ECPR

Install the app

Install this application on your home screen for quick and easy access when you’re on the go.

Just tap Share then “Add to Home Screen”

ECPR

Install the app

Install this application on your home screen for quick and easy access when you’re on the go.

Just tap Share then “Add to Home Screen”

Back to Paper Details

Laboratories of Oligarchy: Evidence from Peer Production

Benjamin Mako Hill
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Benjamin Mako Hill
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Aaron Shaw

Abstract

According to many accounts, online "peer production" collectives function as novel forms of democratic organization with broad democratizing potential (Benkler, 2006; Castells 1996; Fuster Morell 2010; Hess 2006; Tufecki 2012). But despite the egalitarian ideals associated with peer production, many projects -- like free/libre open source software and Wikipedia -- exhibit strong inequalities of participation as well as hierarchical governance institutions (Healy and Schussman 2003; Ortega 2009). This suggests that these projects may reproduce what is arguably the most influential theory of democratic organizations, Robert Michels' "Iron Law of Oligarchy" (1915), in which Michels suggests that as voluntary movements or political organizations become large and complex, a small group of early members consolidate and exercise power as their interests diverge from those of the collective. Peer production communities like Wikipedia have been cited by scholars as robustly democratic and resistant to the Iron Law (e.g., Konieczny 2009). However, most previous work has tested Michels' theory on relatively small samples (e.g. Lipset et al. 1956; Sherman & Voss, 2000). Using exhaustive longitudinal data drawn from a population of 80,000 wikis, we adapt Michels' Iron Law to the context of peer production communities and construct the largest quantitative test of the Iron Law in any context. We define ten different mechanisms of oligarchy and democracy (derived from Lipset et al. 1956). We apply these measures to a subset of wikis that have become large and complex, testing for decreases in democracy over the life and growth of each organization. In contrast to previous ethnographic work of Wikipedia, we present quantitative evidence in support of Michel's Iron Law in peer production. As wikis get bigger and older, a small group of elites, present at the beginning, consolidate power as their interests diverge from those of the other members of the collective.