An Interview with the Anarchist Wikipedia Editor, Grnrchst (Part One)
2022 03 20
From The Commoner
Grnrchst is an anarchist and prolific Wikipedia editor who has contributed to a number of the site’s articles on anarchism. In part one of the interview, Grnrchst shares their thoughts on Wikipedia’s principles and organisational structure, and speculates on where they might align with anarchist concepts and values. Watch out for part two which will delve into their perspective on global anarchist thought.
Could you tell us about Wikipedia and the Anarchism WikiProject?
Wikipedia is basically just a collection of information, summarising knowledge from countless different sources in a way that aims to make it accessible for everyone. Anybody with an internet connection is able to read and edit Wikipedia: if you are reading this right now, you can do it. The scope of Wikipedia is incredibly broad, including a vast array of articles on topics from current events to ancient history, from science to art, from nature to technology, and so on.
There are Wikipedias in over 300 different languages, each with their own policies and cultures. I will be focusing on the English language edition of Wikipedia, as that is where I have done most of my work.
Wikipedia is published using a Creative Commons licence, meaning anybody has the right to share, use, and build upon it as a public work. Over the past twenty-one years, the English Wikipedia has grown to include over six million articles, which together have been edited over one billion times. In order to ensure that Wikipedia remains an informational resource, rather than an opinionated soapbox or an advertising platform, a number of key principles are followed, including that articles should be written from a Neutral Point of View (NPOV) and should draw their references from verifiable and reliable sources.
Different areas of Wikipedia are overseen by their own WikiProjects, which provide a means for individual users to work together with others on a topic that they share a mutual interest in. WikiProject Anarchism is dedicated to writing, expanding and keeping track of over two thousand articles relating to anarchism, all while following the policies of Wikipedia in order to ensure we build a helpful informational resource. Today, at almost fifteen years old, we have a few dozen members, some of us focus on creating and expanding pages, others are in the project solely to watch for and revert vandalism. Like Wikipedia itself, there are WikiProjects focusing on anarchism in a number of different languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Russian.
Our aims are basically to increase the quantity and improve the quality of articles under our care. We have set goals to improve a number of our articles up to a certain grade, which are assessments of an article’s quality. Our central focus here is on vital articles, which represent the core of our project. We are aiming to eventually get all of these assessed as ‘good’ or ‘featured articles,’ grades that represent the best of the best on Wikipedia. Another of our main projects right now is a cleanup drive, which is the hard but necessary work of doing repairs and fixes in our articles, such as cleaning up citation errors and expanding certain articles. Our stub expansion project is also coming a long way, as we’re almost at our first stretch goal.
How many Wikipedia entries on anarchism have you edited and written? What are your motivations behind the silent work you do?
After almost three years of editing, I have created over four hundred articles and made over seven thousand edits to existing articles. I can’t tell you how many of these were specifically about anarchism, given that I didn’t start editing Wikipedia with a focus on anarchism and I still edit and contribute to articles that have nothing to do with anarchism. I didn’t even know about WikiProject Anarchism until almost a year into my editing activities, when I was first invited to join it back in November 2019.
My motivations are simple: I believe in freedom of information and the right to education. Wikipedia, as an online encyclopaedia, provides a platform for expanding both free information and universal education, which is something that I felt I had to contribute to. I fundamentally view Wikipedia as a project that can act as a ‘front page for information,’ a starting point for people to educate themselves and begin their journey into deeper research.
Specifically in relation to my work on anarchism, my motivation is to improve easy access to information about a topic that is often underrepresented and has a lot of misinformation surrounding it. I’m an amateur historian at heart, so this often means my focus is on the history of anarchist movements around the globe, biographies about prominent anarchists and anarchist organisations, as well as other contributions to historical articles that have nothing at all to do with anarchism. I’m far less interested in the theory than I am in how it is put into practice, so I tend to stay away from theoretical articles except when I can add information about history or make general fixes to formatting, citations, and occasional cases of vandalism.
As for my ‘silent work,’ I think it is important to recognize that I am a part of a collective endeavour to build a knowledge base for the benefit of everyone. I am not, as an individual, looking to profit from this work, either financially or personally. Therefore, I think it’s best not to draw attention to myself, otherwise it could get in the way of the work we do. I was even hesitant about taking this interview in the first place, as I did not want it to conflict with my work. It’s important to me that the work I do is seen as a public service, as a small part of a much broader project that involves countless other people and their own ‘silent work.’
The similarity between the open source ideas and anarchism has been noted multiple times by various authors. As an anarchist yourself, to what extent does the open source nature of Wikipedia align with anarchist principles? To what extent does it not align?
According to the education scholar Petar Jandrić, ‘Wikipedia clearly shows that anarchist educational ideas are flourishing.’ Its open source principles are certainly no small part in this, given its focus on open cooperation and its rejection of competition. And there’s the key thing: when it comes to editing Wikipedia, I don’t consider myself an anarchist, I consider myself an educator. I’m not looking to push an anarchist worldview onto the encyclopaedia, nor am I looking to propagandise for my favoured ideology or get into conflict with those that personally oppose it.
This principle of adherence to a NPOV aligns rather closely with anarchist theories of pedagogy, which have always put focus on recognising and abolishing hierarchical and authoritarian practices within educational systems. Libertarian educators should be, first and foremost, suspicious of themselves and their ability to influence others. For them, freedom of education means freedom from indoctrination. To paraphrase one anarchist pedagogue: ‘Our goal is not to make good little anarchists. We are looking to make a free people, they may think differently from us later on.’ So if I can present information in a way that allows the reader to draw their own conclusions and, even better, to do their own research into the sources listed at the bottom of the article, then I have done my job right.
Another well-established anarchist principle that is in place within Wikipedia’s policy is that of consensus decision-making. When changes to articles are made, but are not accepted by other editors, discussion is usually brought to talk pages, where editors attempt to reach a consensus on the subject and move forward with building the article. These disagreements can involve issues with language, with the content, or whether a source is reliable. In order to ensure that a consensus can be reached, editors are expected to avoid a competitive mentality, to assume good faith in their fellow editors and to be civil. Users that bring personal attacks to discussions or engage in edit warring (repeatedly reverting others’ edits or pushing their own against consensus) can be blocked or banned.
But it is also important to point out that while a number of Wikipedia’s policies and philosophies do have crossover with anarchist theories of pedagogy, Wikipedia is not anarchy. It still has its own power structures in place to deal with anyone who is not here to build an encyclopaedia, and it has administrators whose primary tasks include taking action against disruptive editing and overseeing dispute resolution. The admins are elected by the user base, with requests for administrator privileges requiring at least a supermajority of support in order to qualify. Nevertheless, this is a system that I am comfortable with, in part because it holds me accountable as I help build the encyclopaedia.
Wikipedia was co-founded by Jimmy Wales, whose views oscillate between right-wing “Libertarianism” and centre-right politics more generally. How do you think this ethos affects Wikipedia’s ideological viewpoint in its structure, how its run, and in its content?
To be honest, I’m not deeply familiar with Jimmy Wales’ political ideology outside of the ethos he has established as Wikipedia best practice. I do know that he was influenced by the concept of ‘spontaneous order’ and that has certainly made its way into the functioning of Wikipedia in no small way.
I think the guiding line of Wikipedia’s philosophy actually stretches back further than the definition of terms like ‘libertarian’ or the conception of politics as “left-wing” versus ‘right-wing.’ These founding principles began with the original Encyclopédie, a product of the Age of Enlightenment, as edited by Denis Diderot. The ideas of humanism, rationalism and the scientific method, which were central to French philosophy at the time, were applied in the development of the Encyclopédie by centering knowledge based on human reason, rather than superstitions and social constructs. Of course, the Encyclopédie’s contributors were often proponents of classical liberalism and laissez-faire governance, so there may also be some connection to Wales’ political ideas.
These principles have definitely had an effect on Wikipedia’s structure and functioning. As for its content, that is a whole other can of worms. I do find it interesting when people on the left describe Wikipedia as having a right-wing bias, considering Wikipedia’s other co-founder Larry Sanger, has accused the project of having a left-wing bias. At the end of the day, if right-wing ideology was driving the content of Wikipedia, then we likely wouldn’t have WikiProjects focused on Socialism, Organized Labour or Anarchism in the first place.
Wikipedia’s content is not driven by Wales or the Wikimedia Foundation, which focus on the day-to-day maintenance of Wiki infrastructure and have little-to-no say on what content appears on the platform. Content is contributed by users in its entirety, which sometimes can lead to POV pushing on the part of individuals, but this is always subject to the scrutiny of their peers.
Some writers have argued that Wikipedia is an ideal model for a website and even for society more broadly due to its crowdsourced, open access nature. However, others have pointed out the site is predominantly written and edited by a small subselection of mostly men, leading to imbalances in content and authorship and raising concerns about this being a model worth replicating. What has your experience been in this regard as an anarchist, and do you think there are ways to build on this model to be more inclusive and egalitarian?
I certainly think that Wikipedia provides a better model for websites than the current internet ecosystem. Of the top fifty most-visited websites, Wikipedia is the only one not run by a for-profit private corporation, instead being collectively self-managed by its own users and maintained by a non-profit foundation. It is also the only one that is free and open source, where the others are completely proprietary. There is certainly value in a project like Wikipedia in an increasingly privatised and closed-off web.
As for the concerns raised about Wikipedia’s systemic bias, this is something that the project is well aware of and taking active steps to counteract. A WikiProject for countering systemic bias has been established, with a number of task forces focusing on closing the gender gap, providing a more global perspective and expanding on articles dealing with the history or politics of underrepresented regions, among other areas. I can personally speak up for the great work that the LGBT Person taskforce has done in maintaining quality coverage of LGBT people, particularly in their efforts to counteract the harm that could be caused by personal attacks on a person’s gender identity.
I think the best solution to countering systemic bias should involve more people from different backgrounds getting involved in Wikipedia, but I understand this can be a big ask when the systemic bias is still in place. Therefore, bringing more people on board to the project needs to be done in an organised manner, rather than just simply asking more individuals to sign up. More WikiProjects, task forces, and working groups need to be set up to counter systemic bias, and they need to involve people from the backgrounds that are on the receiving end of that systemic bias. These groups also need to be easily accessible to those individuals and provide a road map for how they can take action and keep each other safe while building Wikipedia. When somebody faces systemic bias, they need to know where they can turn within Wikipedia for help.
There also needs to be more policies and guidelines in place that can outline, to those that perpetuate systemic bias, how to better counteract that bias while writing articles. We already have such guidelines for writing about women, race, and ethnicity, as well as using gender-neutral language, but we could definitely do with more focus on other areas too. We should also strengthen our zero tolerance policies, which we already have in place against stuff like nationalist editing, as well as our policy of No Nazis.
At the end of the day there needs to be a positive campaign to improve Wikipedia and introduce more people into the broader consensus. Nothing can be gained by ceding ground to systemic bias, least of all in such an important space as the world’s largest encyclopaedia.