Legitimacy and efficacy: The blackout of Wikipedia
First Monday

Legitimacy and efficacy: The blackout of Wikipedia by Ayelet Oz

The hallmark of the successful online protest against SOPA was the blackout of Wikipedia for a day. This paper tracks the internal dynamics that led to Wikipedia’s blackout and focuses on the place that legitimacy and authority had in crafting the debate.


1. Introduction
2. Authority and community: Legitimacy on Wikipedia
3. Utilizing legitimacy: The process leading to Wikipedia’s blackout
4. Talking legitimacy: Legitimacy and discourse
5. Conclusion: Legitimacy and anti–utopism in collaborative projects



1. Introduction

The day of 18 January 2011 marked a milestone in the history of cyberspace, as a combination of online communities and corporate Web sites derailed major legislation through decentralized collaborative protest (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2012). Just before the U.S. Congress was scheduled to vote on two bills aimed at combating online copyright infringement — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP act — the tech industry and major collaborative projects joined hands in an effort to stop the legislation by initiating a massive online protest. Following the protest, Washington backed off and, two days later, it was announced that the legislation would be postponed.

Commentators marked the protest as presenting a new model of politics: “the networked public sphere comes to Washington” (Benkler, 2012). The impact of the protest raised hopes not only in regards to the power of online political activism. It also allegedly presented a new kind of political engagement, one that amplifies the power of individuals and embeds greater legitimacy and accountability than traditional lobbyism and corporate political influence ((Benkler, 2012; Lessig, 2011). One of the hallmarks of this protest was the blackout of the open encyclopedia Wikipedia for a day.

This paper explores the structure of online political activism by dissecting the dynamics of the “remarkable democratic debate” among Wikipedia’s editors. Unlike the utopist descriptions, the debate preceding the blackout did not follow Wikipedia’s open and anarchic decision–making system. Indeed, unlike writing Wikipedia articles, the mass effort of planning an effective political action was not something “anyone can edit”. The initiative for the action came from Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, and was closely followed by massive involvement of the Wikimedia Foundation staff. Nevertheless, we should not depict the decision–making process as nothing but a return to traditional hierarchical methods of top–down orders, or cynical manipulations by those in power. It was rather a delicate play between authoritative agenda setting and holding authority back, between charismatic leadership and broad community consensus. The center of this play lay at the paramount importance the community gives to legitimacy, and the different requirements it places for the decision–making process. The back–and–forth between narrowing and broadening the discussion went hand–in–hand with different understandings and alternate means of legitimation.

By focusing on the meaning of legitimacy and its role in the decision–making process, I wish to present not only the delicacies of the decision–making processes in collaborative projects, but also to present a new framework for understanding the internal dynamics of large–scale online anarchic projects.

As I will show, the different means of making decisions — hierarchy, majority vote, and open–ended consensus — represent different equilibriums between efficacy and legitimacy. The closer the process is to the ideal of anarchic consensus, the greater legitimacy it enjoys; the more it is authority–driven, it enables quick and effective execution of action. The blackout discussion is an example of a mixed method that alternates between these two axes, moving from very narrow suggestions by leaders and officials to extensive community engagement. It thus undermines the alleged dichotomy between leadership and community in collaborative online projects.

This paper is composed of three parts. Firstly, I will describe the place of legitimacy in Wikipedia’s internal governance, and the way the concept of legitimacy shapes different processes for decision–making. Secondly, I will offer a detailed account of the process that led to Wikipedia’s blackout, and show how different kinds of legitimation play out through the different stages towards the decision. Thirdly, I will show that legitimacy does not only set certain requirements for justifying actions, but is also a discursive tool used to make various arguments and counter–arguments by the members of the community.



2. Authority and community: Legitimacy on Wikipedia

Legitimacy describes the willingness of people to accept authority and obey its decisions (Weber, 1947). Legitimacy is a crucial factor when discussing governance in commons–based collaborative projects. In volunteer–run projects, the option of a backlash, causing volunteers to leave the project or create an alternative project (“forking”), acts as a constant balance to the power of the projects’ leaders to enforce decisions on the volunteers. With no alternative sources of authority (force, monetary rewards, etc.), the consent of the community members is the main source of obedience. Moreover, aside from the mere threat of backlash, the open and anarchic ideology of open projects sees the voice of community members as paramount. In the framework of Albert Hirschman (1970), the combination of a strong “exit” and a strong “voice” places the need for legitimate decision–making at the center of open projects’ governance.

These values translate themselves to a need to justify nearly any instance of coercion. Acts of governance are seen in essence as an abnormality. All top–down decisions are thus at a constant risk of being seen as illegitimate, which will trigger a backlash and fierce opposition from community members.

This in turn structures the decision-making processes of the community. The first implication is a preference for individual non–coordinated action. In Wikipedia, the baseline for action is to avoid coercion and hierarchy at all: the everyday contributions to Wikipedia are done in an anarchic manner and every participant adds his or her contribution independently, without any preliminary collective process (Benkler, 2006). There is no “editorial board” directing editors which parts of the encyclopedia they need to edit next. This is the essence of ‘everyone can edit’ — an open possibility for every visitor to unilaterally edit any Wikipedia page they want without prior permission.

The second implication is a preference for consensus–based decisions over voting. When anarchic action is not possible — e.g., when there is a disagreement between users — the preferred mode for decision–making is inviting community members to openly present the different arguments and come to a joint informed decision. Consensus is described as the best way to reach a community decision, and is even one of Wikipedia’s five pillars (Wikipedia, 2012f). It is seen as the only process that truly encompasses the participatory, cooperative and egalitarian values of the community (Reagle, 2010). In comparison, Wikipedians traditionally distrust votes and polls as mechanisms for decision. Various user–authored essays treat polls as an evil that needs to be used as little as possible. Polls are considered as discouraging the attempt to find common ground and leave the community divided. Polls also encourage a false dichotomy of only two possible answers and thus oversimplify the debated questions (Meta–Wiki, 2010).

But consensus is much more time– and effort–consuming than voting. Open–ended discussions are more complex, and are usually considerably longer than polls. It is also often hard to reach a conclusion as to whether consensus was achieved in a certain discussion. In polls, on the other hand, a simple head count reveals the outcome, and as every vote stands independently, it is easy to involve a very large group of editors in the decision.

The last implication of the open ideology on Wikipedia’s governance targets the problematic role of Wikipedia’s founder within the community. While in traditional communities, and other online communities (O’Neil, 2009), meritocracy or charisma justify leadership (Weber, 1947), in Wikipedia a unique hierarchical position for the founder stands in opposition to the egalitarian ideology. Therefore, the place of Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, remains contested and unclear. The Wikipedia information page “Role of Jimmy Wales” describes Wales’ authority as ad hoc in nature, exercised only when other decision–making mechanisms have failed (Wikipedia, 2012a). The half–humorous essay “Argumentum ad Jimbonem” (shorthanded to WP:JIMBOSAID) discourages the users from relying on Wales’ statements, by stating that “‘Argumentum ad Jimbonem’ is the logical fallacy that ‘what Jimbo said’ is The Truth’” (Wikipedia, 2012b). Wales himself in several occasions limited his formal authority in order to equalize himself within the community. For example, in order to strengthen an internal community dispute resolution system, he voluntarily took upon himself to follow any decision that would be made against him (Wales, 2007). This is but one example of the justificatory burden that every authoritative act by him carries.

To sum up, if we look at the different decision–making mechanisms that are in place on Wikipedia, we can see it as a “ladder” of legitimacy: the most legitimate way to reach decisions is by community consensus following an open–ended discussion; a less legitimate mechanism is by voting; and, the most contested way to promote an action is by relying on hierarchy alone. On the other hand, reaching consensus takes the maximum time and effort, and creates a lot of collective action problems that might jeopardize the possibility of reaching a practical decision due to an endless debate. These two axes stand in an inverse ratio: on the one hand, in order to gain legitimacy for an action, the action should be supported by a consensus that would be formulated through an open–ended discussion; on the other hand, efficient decision–making needs to be kept simple and shy away from the complexity of open participation.



3. Utilizing legitimacy: The process leading to Wikipedia’s blackout

The process that preceded the decision to blackout Wikipedia in order to protest SOPA serves as a prime example of the interplay of the different kinds of authority and legitimacy on Wikipedia. The discussion moves constantly between charisma, voting and consensus. Binding community–based decision–making procedures follow a ‘soft’ use of non–coercive charismatic leadership.

We can see several characteristics of the process: First, there is a temporal separation between raising ideas and making the final decision: most proposals are first tentatively raised by charismatic figures, and later backed up by an overwhelming show of support by the community. Agenda setting relies on the weaker legitimacy of Jimmy Wales’ charismatic leadership or the professionalism of the Wikimedia Foundation. The stronger legitimacy is added later when the decisions are backed up by broad community participation. Secondly, by breaking down the decision into several steps, the breadth of the discussions are drastically limited, and coordination problems become easier to solve. The separation of the decision to a series of smaller decisions uses the community consensus that was formed around earlier decisions to limit the number of possible options for subsequent decisions. Thirdly, the charismatic figures intervene, without assuming formal authority, to gently steer the discussion by providing information and moving the discussion forward. By relying on their weaker charismatic legitimacy only to provide guidance, without imposing a coercive decision, they avoid initiating a backlash from the community. These three mechanisms together solve the internal clash of efficiency and legitimacy by separating the deliberative process from the legitimacy–enhancing process.

3.1. Wales’ talk page and the straw poll: Contested charismatic leadership

The idea to protest against SOPA was practically first raised by Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, on his user talk page. Although there were a few earlier calls for action regarding SOPA on community forums, none of them led to a practical decision (Wikipedia, 2011a). It was only on 10 December 2011, when Wales published a post titled “Request for comment: SOPA and a strike” on his user talk page, that the process moved forward. In his post, Wales asked the community for input on his suggestion that the English–language Wikipedia should initiate a strike in response to SOPA, similar to an act taken by the Italian Wikipedia a few months earlier (Wales, 2011):

(Please help me publicize this widely.)

A few months ago, the Italian Wikipedia community made a decision to blank all of Italian Wikipedia for a short period in order to protest a law which would infringe on their editorial independence. The Italian Parliament backed down immediately. As Wikipedians may or may not be aware, a much worse law going under the misleading title of ‘Stop Online Piracy Act’ is working its way through Congress on a bit of a fast track. [...]. My own view is that a community strike was very powerful and successful in Italy and could be even more powerful in this case. [...] At the same time, it’s of course a very very big deal to do something like this, it is unprecedented for English Wikipedia.

Following this post, Jimbo created a “straw poll” in which users were invited to vote either ‘support’ or ‘oppose’ his comment. Users were encouraged to briefly state their reasons, but to try and avoid wide–ranging discussion. Wales emphasized that the poll was not a vote, but “merely a straw poll to indicate overall interest”: “If this poll is firmly ‘opposed’ then I’ll know that now. But even if this poll is firmly ‘support’ we’d obviously go through a much longer process to get some kind of consensus around parameters, triggers, and timing.”

Over 500 Wikipedians commented on this post, the overwhelming majority of whom supported Wales’ idea (about 90 percent were in favor of the blackout). This is the reason why, although the poll explicitly did not carry any formal authority, it was still used to support the statement that ’there appears to be broad support that some form of response is needed‘ as a starting point to the subsequent community discussion.

The procedural ‘leap’ between the non–binding poll and the practical importance attributed to it raised an internal community debate about of what authority did the poll on Wales’ user page hold — is it a manifestation of the community’s will (and thus legitimate) or a process biased by Wales’ influence. The proponents argued that as the poll was a widely publicized high–participation discussion, it created a binding decision no matter where it took place. Others, in response, argued that the poll on Wales’ page was not a fair representation of the community consensus due to Wales’ social position and his ability to marginalize opposition (Wikipedia, 2012e).

This poll serves as an example of the way in which a lower–legitimacy process is used as a procedural starting point to a greater–legitimacy process, and of the way in which breaking the process down to separate phases moves the decision–making process forward.

3.2. SOPA Initiative Project page: Contested professional leadership

Shortly after the straw poll ended, a formal discussion was opened on 13 December 2011, on the designated project page ‘Wikipedia: SOPA_Initiative’ (Wikipedia, 2012d). Echoing the community’s doubts, Sue Gardner, Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, said that this page was meant to be “more ‘neutral’ because it’s not somebody’s talk page.”

A few days later, the Wikimedia Foundation became a central contributor to the community page. On 15 December Gardner added that the page would be used by the WMF to provide information to the community. She clarified nonetheless that the decision was still the community’s only, and that the Foundation will do whatever the community decided. In an earlier IRC chat she explicitly reinstated the role of the Foundation was limited to support only, noting that if community members felt the Foundation was trying to control events, that would cause backlash and upset (Wikimedia, 2012).

But although the Foundation did not assume formal authority over the decision, it utilized its professionalism to become the ‘official’ information provider for the community and steer the community discussion. Over the next couple of weeks the Wikimedia Foundation posted various updates about the legislative processes and the calls to action from other organizations. Philippe Beaudette, the Director of Community Advocacy at the Foundation, added a copy of a post made by the Foundation’s general counsel Geoff Brigham, which presented his legal analysis of SOPA and how it would hurt Wikipedia.

Despite the repeating rhetoric by the Foundation that separated their professional role from the power of the community to make an independent decision, some editors have argued that the Foundation’s involvement was illegitimate, as the Foundation was manipulating the process (Wikipedia, 2012c).

3.3 The blackout decision: Community vote

In the weeks that followed, aside from the occasional updates from the Foundation, the debate regarding the SOPA blackout became quite scattered. Some discussion was held on the SOPA Initiative talk page and other community forums, but it did not attract a lot of community interest, and seemed to move away from the heated debate on Wales’ user page. A considerable amount of this discussion was quite abstract and looked into the intricate details of the legislation. Although on several occasions users tried to get the process moving forward, for example by putting up concrete proposals on the SOPA protest project page, none of those attempts managed to attract enough members to join in to achieve actual results (Wikipedia, 2011c; 2011d).

The discussion was re–centered only a month later, following another post by the Foundation. On 13 January, Beaudette posted a request from the Foundation to the community to come to a final decision about the protest and give orders to the Foundation:

This discussion is being opened by the Wikimedia Foundation to determine how it can support the English Wikipedia community on its decision (if any) relating to the protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act. The purpose of this discussion is to gauge whether consensus is emerging for action, and if so to clarify what action the community wishes to take. The WMF is posting this call for comment to ensure that we have the necessary time to develop technology to support any action the community may decide to take. We understand that January 18, 2012 may be an effective date to act because of other Internet activism which will occur on that date. Should the community choose to act on January 18, in order to appropriately develop the necessary technology, the WMF will need to know the community’s plans by January 16, 2012 at 23:59 UTC.

This page is a restatement of what the Foundation thinks the community’s position is, based on previous conversations at User talk: Jimbo_Wales (straw poll) and WP:SOPA. Please also see the IRC office hours chat logs. For background on the bill itself, please see WP:SOPA. The Foundation will support whatever the community chooses to do (to the best of our ability, given the resources and time available), including if the community chooses to take no action. [...]

The vote was constructed along a list of narrowly worded proposed actions, and the editors were requested to add their name under the statement they supported most. The options were a U.S.–only blackout versus a global blackout, a full blackout (close off editing and reading of the entire site) versus a soft blackout (a click–through banner); and the date of the action. The single most debated question was whether to make the blackout geo–located to visitors from the United States only or to blackout Wikipedia globally. The main argument for the global blackout referred to the global effects of the legislation itself. The debate whether or not to have a blackout in the first place was rather marginalized at this point, with only 76 opposing votes (less than five percent of voters). While some of the opposition tried to raise awareness to their arguments on the project’s talk page, these discussions did not attract many users, and did not present a considerable challenge to the main process.

On 16 January 2012, 23:49 UTC, after three days and hundreds of votes, three Wikipedia administrators from three countries (United States, Canada and Australia) closed the discussion on the project page and presented to the Foundation the community’s decision to blackout Wikipedia on 18 January:

Over the course of the past 72 hours, over 1800 Wikipedians have joined together to discuss proposed actions that the community might wish to take against SOPA and PIPA. This is by far the largest level of participation in a community discussion even seen on Wikipedia, which illustrates the level of concern that Wikipedians feel about this proposed legislation. The overwhelming majority of participants support community action to encourage greater public action in response to these two bills. Of the proposals considered by Wikipedians, those that would result in a “blackout” of the English Wikipedia, in concert with similar blackouts on other websites opposed to SOPA and PIPA, received the strongest support. [...]

Therefore, on behalf of the English Wikipedia community, the Wikimedia Foundation is asked to allocate resources and assist the community in blacking out the project globally for 24 hours starting at 05:00 UTC on January 18, 2012, or at another time determined by the Wikimedia Foundation. [...]

Following this statement, Beaudette thanked the community and the closing administrators in the name of the Foundation: “On behalf of the Wikimedia Foundation, I thank all editors who participated in the conversations, and we accept the recommendations, and will work hard to follow the recommendations to the best of our ability.”

The English Wikipedia blackout took place for 24 hours on 18 January 2012, 05:00 UTC. The visitors to the site encountered a message in protest of SOPA and PIPA, and access to the articles was blocked. The Wikimedia Foundation reported that there were over 162 million visits to the blacked–out Wikipedia. The blackout joined a series of coordinated protests by other major Web sites. The protest drew huge publicity and was reported worldwide. Following the protest, eighteen senators announced that they no longer supported PIPA. By 20 January, the bills were removed from further voting for the time being.

3.4. Process and legitimacy

Recapping the discussion that led to the blackout shows clearly the interplay of legitimacy. Firstly, the discussion started on Jimmy Wales’ talk page, as his personal initiative. This act of charismatic leadership gained legitimacy from a straw poll that included a very large number of editors. By calling for comments to be given through a poll and not an open–ended discussion, Wales channeled the discussion narrowly, in order to produce a clear statement from the community. At the next stage — the formal and binding discussion — the tentative voice from the community supporting some kind of protest was placed as the starting point for a community decision on the details of the protest. By setting the choice to go forward with a protest at the beginning of the discussion, full opposition to the blackout was bracketed out of the discussion. Secondly, the Wikimedia Foundation took upon itself to present updated information to the community, relying on its professionalism, and thus affected the debate without using coercion. Thirdly, the discussion was very structured, limiting the editors to voicing their opinion as a list of ‘support’ or ‘oppose’ votes on concrete questions, or in narrowly defined subpages. Thus, broad–range opposition or new ideas were not encouraged. Fourthly, the legitimacy of the decision relied on unprecedented community participation in the vote, and an overwhelming majority supporting the decision. By presenting very high support votes, arguments questioning the process seemed less convincing.



4. Talking legitimacy: Legitimacy and discourse

The previous section focused on the role of legitimacy as an answer to the threat of backlash. Under this role, an act needs to be perceived as legitimate by the community in order to keep volunteers engaged in the project. Legitimacy serves as a balancing factor by making authority–holders aware of the price of excess use of charismatic and professional authority. This aspect governs especially the process in which the decision is taken, and not the content of the decision (Tyler, 1990).

However, legitimacy in Wikipedia serves not only as an underlying threat of “exit”. Legitimacy also gives “voice” to certain members of the community, and makes certain arguments more powerful than others. The language of legitimacy as a discursive tool plays a central role not only in regards to process, but also shapes the substantive discussion. The paramount importance of legitimacy as a substantive argument is apparent, paradoxically, because the use of illegitimacy arguments was not a trump card in the decision to blackout Wikipedia. Nevertheless, looking into the arguments that were used as counter–arguments to claims of illegitimacy shows the strength of these arguments. As I will show, once the opposing minority raised claims of illegitimacy, they completely changed the nature of the argument about Wikipedia’s blackout.

The paramount importance of legitimacy as a substantive argument is apparent, paradoxically, because the use of illegitimacy arguments was no trump card. Nevertheless, looking into the arguments that are used as counter–arguments to claims of illegitimacy shows the strength of these arguments. As I will show, once the opposing minority raised claims of illegitimacy, they changed completely the nature of the argument about Wikipedia’s blackout.

Early on in the discussion, on Wales’ talk page, a considerable number of users justified their ‘support’ vote based on their personal views about the merit of SOPA or the effectiveness of a blackout as a means of protest, without taking into account the institutional question of whether it is the place of Wikipedia as a project to engage in political protest. Users referred to SOPA as being unconstitutional or too broad, and argued that Wikipedia’s blackout would be an effective way to catch the attention of mainstream media to the topic.

But as a response to these early votes, almost all of the people who opposed the blackout pointed to the institutional problem of using Wikipedia for political goals, and claimed it was illegitimate and “unconstitutional” under Wikipedia’s internal norms. The opposition made it clear that while they personally shared the view that SOPA should be fought, Wikipedia as a project should not take a stand, as it would undermine Wikipedia’s prestige as a neutral encyclopedia. A representative comment notes that promoting one political cause would put Wikipedia on a slippery slope that would lead to the project’s demise (Wikipedia, 2011b):

Strongest Possible Oppose. Although I oppose the legislation, this is the start of a slippery slope. If we allow Wikipedia to be used openly as a tool for promoting a specific political agenda, we’re basically saying goodbye to WP:NPOV and WP:NOTADVOCACY for good. Let’s be clear what it would mean if we did this: any user who wants to use Wikipedia for their own political advocacy would be entitled to do so as long as they could get a local consensus to support them. What would be able to say to them doing so? Yes, the law is dangerous and a bad idea; but please Jimbo don’t destroy Wikipedia for the sake of a single act of protest.

In response to the institutional objections, subsequent ‘support’ votes moved away from their personal views about SOPA, and raised new arguments that were meant to trump the illegitimacy claim. Instead of arguing that opposing SOPA was good or beneficial, they argued that it was essential. We can trace a new line of arguments, according to which SOPA puts at jeopardy the very existence of Wikipedia, and therefore the community has no option but to disregard its own policies and norms in order to save the project. An interesting strand of this line of arguments invoked the Ignore All Rules (IAR) policy as a formal–legal way to suspend Wikipedia’s policies in time of need.

This familiar discourse, echoing the notion that “the constitution is not a suicide pact” highlights the importance of legitimacy. The only argument that equals the strength of the legitimacy argument is one of existential threat, a battle of survival. Only that would justify the allegedly illegitimate acts. The move towards the existential debate shows the rhetorical strength that illegitimacy arguments carry within Wikipedia.



Conclusion: Legitimacy and anti–utopism in collaborative projects

Legitimacy is a major factor in understanding governance in open communities. The lack of a traditionally determined hierarchy opens up a space in which new kinds of authority are constantly challenged. The threat of backlash and the ideological force of community sovereignty place an especially heavy burden of legitimation over the old centers of hierarchy and authority.

The answers to the legitimacy requirements are multiple. Alongside substantive alternatives to top–down hierarchical structures, and genuine community–based decision–making processes, legitimacy also serves as a rhetorical token and a discursive tool through which arguments and statements are made.

The discursive importance of legitimacy is apparent in the above analysis of the process that led to the blackout of Wikipedia on 18 January 2012. The main factor that shaped the multi–phased process was the will to have the community accept the final decision as legitimate, and avoid backlash. This factor especially influenced those who are suspected of relying on traditional means of legitimacy such as charisma or professionalism. The self–restricting rhetoric is apparent in nearly all the statements made by Jimmy Wales and the representatives of the Wikimedia Foundation.

Moreover, within the internal discussions among community members, legitimacy is paramount as well. The major challenge to the decision was posed on legitimacy grounds, and the only legitimating argument that was seen to trump the legalistic legitimacy, embedded in the norms of the community, was that of sheer existence.

Understanding the discursive use of legitimacy in open-content projects opens up new ways of understanding governance in online communities. If legitimacy is argued, it is also contested. By discussing and dealing with legitimacy, new meanings of legitimacy are created. It is not surprising, therefore, that the great importance of legitimacy is apparent in a process that does not follow the requirements of legitimacy as they may be abstractly presented.

Contrary to seeing legitimacy as a pre–determined set of requirements, observing the complex social world in which legitimacy is constructed brings new flexibility to understanding legitimacy, and new horizons for large open content online projects.

These projects, which present a new kind of social organization, allowing an unprecedented number of individuals to join their efforts and promote a single goal (Shirky, 2008), were thought until recently to be limited in their scope. Following a true anarchic or open ideology, it was thought, limits commons–based projects to a certain set of goals, as others would be hindered by the internal conflicts and coordination difficulties amongst the many contributors (Benkler and Nissenbaum, 2006). It was thought that coherent goals, which present a single outcome, still require the top–down hierarchical structure of traditional organizations, and cannot be efficiently achieved through ad hoc open participation.

The story of Wikipedia’s blackout challenges this conclusion, by reintroducing hierarchy and authority back to the world of large–scale open collaboration. It shows that the power of allegedly anarchic and open communities is bigger then the limits of their utopist appearances. They maintain their ideology by suspending it; they maintain legitimacy by broadening its meaning. They utilize charisma and professionalism to set a unified agenda, undermining in a way their anarchic values, but later require an exceptional amount of community support to legitimize this non–legitimate process. Thus, these imperfect and ad hoc mechanisms allow large–scale collaborative projects to achieve new goals without falling back to mere top–down hierarchy. While it may not necessarily fit the utopian view of online collaboration, it opens up new horizons for effective grassroots political action and a new kind of political engagement. End of article


About the author

Ayelet Oz is an S.J.D. student in Harvard Law School, Harvard University.
Web: http://www.law.harvard.edu/academics/degrees/gradprogram/sjd/sjd-current-students/ayelet-oz.html
E–mail: aoz [at] sjd [dot] law [dot] harvard [dot] edu



I would like to thank Ann Belinsky, Eran Belinsky, Yochai Benkler, Roei Davidson, Lior Galranter, Lior Zalmanson, and the participants of the New Media Salon Group and the Faculty Seminar of the Communication Department at Haifa University for their helpful comments.



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Editorial history

Received 21 April 2012; accepted 29 November 2012.

Commons License
“Legitimacy and efficacy: The blackout of Wikipedia” by Ayelet Oz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Legitimacy and efficacy: The blackout of Wikipedia
by Ayelet Oz
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 12 - 3 December 2012

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