Towards formalizing ProleWiki's culture

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by CriticalResist
Published: 2023-08-26 (last update: 2023-09-23)
10-20 minutes

As ProleWiki evolves, it's only natural that this project slowly finds a culture of its own and cements it -- and not only that, but self-reproduces it as well.

Community culture is very important for many reasons. One of them is through that process of self-reproduction. As new editors come in, they can quickly get a feel for what is expected of them and where they can participate, with minimal delay to get them up to speed and active, as well as minimal reading required. Nobody wants to have to spend a dozen hours understanding what they just joined before they can participate on it.

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As ProleWiki evolves, it's only natural that this project slowly finds a culture of its own and cements it -- and not only that, but self-reproduces it as well.

Community culture is very important for many reasons. One of them is through that process of self-reproduction. As new editors come in, they can quickly get a feel for what is expected of them and where they can participate, with minimal delay to get them up to speed and active, as well as minimal reading required. Nobody wants to have to spend a dozen hours understanding what they just joined before they can participate on it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how information travels and gets to where it needs to. Each time a new editor comes to ProleWiki, they need to know some things before they can edit and fully participate in the community. Currently, this is done through reading some texts we’ve set up. But with a sufficiently developed culture, these things happen more naturally, without any conscious input.

With sufficiently developed culture, it’s even possible to get people to think about something the way one wants before they’ve even interacted with your product. I’m not speaking of ProleWiki here, but let's maybe just look at Wikipedia itself. Many of us have never edited on Wikipedia and have no intention to, but all of us broadly know how it works and what’s expected of editors there: you can edit everything but expect to get it reverted if you don’t abide by the rules. Source your edits, but no primary sources. That's something most of us know about Wikipedia despite never having edited there. And when the time comes and one decides to click that edit button on Wikipedia, they’ll have internalised all of those rules and will subconsciously apply them.

Culture is many things at once: it's both internalised and projected, like the Wikipedia example. With sufficiently developed culture, ProleWiki can be seen as an authoritative reference for topics to marxists.

As was said in the opening paragraph, culture is a process that takes place naturally. But that doesn’t mean we can’t speed it up with some conscious effort. To that end, I’d like to formalise some concepts that drive ProleWiki forward. Here is our situation:

  1. ProleWiki is in a specific situation where all labour done on the project is volunteer. Nobody is paid for the work they provide to ProleWiki, from the administrators down to the editors and possible outside participants (like the person who set up our VPS the first time around). We are all on equal footing. Not only that, but we are also an ever-growing community.
  2. We are also quite unique in that we can branch out further than simply the wiki. We have an essays space as well as a library, we have a Youtube account with a few videos, and we could decide pretty easily to start a podcast, a news website, or anything else we want to, resources permitting (both in labour and material).

These two simple observations define everything about ProleWiki and its place on the web.

Compare to our most direct analogues: streamers and other online personalities. While streamers or journalists have everything attached to their name -- people want to watch Hakim or read the words of Roderic Day specifically -- ProleWiki attaches everything to its name; our project is bigger than any one user and can survive editors leaving, or scandals. Our communal nature also helps us harbour a variety of viewpoints (even though we are all Marxist-Leninists and agree on the fundamental points); this makes us resilient.

Unlike other projects, we are not completely closed either. Newspapers like the Grayzone and Mintpress will, understandably, hire journalists and not let just anyone write for them. But due to being a (collaborative) wiki project, we don’t have to worry about that. Likewise, since we do not pay anyone, we have no considerations about being productive. There’s no quotas for participating on ProleWiki, anyone can do so in their own time.

And while we are a semi-closed encyclopedia (anyone can request an account, but that account might not always be accepted), this actually plays in our favour. The fact that we are selective with our new editors helps ensure we have an adequate line and don’t dilute our culture and what makes ProleWiki what it is. While it could lead to an echo chamber, it also avoids factionalism and allows ProleWiki to develop a coherent, productive line.

In fact, we’ve found over time the only way ProleWiki could function is with this semi-closed system, so as to avoid pointless private debates between factions. Factionalism would immediately emerge on ProleWiki, as it has in the past before we were so stringent, and lead to a general decline in the quality of our articles. We are solely Marxist-Leninist and we assert it.

ProleWiki is flexible

This, I think, forms the first axis of our culture, driven by this very unique situation: ProleWiki is flexible. Essentially, everything can be relevant to ProleWiki. Anyone can participate on ProleWiki and bring ideas; there’s no rigid hierarchy and “proper” way of doing things. Most of the time, we make up our processes as we come across an issue. We find out what worked in a certain case, and apply that in future cases.

Due to our volunteer-based nature, we can take in suggestions from anyone that has them, they don’t necessarily need to be editors or have been with us for a long time to provide something of value to ProleWiki.

If a new editor (defined as someone who has an account on ProleWiki) wants to help write for Twitter rather than edit articles, they can easily submit that proposal and join us on the agitprop team. If an editor wants to start a new project for ProleWiki, such as a podcast, they can also look into doing that freely without requiring hard approval. There's no rigid structure one has to go through like they would at their job and while there is an administration team, our role is mostly to ensure ProleWiki's efforts stay on the right path (the one defined by our principles).

But our strength is also in our numbers: we have many different editors from many different countries and regions, with their own ideas and bias. And this is a good thing; this is how ProleWiki has become so strong over the years, and how we come out with the correct solutions and answers on every issue we face, no matter how big or small.

If decisions and suggestions were relegated only to the administration for example, or a small, closed group, we would eventually stagnate and lose sight of our original goal and base: the editors.

That's why I think it's only the correct analysis to notice this flexibility we have, in all ways possible. We are flexible in our administrative processes, and we are flexible in our editorial practices. In other words, there's something for everyone on ProleWiki. Or in other words, on ProleWiki, you should not expect that the administration will be giving you orders like they're your boss.

ProleWiki is constantly improving

The second cultural axis I have seen develop is that of constant improvement. This is driven mostly by the very nature of a wiki, where page edits are encouraged. Any improvement whatsoever to ProleWiki, whether it is as small as correcting a typo, or as big as completely redoing a whole section of the website or launching an offshoot project (such as a podcast, since we were talking about it, or the library we recently redid), is an improvement and is therefore always desirable on that virtue alone.

Owing to this volunteer nature and the resulting fact that we’re all on equal footing, one thing we must banish from ProleWiki (and have mostly banished already) is laziness in the sense that “someone else will do it”. I think it’s very important that anyone who is able to do something for ProleWiki is given the possibility to do it, and also understands that they have this possibility.

If you see a typo on a page, go into the editor and correct it the moment you see it. If you see a paragraph that is wrong, go into the editor and edit it the moment you see it. If you were going to ask why a page doesn't talk about a certain event, go into the editor and write about the event!

I myself have learned new skills by going into the trenches head-first and figuring my way out of it, and I honestly can only recommend you do it too. It has taught me skills that I can use not only in life, but in my activism as a communist as well (in my party and agitation work).

There is simply no limit to this philosophy; anyone is able to start, at any time, a project they deem interesting for ProleWiki. The administration is there to help decide if that project is worthwhile (considering our goals and resources), and then help set it up.

Both of those principles I think are being rapidly developed, but have not yet made their way entirely to the editorship -- at least not in a formalised manner.

There’s a pervasive thinking which we owe to our upbringing in capitalist societies that when we see something that bothers us, we don't do anything about it because “it's not my job” or “somebody is already on it, so I don’t have to worry about it”. On ProleWiki at least, if someone is interested in doing something, then they should go for it. If someone notices something that they help with, then they should help, even if they find it boring or uninteresting.

That is the difference between plain improvement and constant improvement. Constant improvement means that it never stops, and bases itself on the fact that there is always something to improve, even if it's not readily apparent; nothing is ever perfect and we can always get it just that much closer, even if it's only a little bit.

The great thing I’ve come to notice about ProleWiki is that it really gives back what you put in it tenfold. Think of it this way: we could, at this very moment, decide to leave ProleWiki as is. Stop accepting new editors, stop making Twitter posts, stop editing pages, etc.

ProleWiki would still exist. Our pages would still be read, we would still have visitors, we might still make edits sometimes, but it would be just a heartbeat: there’s the appearance of activity, but nothing else.

On the other hand, we can apply labour towards ProleWiki and improve our pages, we can make them look better, you can focus the skills you possess towards constantly improving ProleWiki, and you will see results come back to you. For example, we have a book club managed by our comrade RedCustodian and it’s a resounding success every week, for which I hope he feels proud and which the community appreciates.

In a few months of agitprop work, we've doubled our readership. This is something we can proud of, that people are actually reading and browsing ProleWiki, that they find value in it and that it's a direct result of the work we put in.

Facing our shortcomings

ProleWiki still has deficiencies in some aspects. For example, many of our approved editors end up never making an edit, or only very small ones. We should investigate the reasons for this properly, and then lay out what we can do to remedy it. This, incidentally, can be taken up by any editor who feels they would be able to carry this out.

Many people also don’t seem to know they can freely request an account on ProleWiki, likely owing to the fact that most of us don’t expect online projects to be open to the public in this way (but be set up more like Youtube channels and online papers where a closed, select team works on them). This is also something we need to address. Referring back to how culture spreads and help internalise concepts before they even become relevant, I think there is work to be done there in getting people to associate ProleWiki with open participation. That is to say, nobody ever asks “okay but can I edit Wikipedia?”, everyone intuitively knows they can.

I mentioned apathy earlier, and I think in this case it comes from the administration: we see things that editors might not see, because we have access to pages they don’t (and also keep up with ProleWiki every day, which we don’t expect of other editors). For example, we know every time we accept a new editor because we’re the ones who click the button; editors only see a line in the change log. It’s because of differences such as these that we see how many editors actually never end up editing, for example. We also see them join the Discord where they give us their name on ProleWiki, which sometimes differ from their handle, and so as the admins we know who joins the Discord and who doesn't, but the rest of the editorship doesn't get that information and doesn't really keep up with new arrivals on the server.

To help with that, I’ve started posting more into the public-facing parts of our discord server so that both newer editors and discord members who are not editors can see the work we do behind the scenes, and that everything that happens on ProleWiki happens because someone, somewhere, put work into it to get a result.

I think more works need to be done however and this is something we need to look at more closely, always in this flexible and constant improvement mindset.

Concluding thoughts

There are, of course, other aspects to culture. Our Discord server for example has created its own culture with its values and codes; it’s become a casual, laid-back place where discussions take place and good moments happen. This is also part of our culture, and I don’t think we could truly ever formalise all of what makes ProleWiki’s culture (or any culture) on paper.

But with these two principles alone, I think ProleWiki is well on its way to becoming a strong force for communists worldwide, with yet untapped potential.

After three years of existence, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what ProleWiki is capable of. Our culture will also develop naturally over time and, of course, evolve too. Perhaps we’ll look back at this essay in ten years and see that it’s become completely outdated. But for our conditions today, at this moment, I think these are two simple principles we are naturally trending towards, that everyone can easily apply and integrate. I hope that by writing this document, we are on our way to formalising the premises of our culture and editors will consciously apply the principles outlined here.

Comrades, regardless of what the future holds, I’m happy that I get to share this journey with you.