I’ll blog more later this semester).

I’ve been teaching students about the historical processes of democratization this semester, and the parallels are amazing. When citizens can exit or exercise voice, and are valuable to the elites, the citizens can force concessions of power. Unable to credibly commit, elites must find some way, perhaps a constitutional change, to credibly devolve power.

This reminds me: one of the valuable things on politics I’ve read this semester is this paper on a simple exit, voice and loyalty game by Clark, Golder and Golder. At first I thought it was just a useful framework for teaching about political power and change. But the more it sits with me, the more I think this simple model is a useful framework for thinking about a great deal of politics. It’s simplicity is a drawback but also a virtue. Maybe the most influential paper on my thinking in 2016.

28 thoughts on “Everything I need to know about democratization I can learn from Wikipedia

  1. Chris – love the exit voice and loyalty paper. Any chance you can assign a student to use it to explain Trump (in terms of loyalty versus voice calculations of his supporters)?

  2. I use the Clark, Golder, & Golder text in my intro comparative class. Students are divided on the text; I love it. Hirschman was a smart, insightful guy.

  3. I have to give a dissenting voice on that paper. (These are pretty senior scholars, so I’m willing to be brutally honest.) Altogether, there’s very little new there, but the authors way oversell the contribution. Just look at that abstract! Hirschman’s model has been formalized before, and here the only implication is what we already knew from H and a thousand follow-on papers: credible exit is important for leverage. All of the points at the end on mobile capital, etc., have been discussed for decades. But the idea that this explains every political situation is hard to defend: what about the option of staying, but opposing the regime violently (an option not consistent with voice)? What about the numerous cases of democratization and other regime changes without significant examples of exit? Hirschman was brilliant, the role of exit is important, and the authors here are good writers, but the paper strikes me as more salesmanship than depth.

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