Friday, 19 October 2012

Why is Wikipedia more democratic than Flickr?

Map of API data from Wikipedia, Flickr, Twitter and Foursquare for San Francisco and Oakland.  Notice the concentration of Flickr in the richer San Francisco, which Wikipedia gives excellent coverage of Oakland as well.
What is a Democratic Internet?  Would giving everyone a voice to publish data make a Democratic Internet, would giving anyone who registers to a web site the ability to publish promote fairness and equality of data distribution?

Looking at Wikipedia vs Flickr raises serious questions about the impact of providing simple publishing to everyone as means of promoting fairness, equality and democratic distribution of information.  Flickr has a very simple 'political' model.  Anyone can register for a Flickr account and start posting images for free.  Users can get more access to storage by paying some money. Yahoo! has administration rights to take down accounts that break their rules.  So the vast majority of users are equals, able to post images with geo-tags from anywhere in the world.

So what do we see?  We see Flickr images being posted from areas that already have significant cultural and economic advantages.  If there was an inequality in what is being photographed with wealthier areas being more photographed than poorer places, Flickr does nothing to make the creation of public photos more distributed.  Rich areas are far more likely to have associated Flickr photos than poorer areas. 

So in the case of Flickr equal access rights to publishing does nothing to promote more equal geo-distributed production of photos.

In New York and New Jersey we see that Manhattan is full of Flickr, while Wikipedia covers a larger area more fairly.
Wikipedia is far less democratic.  Certainly anyone can edit most articles, but their is a dense layer of hierarchy and vast amounts of political power in Wikipedia.  Anyone who has edited Wikipedia can tell you about the early frustration of having your work deleted by a more senior editor who has more status in Wikipedia.  

So given the layers of politics and power in Wikipedia would we not assume that Wikipedia would be more elitist than Flickr, which lets anyone publish and has limited power to delete?  Well no.  What we see is Wikipedia doing a far better job of covering the larger community. Wikipedia articles have far far more information about communities and locations in the developed world than Flickr.  Flickr images are highly concentrated in a few locations, Wikipedia has produced a matrix of data covering much of the developed world.

It would seem that all the layers of power, hierarchy, committees, and decision make makes Wikipedia more equal and more democratic.  Perhaps are primary prejudice against bureaucracy and hierarchy is wrong.  Perhaps the complex hierarchy of things like the public sector actually promote equality and fairness while the agile flat structures now in vogue with the private sector reinforce inequality.

Certainly in the case of the web just giving everyone the ability to publish has not given everyone a voice.  Flickr still preferences the same voices that were preferred by the older media.  Wikipedia has been able to give more locations a voice in the global body of data in large part because it has evolved a complex bureaucratic structure able to do the work necessary to ensure more equality.

This is not to deny that there clearly are problems of internal politics, bias, and gaming of Wikipedia.  I myself had once gotten so upset with Wikipedia and raised a lot of fuss over the years even on the site.  But I would argue that these kinds of political struggles, these scandals and exposures are not only just site effects of an open Internet but they are the mechanism by which an open Internet works.

Democracy is an ugly business via attacks, exposure, scandal and petty backstabbing.  The methods of democracy are bullying, mindless slogans and back room dealing.  Participation in democracy makes no one look good.

Businesses do things different.  Public face are usually managed via tight PR, people who don't toe the line can lose their job.  The world can only see single face which is always stagger and never honest.  That is why the current mantra on the right that business should be run more like business is so terrible. The one country in the world that is run most like a business in China.

A large business like Flickr or Facebook offering everyone in the world publishing yet retaining all control of governance within the company will only reinforce existing inequalities of the society.   Wikipedia has an ugly politics but we know it is ugly.

I would counter the way Flickr presented itself back when people still believed the Flickr was some kind of social innovation.  There was a belief that a team of dedicated administrators would work hard to be fair and would allow the community to form, but in the end the administrators had all the power and the users had no political role in deciding how Flickr would form. In time they were deleting material critical of Obama because it was IP violation.  It should come as no surprise to anyone that the political bias of the administrators, who I assume were all Obama supporters, would start to impact their decisions of what was IP violation.  The admins may believe it was IP violation, people have no trouble finding proofs that what they want is true.  But the administration models produced by companies like Yahoo! and Facebook are utterly closed and they concentrate pre-existing power in a society.

No comments:

Post a Comment