Thursday, 22 March 2007

Vive le roi

A hot topic on the mailing list currently is a discussion about the nature of Jimbo's role on the English Wikipedia. In the discussion, I suggested that the constitutional monarchy is probably the best model for the project at the moment in terms of its governance structure. To understand why I think this is the best model, it's important to understand some Wikipedia history.

I should note at the beginning that I've only been around since October 2004, but I've developed what I think is a fairly good understanding of what went on before over my time with the project.

Originally, Jimbo exercised many important functions on the project, along with a few other select individuals, notably Larry Sanger (whose precise role is still subject to much debate, and has been since at least 2002). Gradually, power devolved, as other functionaries appeared to exercise various functions. Believe it or not, there were no sysops in the beginning; this feature wasn't added to the software until the beginning of 2002 or so, if memory serves me correctly (although I can't find a source for that currently). Here's the earliest list of sysops that I could find. The first sysops were developers like Brion, and people like Jimbo, and the functions devolved from there to be exercised currently by 1149 people.

The best example of devolution of authority is the creation of the Arbitration Committee at the end of 2003. Before the ArbCom was put in place, Jimbo performed the functions transferred to it, namely arbitration of serious disputes, including the authority to ban users. The often overlooked Mediation Committee was established at the same time, for the same purpose.

Jimbo no longer exercises these and other functions exclusively or regularly, though he reserves the right to do so. At the beginning of 2004, noone knew how the ArbCom would work out, and Jimbo reserved the right of executive clemency with respect to the ArbCom's decision, and even reserved the right to dissolve the ArbCom if necessary.

Jimbo's role looks like a horrible, poorly-defined mess, but looking at this through a constitutional history perspective, it seems fairly straightforward. Jimbo once exercised many functions, which are defined essentially by use: the functions that he had, such as arbitration, were the ones he exercised. These functions are now exercised by other functionaries, governed by their own policies, although Jimbo still has a potential to exercise them. Jimbo retains what are essentially reserve powers, to be used in extraordinary circumstances, while the day to day exercise of power is governed by the equivalent of a constitution (the arbitration policy, for example). Pressure from the community will serve well enough to force constitutional conventions on Jimbo's use of authority. As long as the conventions are not breached, everything's peachy.

I don't think it matters that his role isn't clearly defined. There's a doctrine in constitutional law that prerogative powers can diminish or even disappear entirely simply by not being exercised over a long period of time, which I think could be well applied to Wikipedia.

The last point I want to make is that while Jimbo's functions have been devolved, he remains a respected leader within the community, just as he was at the beginning of the project. It's a role just like that of Betty in many countries today, and it's a path well-trodden by other leaders of growing communities, in the open software field for example.

In summary, I'm comfortable with Jimbo's functional role not necessarily being rigidly defined, because I can appreciate the way it has diminished over time, and probably will continue to do so, and I can appreciate that not being rigidly defined can help this process. His leadership role is a function of his service, past leadership and the trust invested in him by many members of the community. Moreover, it is largely distinct from his functional capacity: Jimbo will remain a leader for as long as he continues to lead well, even while his functional role declines.

So to all the American editors clamouring for a constitution to define Jimbo's role: chill out and enjoy the Westminster System.


Benno said...

Nice one Stephen.

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