Original Paper

Ethics and Information Technology

, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 123-135

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Coercion or empowerment? Moderation of content in Wikipedia as ‘essentially contested’ bureaucratic rules

  • Paul B. de LaatAffiliated withFaculty of Philosophy, University of Groningen Email author 


In communities of user-generated content, systems for the management of content and/or their contributors are usually accepted without much protest. Not so, however, in the case of Wikipedia, in which the proposal to introduce a system of review for new edits (in order to counter vandalism) led to heated discussions. This debate is analysed, and arguments of both supporters and opponents (of English, German and French tongue) are extracted from Wikipedian archives. In order to better understand this division of the minds, an analogy is drawn with theories of bureaucracy as developed for real-life organizations. From these it transpires that bureaucratic rules may be perceived as springing from either a control logic or an enabling logic. In Wikipedia, then, both perceptions were at work, depending on the underlying views of participants. Wikipedians either rejected the proposed scheme (because it is antithetical to their conception of Wikipedia as a community) or endorsed it (because it is consonant with their conception of Wikipedia as an organization with clearly defined boundaries). Are other open-content communities susceptible to the same kind of ‘essential contestation’?


Bureaucracy Control Empowerment Moderation Trust Vandalism Wikipedia