Wikimedia power structure

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(English) This is an essay. It expresses the opinions and ideas of some Wikimedians but may not have wide support. This is not policy on Meta, but it may be a policy or guideline on other Wikimedia projects. Feel free to update this page as needed, or use the discussion page to propose major changes.
Conflict-driven view
False community
The Wiki process
The wiki way
Power structure
Overall content structure
Encyclopedia standards
Article length
Measuring accuracy

The Power structure of Wikimedia can be described from more than one perspective. This article was created in 2004 by editors of the English-language Wikipedia and broadened to editors and developers worldwide on Wikimedia projects. Another perspective is that from the narrative of the global Wikimedia movement, a concept, not a legal entity, coined by WMF and consisting of WMF and its partners, affiliates, sponsors, and users. Here, phrases like "Wikimedia is from all of us" originate. The article beneath mixes both perspectives. Then there is the legal perspective, not being described in the article beneath.

In the legal power structure the Wikimedia Foundation Inc., a not for profit corporation under U.S. laws, is on top of things as legal owner of all Wikimedia websites and projects, among them Wikipedia, legal owner of hard- and software, holder of rights on trademarks and copy. Along the legal power structure, Wikimedia Foundation, more specifically the Board of Trustees, directs everything and all. The Foundation has the right to determine all rules governing the organisation, its projects and employees. Extra rights are mandated from the Board down to staff and volunteers. Via the Terms of Use and official policies, it governs all users. With the design of the UCoC the Board of Trustees moulded local communities into the power structure by giving them the right to fine-tune the policy along local and cultural contexts.

The power structure, in terms of the various bodies of volunteer editors and developers seen therein and the way they interface with other bodies, of Wikimedia might seem a bit complicated at first. This document tries to describe the status quo for Wikimedia editors as a whole. See elsewhere on meta for suggestions on how this could or should be changed, such as the ideal Wikipedia board, more heat than light, Wikimedia charter, Wikimedia public relations, Wikipedia Peace Process.

Wikimedia editors' current power structure is an ad-hocracy, a mix of anarchic, despotic, democratic, republican, meritocratic, plutocratic, technocratic, ochlocratic, and bureaucratic elements.


Main article: w:Wikipedia:Anarchy

Wikimedia pages can be edited collaboratively by anyone, including IP users, with no hidden strings attached. Rarely, they can be lost over time (see below) but if our policies (e.g. policies of the English wiki) are followed, it is possible for anyone to become a respected editor.

Respected editors also respect the anarchic "accept all comers" approach to this collaborative endeavour. Newcomers are a valued resource.

Similarly, local guidelines and policies, based in tradition are evolving through collaborative editing and the search for consensus and compromises. Besides the talk pages of the respective policy pages, the meta wiki and mailing lists are used to discuss these matters. The mailing lists once carried more active discussion than they do presently.

The smaller national language Wikipedias do not per definition have less structure. A smaller sphere of contributors can lead to more solid rule-building and execution. Less compromising needed.



As a practical matter, most local Wikimedia project policy is a matter of tradition. Certain foundation issues are considered, for practical purposes, beyond discussion. Other matters are currently handled according to tradition despite an overall consensus that the status quo is not ideal (cf. en:Wikipedia:Articles for deletion and en:Wikipedia:Requests for adminship).

To understand this aspect of the Wikimedia volunteer users' power structure, realize that many, perhaps most, contributors consider it impractical to revisit difficult issues as consensus seems unlikely to them. As in other organizations, change most often comes when it must rather than when it should.

However, one is not compelled to follow this point of view; indeed, one should probably work against it in a constructive way, for example by making alternative proposals.



Over time, as the projects have grown, a complex collection of policies, procedures, all user groups, and conventions have grown up to assist in its organization and improvement. Theoretically these are mostly transparent, informal, and neutral, but in practice they give an advantage to those who understand them. New or less frequent users may simply be overwhelmed by requests to adhere to the Manual of Style, use the correct categories and templates, or understand the complexities of local and general deletion policy.

Deliberately using greater understanding of the processes to further your own agenda is actively discouraged. Moreover, wherever possible new editors should be encouraged to be bold and get involved, and more experienced users should actively help them through the complexities of the system. See "Please do not bite the newcomers".



In the founding years of Wikipedia, Bomis's CEO Jimbo Wales used to be called the "Benevolent dictator" by some founding editors of Wikipedia. In 2003 Bomis Inc. turned over control to the Wikimedia Foundation. Bomis Inc. originally financed all of Wikipedia's operations with no financial return whatsoever; its CEO retained a veto right on all decisions. In the original setting Wales was handling the servers and software at Bomis, and gave extra rights to a small group of dedicated editors. He sometimes unilaterally announced certain decisions, such as user bans, and elevated some guidelines developed by Wikipedia's original chief editor User:Larry Sanger and others to the status of enforced policies. Other than holding certain foundation issues in high regard, his active participation in the power structure was increasingly limited.

Wales at one time was involved in nearly all proposed bans of a signed-in user. After the ban of EntmootsOfTrolls in November 2003, Wales issued few new bans, instead relying on the Arbitration Committee he did install, to approve bans. Users whose edit history is solely vandalism can be blocked by any administrator. So too can any "reincarnation" of a previously banned/blocked user, though in many cases it is impossible to prove that a user is a reincarnation to the satisfaction of the community without the use of the CheckUser tool.

Wales largely left non-English Wikipedias to get on with it, due to language difficulties. This suggests that his influence was actually more symbolic than effective. Others acted under his authority and general rule statements.


See also: Democracy

Not all conflicts can be resolved through consensus, and in many cases, simple votes are organized using only the wiki pages as a tool. Virtually all existing voting methods have been tried and used, and no standard has been agreed upon yet.

In March 2003, with Wales's approval, a Wikimedian with the username Eloquence organized the first official project-wide vote on a Wikipedia policy, on the subject of which articles to include in the Wikipedia total article count (see Article count reform). The voting method used was average voting. The result was accepted, and more official votes on contentious subjects may follow.

Basically, whenever you feel like it, you can try to start a vote on a talk page, but people will probably not participate in it if they think discussion has not yet been exhausted as a way to resolve conflicts of opinion. In general, Wikimedia follows a deliberative democracy model, where nothing is in a hurry… it could evolve towards consensus democracy if Wikipedians chose to do so.

While Jimbo Wales remains skeptical of voting, he has suggested that he is more willing to accept votes on the non-English Wikipedias, where he is less able to oversee the decision-making process. It is most likely for original structures to emerge in such areas.



Some Wikipedias, such as the English, French, Dutch and Swedish Wikipedias, have a class of administrators (formerly "sysops"). For information on the specific powers and guidelines for administrators, see:

See also Administrators of Wikimedia projects/Wikipedias for other languages.

Though each language has a different culture, generally administrator actions are limited and controlled by "the people at large": most administrators see themselves as servants of the community, not masters (see also Administrators on your wiki). For example, page deletions are transparently logged at (for example) Wikipedia's log. The nomination process for administrators also differs among the various languages.

While administrators are not technically elected, they are representatives of the larger group of Wikimedia users. Their power is strictly limited, and abuse results in the removal of administrator powers from the abuser (though in practice this is rare).

Administrators' power chiefly derives from the latitude in interpreting rules and consensus. For example, administrators may determine at their discretion when a page qualifies for deletion, either under "speedy deletion" guidelines or as a result of a !vote. Deletions are rarely overturned by other sysops except in high-profile cases or where it is clear a mistake was made. In like fashion, page protection guidelines are vague, and administrators as a rule do not overrule each others' decisions on page protection.



Wikimedia is very much a meritocracy. Quality is the abiding goal of Wikimedia, and so those contributors who provide the best quality work are most likely to see their contributions come to influence specific articles. They are less likely to be edited and corrected by other users as they gather respect and influence within the community or sub-community of topic area. Wikipedia articles are explicitly stated to have no author, but users only have to check page history to see who has provided the most positive influence in the development of an article. The needs of personal ego can thus be subtly met.

If meritocracy is understood as a community where merits can be accumulated in a power status that afterwards is rendered untouchable whatever the quality of further contributions (or deletions), then Wikimedia is not a meritocracy: the quality of every separate contribution is, in this respect, considered in its own right, and for example, "votes for deletion" take little or no account of the persons that contributed to the questioned content, neither does any wikipedian's vote have more or less weight according to "merit" in such case. Brion Vibber writes:



"Those who pay the bills make the rules" is a common adage. It is hardly true on Wikipedias, and whether it is becoming on such a project as Wikipedia, considering the nature of the effort, could be debated, but the openness of Wikipedias allows anyone with enough financial resources to fund extensive development in a specific area or work on a specific range of topics. This work could then be used in discussions as leverage to implement certain policies -- generally, people who contribute a lot are less questioned because they enjoy the respect of the community.

Certainly this is the weakest element in the Wikimedia power structure, but it will grow in importance now that the Wikimedia Foundation has begun to take donations -- when money is explicitly involved, the influence of those who have it tends to increase. See the Disinfopedia for some analysis of the impact of money on opinion in the larger world.

See User:Qq/Voting power is not allocated by donations.



Underlying all of the above is a technocracy. Some people have power to develop and change code. Others have the power to change article histories and discover the IP addresses of logged-in users. And underlying all that, someone—the Wikimedia Foundation—owns the server hardware and the legal infrastructure. Sometimes a Wikipedia Vicious Cycle with strong elements of technological escalation, use of bots, many accounts, access to server logs, etc., takes over, and it is resolved ultimately by "who has the technological power."

As an electronic community, Wikimedia depends to a high extent on the software it uses. This software is developed as open source by volunteer developers. New developers have to submit patches to the existing coders and, if their patches are of high quality, ultimately get write access to the code and can make their own changes. (The write access is somewhat less open than on the wiki itself, because the software should remain functional at any given time.) Very highly involved developers may get access to the Wikipedia servers, giving them even greater technical power over the project. The controlling process at work, at least theoretically, is that those developers with the greatest ability (and motivation) should have the highest access level in the system.

This is viewed by some as a form of militarism, with whoever has the best technological "weapons" able to cut off input from others. This may be better at Wikipedia than on most "web sites", but, it's far from an equal-power relationship. After all, it is a very rare phenomenon to elect developers, sysops, or server admins, although it happens from time to time.

Developers at present play a less prominent and more specialised (if no less influential) role in decision-making than was once the case. Most developer effort has been directed towards capacity issues and other operational matters, including startup of the dozens of related projects in a plethora of languages, and the implementation of feature requests and developments. However, sometimes the systems administrators will decide not to implement changes that have community consensus, see Limits to configuration changes.

The tools for the technocracy have been expanded on 2014-08-10 when "superprotection" has been added by Tim Starling (and then assigned to Staff group), as requested by Erik Möller, to prevent wiki sysops from editing some pages. It was then immediately used by the Wikimedia Foundation to win a wheel war on the German Wikipedia.

Wikipedia organisational chart


NOTE: This article describes how Wikipedia volunteer groups are currently organised. To propose changes to how it should be organised, go to the Wikipedia namespace.






See also