In spite of its regular portrayal as “anarchic”, “anything goes” was never true for Wikipedia. Beginning with the list of principles issued by its founder, Jimbo Wales, a continuously growing number of rules guides contributors to and hence development of Wikipedia. One of the most prominent rules is the aim of delivering a “Neutral Point of View” (NPOV). Other important rules deal with notability. While the NPOV is debated with regard to every single article, Wikipedia’s several “notability guidelines” try to resolve the question which information ought (not) to be included in the free online encyclopedia in the first place. Over the years, long lists of conventions have emerged for all kinds subjects. Regarding people, for example, the English Wikipedia lists in detail the notability criteria for members of different professional groups – ranging from Academics over Criminals and Diplomats to Entertainers (including actors, comedians, models, etc.).

But notability guidelines or, as they are called in the German Wikipedia “relevance criteria” (“Relevanzkriterien”), share the problem of all taxonomies, namely a certain degree of arbitrariness; an arbitrariness that makes them particularly prone to being criticized and challenged. In the English Wikipedia debates about notability even led to the formation of two antagonistic camps: The “Association of Deletionist Wikipedians” (ADW) sails under the banner of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his famous quote:

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

The opposite camp assembles around the “Association of Inclusionist Wikipedians” (AIW), which goes even back to the old Romans for their motto:

“The motto of the AIW is Conservata veritate, which translates to, ‘with truth preserved.’ This motto reflects the inclusionist desire to change Wikipedia only when no knowledge would be lost as a result.”

While both “associations” exist since 2004 and their dispute seemed to be rather settled, recent controversies about “relevance” in the German Wikipedia demonstrate that and how such rules may still be re-negotiated:

First, forceful interventions of individuals such as Pavel Mayers blog-post “99 percent of all Germans are irrelevant” (German) are able to initiate fundamental re-negotiation processes of seemingly accepted rule-sets. Of course, this does not mean any individual could achieve this any time, but it shows how articulating silent or latent criticism can quickly gain momentum – at least in a case of an online community such as Wikipedia.

Second, the German Wikimedia chapter organization, which is officially recognized by the US Wikimedia Foundation, decided to engage in this debate, even hosting a public debate on the issue. This is remarkable, as Wikimedia chapter organizations are very careful not even to appear as if they were trying to “represent” the community of contributors but rather define their role as purely supportive (see also “Wikimania Preview #2”). So far, most of Wikipedia’s rule setting processes have solely been undertaken online without any engagement of formal organizational bodies. To a certain extent, this attempt of opening up debates on Wikipedia governance also for “offline participants” may be inspired by growing critique from Wikipedia outsiders, best illustrated by a short remark of Adam Soboczynski in the German weekly broad sheet “Die Zeit”:

“The encyclopedia Wikipedia has been dominated all along by a Guardian Council, which censors entries and conducts quality control” (translation L.D.)

Third, (re-)negotiation of rules in such a geographically and linguistically diverse community as the Wikipedia may lead to asynchronous debates with potentially different outcomes, which nevertheless are still connected and mutually related. Given the Wikipedia’s decentralized structure, achieving regulatory coherence across language projects can so become more and more difficult. To a certain degree, decentralization eases the pressure on finding a common regulatory solution: Allowing some incoherence between rules within different language projects may thus stabilize the Wikipedia network as a whole.

But there are limits to this transnational decoupling when it comes to fundamental questions of identity: Shall Wikipedia become a general repository for human knowledge and thereby re-define the concept of what an encyclopedia should be? Or shall Wikipedia abide to the traditional concept put forward by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert in the 18th century? These questions can probably be answered only transnationally and for the Wikipedia as a whole.