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Inspired also by the series on algorithm regulation on this blog, I am currently working together with Claudia Müller-Birn on the issue of algorithmic governance in the case of Wikipedia. In the course of this research project, I stumbled upon the case of flagged revisions/sighted versions, which very nicely illustrates the concept of algorithmic governance.

With Wikipedia Germany taking the lead in 2006, some Wikipedia language versions introduced sighted versions of articles as a measure to secure against vandalism and improve article credibility. The concept is described in the English language Wikipedia as

a system whereby users who are not logged in may be presented with a different version of an article than users who are. Articles are validated that they are presentable and free from vandalism. The approved versions are known as Sighted versions. All logged-in users will continue to see and edit the most recent version of a page. Users who are not logged in will initially see the most recent sighted version, if there is one. If no version is sighted, they see the most recent one, as happens now. Users looking at a sighted version can still choose to view the most recent version and edit it.

Since its introduction in the German Wikipedia, the concept has evolved in a complex set of rules determining how Wikipedia edits are sighted. The core idea is that registered Wikipedia editors automatically receive the status as a passive or active “reviewer” depending on their respective editing history. Edits of a user with the status of a passive reviewer are automatically considered to be sighted; active reviewers have additional rights such as actively marking versions as sighted or removing the respective status.

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In the series “algorithm regulation”, we discuss the implications of the growing importance of technological algorithms as a means of regulation in the digital realm. 

Google Logo

Raúl Ochoa, CC-BY-NC-ND

Today I stumbled via twitter upon the website “Google Algorithm Change History” that chronologically documents all changes of the core search algorithm publicly announced by Google. The most striking feature of the site is the sheer number of changes:

Each year, Google changes its search algorithm up to 500 – 600 times. While most of these changes are minor, every few months Google rolls out a “major” algorithmic update that affect search results in significant ways.

In other words, it does not make sense any more to speak of “the Google algorithm” because there is not an algorithm but there are algorithm-related practices. In line with the practice turn in contemporary social theory (see Schatzki et al. 2001) and similar to perspectives such as strategy-as-a-practice, we might require a practice perspective on algorithms to better understand how algorithm regulation works.

When looking at the frequent – not to say constant – changes in Google’s search algorithm, it also becomes obvious how misleading regular comparisons with the Coca-Cola formula such as the following in a Wall Street Journal blog are:

Google is very cagey about its search algorithm, which is as key to its success as Coke’s formula is to Coca-Cola.

The algorithm of Google search is not like a static formula and therefore it should not be treated as a trade-secret either. Actually, if the search algorithm where a mere formula, we would see much more competition in search. Google is practicing algorithmic search and it is these continuous changes, which mostly rest on access to unimaginably big data sets of search and usage practices, that are difficult to imitate for competitors.

With regard to the issue of algorithm regulation, a practice perspective sensitizes for phenomena such as regulatory drift. In a paper on transnational copyright regulation, Sigrid Quack and myself describe regulatory drift as “changes in meaning and interpretation, which result from continuous (re-)application of certain legal rules” (see also Ortmann 2010). In the context of algorithms, the term might refer to the sum of continuous revision and (seemingly) minor adaptation practices, which in the end lead to substantial and partly unintended changes in regulatory outcomes.


Starting into our fifth year of blogging about governance across borders, I am pleased to continue the tradition of providing statistics on the foregoing year of blogging. For the first time we are able to present the top 5 countries our visitors came from, since our blog hosting provider has expanded its respective statistics features.

Top 5 blog posts 2012 (in terms of visitors):

  1. The State of IFRS in Africa: Is IFRS in Disarray?
  2. (Self-)Plagiarism in Academia and Architecture
  3. Securitization Revisited (1): Inside the shadow banking system
  4. Anonymous Attacks German Collecting Society GEMA*
  5. Transnational Ideas and Local Culture: Reading Sally Engle Merry’s Book on Human Rights and Gender Violence

* also #4 in the Top 5 of 2011

Top 5 search terms guiding visitors to our blog in 2012:

  1. Andhra Pradesh microfinance crisis (also #1 in 2011)
  2. anonymous (also #3 in 2011)
  3. wise cartoons
  4. china garment industry poverty
  5. cc

New: Top 5 countries our visitors came from in 2012:

  1. United States
  2. Germany
  3. India
  4. United Kingdom
  5. Canada

Top 5 tags attached to blog posts in 2012:

  1. transnational governance (4 out of 15 in 2012)
  2. copyright (4/20)
  3. Microfinance / Microcredit (4/42)
  4. IASB (3/6)
  5. Germany (3/10)

Top series in 2012:

  1. Algorithm Regulation (3 out of 3 posts in 2012)
  2. 10 Years of Creative Commons (3/3)
  3. Bordercrossing Books (3/9)

In total we have published 53 new posts in 2012, continuing our long-time average of about one post per week, and have received 151 comments (including our own trackbacks to previous articles). The latter means that the number of comments is about 25% lower than last year, when we had counted 208 comments and trackbacks.


The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
January 2013

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