Applied social media research: what makes Wikipedia tick?

Wikipedia, had in July 2010 over 12  million users and 3.5 million articles ( see latest Wikipedia Stats) and was the 4th most visited website on the planet (see latest data from Google’s AdPlanner). It is at the same time a prototypical social media site. It is user generated and run. It allows (at least in theory) any reader to improve (or vandalize) the content she is looking at by providing access to any visitor an editing interface. It permits other sites, such as, to use its content as it voraciously links to or incorporates content from other sites.

It’s success is even more significant and representative for the social media revolution because it was, at least initially, entirely due to the voluntary contributions of its members. Even now, Wikipedia only has about 40 paid staffers and its infrastructure is supported from grants and donations. There are no ads on Wikipedia, nor is the site sponsored by any commercial entity.  The social processes that make Wikipedia successful have miffed many. Its open source, free, copy-left software allows anyone with an idea to propose a new extension or tool to be added to Wikipedia’s arsenal of extensions and utilities.

How does Wikipedia actually work? What keeps it ticking? What motivates its individuals? How are the efforts of millions of contributors coordinated?  How are conflicts mediated and solved? Who sets Wikipedia’s policy? To what effect?

Early propositions of purported “wisdom of crowds” built on top of the Cathedral and the Bazaar ideology. According to this vision, expressed in the popular press, on Wikipedia individuals contribute their share not by explicit coordination or by taking their cue from official leaders and content curators, but by observing what their immediate neighbors do. Collaboration on Wikipedia is said to be locally, rather than globally coordinated and the coordination mechanisms are not dissimilar to those use by schools of fish or flocks of birds.

More recent research has unveiled, however, a complex hierarchy, with a byzantine rule making process. Albeit temporary and forever changing, bureaucratic positions and roles have emerged on Wikipedia, through which real power and consequential decisions are made. Users are often motivated not only by altruism, but also by specific agendas, which can be monetary, political, or cultural. In a word, Wikipedia is a complex environment, where as Terentius would’ve put it, nothing human is strange to it.


Bruckman et al., Becoming Wikipedian: transformation of participation in a collaborative online encyclopedia

Conference on Supporting Group Work archive, Proceedings of the 2005 international ACM SIGGROUP conference on Supporting group work table of contents, Sanibel Island, Florida, USA, SESSION: Net communities table of contents, Pages: 1 – 10 Year of Publication: 2005, ISBN:1-59593-223-2,

Traditional activities change in surprising ways when computer-mediated communication becomes a component of the activity system. In this descriptive study, we leverage two perspectives on social activity to understand the experiences of individuals who became active collaborators in Wikipedia, a prolific, cooperatively-authored online encyclopedia. Legitimate peripheral participation provides a lens for understanding participation in a community as an adaptable process that evolves over time. We use ideas from activity theory as a framework to describe our results. Finally, we describe how activity on the Wikipedia stands in striking contrast to traditional publishing and suggests a new paradigm for collaborative systems.

Kriplean et al., Community, consensus, coercion, control: cs*w or how policy mediates mass participation
Conference on Supporting Group Work archive, Proceedings of the 2007 international ACM conference on, Supporting group work table of contents, Sanibel Island, Florida, USA, SESSION: Dealing with dependencies, Pages: 167-176 , Year of Publication: 2007, ISBN:978-1-59593-845-9,

When large groups cooperate, issues of conflict and control surface because of differences in perspective. Managing such diverse views is a persistent problem in cooperative group work. The Wikipedian community has responded with an evolving body of policies that provide shared principles, processes, and strategies for collaboration. We employ a grounded approach to study a sample of active talk pages and examine how policies are employed as contributors work towards consensus. Although policies help build a stronger community, we find that ambiguities in policies give rise to power plays. This lens demonstrates that support for mass collaboration must take into account policy and power.

The Reader-to-Leader Framework: Motivating Technology-Mediated Social Participation
Jennifer Preece and Ben Shneidermann
AIS Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction (1) 1, pp. 13-32

Billions of people participate in online social activities. Most users participate as readers of discussion boards, searchers of blog posts, or viewers of photos. A fraction of users become contributors of user-generated content by writing consumer product reviews, uploading travel photos, or expressing political opinions. Some users move beyond such individual efforts to become collaborators, forming tightly connected groups with lively discussions whose outcome might be a Wikipedia article or a carefully edited YouTube video. A small fraction of users becomes leaders, who participate in governance by setting and upholding policies, repairing vandalized materials, or mentoring novices. We analyze these activities and offer the Reader-to-Leader Framework with the goal of helping researchers, designers, and managers understand what motivates technology-mediated social participation. This will enable them to improve interface design and social support for their companies, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations. These improvements could reduce the number of failed projects, while accelerating the application of social media for national priorities such as healthcare, energy sustainability, emergency response, economic development, education, and more.

Sorin Adam Matei and Caius Dobrescu
Wikipedia’s “Neutral Point of View”: Settling conflict through ambiguity
in press, The information Society

This paper discusses how one of the most important Wikipedia policies, the “neutral point of view “ (NPOV), is appropriated and interpreted by the participants in the Wikipedia project. By analyzing a set of constitutive documents for the Wikipedian universe, including discussion about NPOV, the authors conclude that ambiguity is at the heart of the policy process on Wikipedia. The overarching conclusion is that ambiguity on Wikipedia is not extraneous, but a central ingredient of this wiki project’s policy making. Ambiguity naturally develops from the pluralist and non-hierarchic values of the culture that brought Wikipedia to life, and this conclusion requires that we reconsider the nature of “neutrality” practiced on Wikipedia.

Aniket Kittur et. al
Power of the Few vs. Wisdom of the Crowd: Wikipedia and the Rise of the Bourgeoisie
World Wide Web, Vol. 1, No. 2.

Wikipedia has been a resounding success story as a collaborative system with a low cost of online participation. However, it is an open question whether the success of Wikipedia results from a “wisdom of crowds” type of effect in which a large number of people each make a small number of edits, or whether it is driven by a core group of “elite” users who do the lion’s share of the work. In this study we examined how the influence of “elite” vs. “common” users changed over time in Wikipedia. The results suggest that although Wikipedia was driven by the influence of “elite” users early on, more recently there has been a dramatic shift in workload to the “common” user. We also show the same shift in, a very different type of social collaborative knowledge system. We discuss how these results mirror the dynamics found in more traditional social collectives, and how they can influence the design of new collaborative knowledge systems.

Aniket Kittur and Robert Kraut
Beyond Wikipedia: coordination and conflict in online production groups
Computer Supported Cooperative Work archive, Proceedings of the 2010 ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work table of contents, Savannah, Georgia, USA, SESSION: Social software engineering table of contents, Pages: 215-224, Year of Publication: 2010

Online production groups have the potential to transform the way that knowledge is produced and disseminated. One of the most widely used forms of online production is the wiki, which has been used in domains ranging from science to education to enterprise. We examined the development of and interactions between coordination and conflict in a sample of 6811 wiki production groups. We investigated the influence of four coordination mechanisms: intra-article communication, inter-user communication, concentration of workgroup structure, and policy and procedures. We also examined the growth of conflict, finding the density of users in an information space to be a significant predictor. Finally, we analyzed the effectiveness of the four coordination mechanisms on managing conflict, finding differences in how each scaled to large numbers of contributors. Our results suggest that coordination mechanisms effective for managing conflict are not always the same as those effective for managing task quality, and that designers must take into account the social benefits of coordination mechanisms in addition to their production benefits.

Sorin Adam Matei

Sorin Adam Matei - Professor of Communication at Purdue University - studies the relationship between information technology and social groups. He published papers and articles in Journal of Communication, Communication Research, Information Society, and Foreign Policy. He is the author or co-editor of several books. The most recent is Structural differentation in social media. He also co-edited Ethical Reasoning in Big Data,Transparency in social media and Roles, Trust, and Reputation in Social Media Knowledge Markets: Theory and Methods (Computational Social Sciences) , all three the product of the NSF funded KredibleNet project. Dr. Matei's teaching portfolio includes online interaction, and online community analytics and development classes. His teaching makes use of a number of software platforms he has codeveloped, such as Visible Effort . Dr. Matei is also known for his media work. He is a former BBC World Service journalist whose contributions have been published in Esquire and several leading Romanian newspapers. In Romania, he is known for his books Boierii Mintii (The Mind Boyars), Idolii forului (Idols of the forum), and Idei de schimb (Spare ideas).

15 thoughts on “Applied social media research: what makes Wikipedia tick?

  • October 31, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    Wikipedia, in a sense, is a form of the ideal content production system. Participants find articles on Wikipedia that they want to edit, and in doing so may find other users who also want to edit those contents. Wikipedia has tremendous popularity and, as multiple researchers have noted, due to its popularity and widespread use, is a clear model for better understanding virtually distributed collaboration. Kittur and Kraut (2010) examined the development of coordination and conflict by extracting the data from 6811 wikis publicly hosted and based on the MediaWiki platform (p.3). They found that wikis with groups of leaders is generally associated with greater activity. More interesting to me, however, is the notion of conflict. The researchers analyzed the number of contributors and the size of the wiki on conflict through the number of reverts per month, examining task inefficiency (p.221).

    Conflict on wiki groups tends to occur through new members joining with different viewpoints and opinions, difficulties in sharing information and a reduced familiarity. Interestingly, concentration was associated with increased conflict, where editors who frequent certain articles may want to defend their ‘land.’ But a core group of editors also signaled improvement in the quality of articles, which magnifies the idea of conflict.

    What is it about Wikipedia that propels its participants towards action? Uses and gratifications research tells us that when people encounter a given stimuli, they take an active role in processing media messages and ultimately fulfilling some need (Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1974). The gratification a user finds through participation Wikipedia is for a variety of factors. Participants may be fulfilling some need of contribution towards a large body of information. On a collaborative level, because all edits to Wikipedia are permanently recorded, users can look at the history of edits to see what others have done and further that process through “Talk” pages. Collaboration occurs through discussion on those pages as well.

    Uses and gratifications may also help explain the ways that newcomers to Wikipedia become members of that community through theoretical lenses such as legitimate peripheral participation (LPP) (Bryant, Forte, & Bruckman, 2005). LPP suggests that newcomers become members by engaging in peripheral tasks that help the goals of the community. I would further argue that in doing so, users receive gratifications from such participation that further motivates them to interact.

    Motivation towards participation in Wikipedia is increasingly becoming a popular avenue for research. More recently, Wikipedia is being examined as a longitudinal network analysis that connects the editors and co-editors to articles and “Talk” pages using a data set that spans 2001-2008 (Britt, 2010). Specifically, the examination of Wikipedia as a dissasortative network is hypothesized to motivate Wikipedia users to collaborate (Britt, 2010).

    How can we better understand participation in online communities in terms of motivating factors? Does motivation depend on level of interest? More broadly, might we examine social capital as a factor? Where do you see Wikipedia as a resource and community (a debatable term itself) in the future?

    Britt, B. C. (2010). Motivating factors for collaboration on Wikipedia: A longitudinal network analysis. Unpublished manuscript.
    Bryant, S. L., Forte, A., & Bruckman, A. (2005). Becoming Wikipedian: Transformation of participation in a collaborative online encyclopedia. GROUP ’05, November 6-9.

    Katz, E., Blumler, J. G., & Gurevitch, M. (1974). Uses and gratifications research. Public Opinion Quarterly, 74, 509-523. CSCW, February 6-10, 215-224.
    Kittur, A., & Kraut, R. E. (2010). Beyond Wikipedia: Coordination and conflict in online production groups.

    • November 1, 2010 at 1:30 pm

      All good questions, but an even more interesting question is, however, if there is a specific, rather limited set of uses and gratifications…. What are the needs that Wikipedia role-playing satisfy?

  • October 31, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    I was first introduced to Wikipedia as a “good” source of information by one of my professors at another institution. Although I was introduced to Wikipedia as a so call “good” source of information, I was always told not to use it to gather information for scholarly papers because it is not viewed as “reliable” source of information. This view of Wikipedia has been with me since then and often times when I search online for information, I sometimes take a look at Wikipedia’s content on certain topics, particularly those that are hard to find research based information on.

    As an individual who works with many different virtual communities of practice (CoPs) and have seen some of the many challenges that virtual communities of practice face, I was really impressed with the way how Wikipedia was established and how it function as described in the readings. According to Bryant, Forte and Bruckman (2005), Wikipedia may be described as an open-content encyclopedia which operates through wiki technology. The content that is placed on Wikipedia can be edited by anyone who wishes to participate in the community whether as a “novice” or an “expert”. Novice participants in Wikipedia and other communities of practice are compared to a particular theoretical perspective described as legitimate peripheral participation (LPP). When newcomers join a community of practice they often participate in peripheral which differentiate their contribution to the growth and development of the community from older members of the community who are more engaged in the community and serve as experts in building the community. In Wikipedia as a community, novice or newcomers usually search for information and make basic edits at the beginning however, as they observe the actions of older/expert members they learn from them and become more involved in improving the quality of content on Wikipedia.

    The most distinctive characteristic of Wikipedia as an online collaborative encyclopedia is the low cost participation of its users. Individuals who want to engage in editing pages and add content do not have to be registered users (they can participate as anonymous users). While this freedom and easy access has been viewed as an advantage in attracting new users, it is also viewed as a disadvantage since the quality of information and content that is provided may be uncertain (Kittur, Pendleton & Mytkowicz, 2007).

    Based on the study described by Bryant, Forte and Bruckman (2005), members of Wikipedia or Wikipedians who edit existing content or provide new content really show a certain level of interest in their contribution to the site and the quality of work they provide. These members use various methods of communication with other users such as “talk pages” and messages which allow contributors to have discussion about consensus on articles that are posted. I am really interested in examining how individuals work as a group from various backgrounds in a context which seem to have very little conflicts in editing various articles in comparison to more organized and formal virtual communities of practice. I think new studies should investigate some of the issues or challenges that more organized and structured virtual communities of practice face in comparison to communities such as Wikipedia.

    • November 1, 2010 at 1:32 pm

      How does this “apprenticeship” model intersect with that proposed by Preece and Schneiderman?

  • November 1, 2010 at 6:18 am

    User generated content, in my opinion is the heart of Web 2.0 technologies and the “killer app” of the Internet. In the case of Wikipedia and other online collaboration websites I find both activity theory and legitimate peripheral participation (LPP) theory relevant (Bryant, Forte and Bruckman (2005). The Kriplean et. al. (2007) on policies in Wikipedia for mediating participation is relevant in social media as well.

    Personally, I identify with LPP. When contributing to websites, I often make small contributions and as I become more comfortable with the group and get to know individual participants better I give more significant contributions. The same is true with “real life” groups in which I participate. Kollock (1999) observation that expectation of reciprocity from the community, sense of efficacy and sustaining one’s reputation are the primary motivators of participating in a group; and the reasons why people give valuable input into a group. Allowing people to participate as much or as little as they choose seems to be an important lesson in developing a viable online community.

    As mentioned earlier, user generated content, I believe, is the heart of the Internet. For this reason legitimate peripheral participation theory should be applied when designing a social media website. Easing a user into participating seems to be the best way of ensuring on going contributions, due to the fact that there is a community for a participant to feel connected with.

    The Kriplean et. al. (2007) provided insight into managing a large number of collaborators. The article mentions many different avenues of discourse within Wikipedia. In the case of Wikipedia, anyone can contribute any content. With this it is natural for people to have disagreements on what the appropriate contributions are for the website. The article mentions several policies that Wikipedia has in place to mediate conflicts, as well as, how people attempt to garner control of articles.

    Both the Bruckman(2005) and Kriplean et. al. (2007) articles indicate the fundamental reasons Wikipedia works. The Bruckman article indicates that a sense of community, and a belief that the contributors are providing a valuable service by enhancing Wikipedia are the reasons people participate. The Kriplean article is about mitigating the amount of conflict between users by using distinct guidelines, having an overarching vision and providing a place for feedback. Overall, “real life” projects not just online collaborative can benefit from the Wikipedia model of allowing to participate and making the transition from a newcomer to old-timer gradual and have mechanisms for channeling user conflict in a way that enhances the project.

    • November 1, 2010 at 1:35 pm

      Kriplean et al. also mention ambiguity, as does Brockman, right? (I know, I am beating my own drum!). Sense of purpose and community does not seem to be enough, a live and let live (together with the behind the scenes machinations that go with them) is also a possible way to understand what makes Wikipedia tick.

  • November 1, 2010 at 11:00 am

    Reading through Matei and Dobrescu’s paper entitled “Ambiguity and Conflict in the Wikipedian knowledge production system,” I was struck by Wikipedians’ interpretation of the definition of “neutral point of view” (NPOV). Any journalist worth his/her salt can tell you how to balance out an article….add some info, credence to the other side of the issue. But, apparently on Wikipedia, if an article seems to favor a specific point of view, they’ll just revert the information back to before the edit or they’ll delete the ENTIRE page. How wasteful. The empowerment of higher-level Wikipedians is revealed with the need to delete rather than re-work that which is deemed POV.

    It’s also revealed in research that ties motivation to contribute to Wikipedia with an unwritten rule of “ownership” over certain pages (Bryant, Forte and Bruckman, 2005). Seabrook (1997) characterizes people online as those who adapt with a “plastic” or pliable nature to groups and ideas, and I do think Wikipedia shows that people tend to get real “clique-y.” You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. You protect my encyclopedic turf and I’ll protect yours. It happens in prison…why not online?

    Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales says the amount of people actually making the edits is rather small compared to the number of registered users on Wikipedia, but Kittur et. al found that, as the population of low-edit users grows, the workload has shifted from the elite to the novice.

    Does Wikipedia represent what goes on in other wikis? Kittur and Kraut (2010) found that Wikipedia and other wikis share many of the common laws that govern coordination. They found that communication and concentration “were more associated with reduction of conflict as more editors were involved.” So it looks like more editors communicating seamlessly might make for a better wiki. Eventually there will be a way – through the implementation of new technological tools – to increase consensus-based collaboration on Wikipedia…maybe through more opportunities for communication or maybe by opening up specific internal disputes to people outside the “community.” I’d like it if someone asked me for my opinion on a “legacy” issue. But if you can’t even get people out to vote, how can you get them to show interest in critically defining issues for the masses?

    Maybe people would rather edit a wiki than vote because they see it as something they actually can do to effect real change…a form of political and social participation that has far more lasting effects than the politico of the day. But what happens 200 years from now when all the wiki entries that anyone can conceive of are entered, argued through, and only need occasional updating as new events occur? Will there be entries that morph based on your viewpoint? Will there be new software that automatically enters new events or that can determine whether a new entry or edit could be plausible (so that the editors themselves don’t have to constantly monitor every edit)? What, then, will the community members focus on?

    • November 1, 2010 at 1:41 pm

      Great comments and part of your questions might be answered during our discussion next week, about Visible Effort. As for what will happen to wikis in 200 years, well, this is a great question. My belief is that Wikipedia will morph the same way the Odyssey and other oral cultural products have changed, they have become part of public consciousness to the degree to which you cannot recognize where what I said ends and what Wikipedia once said starts.

  • Pingback:Power and relationships on Wikipedia | Rebecca K. Ivic

  • November 17, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    In looking at the Wikipedia phenomenon and the users of this platform, two theories of mass communication cannot be ignored: social cognitive theory and social learning theory. In particular, Chiu, Hsu, and Wang’s research model for knowledge sharing in virtual communities (2006), which integrates the two theories, comes to mind. In this model, both personal and community outcome expectations combine with the three dimensions of social capital originally put forth by Nahapiet and Ghoshal (1998) to define the knowledge quality and the quantity of knowledge sharing in a virtual community.

    For Wikipedia, the expectations set forth are pretty simple. The community expects to benefit from the self-created Darwinian hub by having access to reliable globalized knowledge; the individual users hope to change and maintain a certain reputation within the community and intend to get satisfaction from being of some help to the Wikipedia project because they “believe in the integrity of the project” and “want to see it succeed” (Bryant, Forte, & Bruckman, 2005).

    The three elements of social capital are rather evident within the Wikipedia community. The structural dimension comes into play when the time commitment to the project and the communication networks within the community, are analyzed. Users of Wikipedia dedicate an almost unfathomable amount of time to bettering the quality and quantity of the encyclopedia pages available. Some users contribute approximately 15,000 edits to the project in just over a year (Bryant et al, 2005). Additionally, the communication systems within Wikipedia are more complex than the average users realizes. Discussion pages for every article allow users to interact and discuss recent additions or edits to the page in question. Citations, questions of accountability/responsibility among users, and many other facets of the community are brought forth in these forums.

    This ties in with the relational factor, which, according to the Nahapiet/Ghoshal definition, is based on trust, an understanding of reciprocity, and identification (1998). Trust is fundamental to Wikipedia and the hierarchy of administrative power within the community is reliant on this very element. Trusted users who have established themselves through highly rated articles or an archive of edits can gain powers not available to the average user, such as removing vandalism (Bryant et al, 2005). Reciprocity is also inherent with the system, with users of the community assigning specific users to “watch” certain articles. This system of notification will allow the more dedicated editors to closely monitor any changes made to a page. Such a responsibility is expected within the community. Users also hope to establish a level of identity on Wikipedia. Being viewed as valuable to such a profound project is something users look to achieve. An interviewed user stated that he enjoys the platform because “[i]n some ways you get recognized, you get some respect, recognition from your fellow [contributors]” (Bryant et al, 2005).

    Part of the research model’s cognitive dimension, the shared vision, is consistent among all users of Wikipedia, regardless of language: achieve that ultimate source of reliable globalized knowledge. Wikipedia is currently the largest reference website available, so vision is becoming a reality. More so than other virtual communities, Wikipedia thrives on quantity (the expansion of the articles, in terms of overall number and individual length) and quality (diligent editing and monitoring, as well as global coherence and readability). The application of media theory and research enhances understanding and the likelihood that such a unique system of free knowledge will continue to prosper.


    Bryant, S.L., Forte, A., & Bruckman, A. (2005). Becoming Wikipedian: Transformation of participation in a collaborative online encyclopedia.

    Chiu, C., Hsu, M., & Wang, E. (2006). Understanding knowledge sharing in virtual communities: An integration of social capital and social cognitive theories. Decision Support Systems, 42, 1872-1888.

    Ghoshal, S., Nahapiet, J. (1998). Social capital, intellectual capital, and the organizational advantage, The Academy of Management Review, 23, 242–266.

  • November 19, 2012 at 12:38 am

    While reading this week about the complex structure that is Wikipedia, I recalled our extensive in-class discussions about the knowledge gap hypothesis and the digital divide. Kittur et al.’s article about the power of the few versus the wisdom of the crowd set a nice stage for considering the potential intersections between the structure and functionality of Wikipedia and the digital divide. Based on the points brought forth by Kittur et al., it seems that Wikipedia could be a great example of social media that simultaneously reinforces the digital divide while also exploiting it to reduce the digital divide in the long run. Kittur et al. discussed the structural hierarchy of Wikipedia in terms of the elite user and the common user, with the elite users generally being administrators of the Wikipedia system who were well respected for their abilities to post accurate entries and to ensure the integrity of Wikipedia information. In their research study, Kittur et al. examined the editing behaviors over time of elite users and common users, and determined that elite users’ edits appeared to decline over time despite continued usage. Kittur et al. attributed this to a large increase in the number of edits being made by so-called common users. While this increase appeared to be an exciting “rise of the bourgeoisie” class, what Kittur et al. concluded was that the posts by common users would not have been able to increase so much without the leadership of the elite users to get the ball rolling.

    Kittur et al.’s conclusions seem to both support and contradict the digital divide concept. On one hand, it seems that Wikipedia could be a mechanism for reducing the digital divide because common users (e.g., users who may have exceptional knowledge or skills as compared to elite users) can be empowered to participate actively in the Wikipedia environment, indicating that those users are not simply “left in the dust” when it comes to using this type of social media. On the other hand, if it truly does take an elite user to provide the start up mechanisms for this type of social media to work, then common users are always at the mercy of elite users because they need the elite users to lay the foundations upon which the common users can build – thus the digital divide may not necessarily widen, but ultimately never ceases to exist because there is a key knowledge set needed to push this type of social media forward, and not every participant has the abilities or resources to get this knowledge set.

    While certain types of social media such as Wikipedia may not be perfect mechanisms for eliminating the digital divide, it does certainly seem that due to its interactivity social media has greater potential for reducing the digital divide than its media predecessors (e.g., television). As social media becomes available to more and more individuals, it will be interesting to observe the potential shifts in more users from common to elite status (i.e., from less skilled users to more skilled users) given that social media seems to afford users a greater learning curve than traditional media.

    In-class discussion on Knowledge Gap Hypothesis and the Digital Divide (October 30).

    Kittur, A., Chi, E., Pendleton, B. A., Suh, B., & Mytkowicz, T.
(n.d.) Power of the Few vs. Wisdom of the Crowd: Wikipedia and the Rise of the Bourgeoisie
World Wide Web, Vol. 1, No. 2.

  • November 19, 2012 at 11:12 am

    I use Wikipedia a lot. I read more than anything else, but I also provide edits. My editing is usually confined to adding information if I am reading about it elsewhere and then look it up on Wikipedia to find more information only to find the original source is not included on the Wikipedia page. I also clean up bad grammar and that sort of thing from time to time. Since I edit very infrequently, I would probably be considered a very low-influence editor of Wikipedia – the kind that only influence the site in aggregate with millions of others like me. I could not help but think, however, that editors like myself might have an effect beyond what was accounted for in these studies, especially taking into consideration last week’s readings.

    We can account for my editing behavior by measuring the direct impact on the site, but my positive opinion of Wikipedia may be of more value to the site than the entirety of my editing activity. Whether or not Wikipedia content is provided by a small group of elite editors or by a million common ones, Wikipedia’s greatest asset may be public opinion of it. It seems that enough people believe that Wikipedia is possible, and that it is a viable endeavor, and this will inevitably lead to more and more of either those common users or elite users or both. Regardless, this goodwill toward Wikipedia provides it with whatever kinds of users it needs.

    Viewing Wikipedia thus, it becomes imperative that, “They identify the site, not as a random collection of articles, but as a community of co-authors who play distinct roles and have distinct talents as they build a resource.” (Bryant, Forte, Bruckman, 9). Problems with policies such as NPOV need to be solved, not insomuch as they need to reach some kind of technical synthesis, but a social equilibrium. “NPOV is not what it explicitly says, but what the members make of it.” (Matei and Dobrescu, 45). In the effort to do this, it is a good thing that “Ambiguity is, in fact, the thing that makes Wikipedia work.” (Matei and Dobrescu, 49), as long as it provides a means by which to “agree to disagree.”

    As I was thinking about what makes Wikipedia tick, I could not help but think about those elite few who drove the site from the beginning. They did not have the comfort of a growing public belief in the site as a viable initiative. They had no sure way to know it would work. I was intrigued by the comparison to the pioneers in the Kittur et al piece. “Just as the first pioneers built infrastructure which diminished future migration costs, the early elite users of Wikipedia built up enough content, procedures, and guidelines to make Wikipedia into a useful tool that promoted and rewarded participation by new users.” (Kittur, Chi, Pendleton, Suh, Mytkowicz, 8). Though they are the only reason the site exists or in the analogy certain civilizations exist, “…the pioneers were dwarfed by the influx of the settlers.” (Kittur, Chi, Pendleton, Suh, Mytkowicz, 8) and perhaps so too Wikipedia’s primogenitors will be dwarfed by their successors. One of the admins in the Bryant, Forte, and Bruckman article asked himself when approaching an edit, “What should I say here that will be of the maximum value to some guy who looks this up five years from now?” Perhaps that the admin spent the time and believed in the project was of much greater value than his fidelity to NPOV, or than the content of whatever he actually ended up writing.


    Bryant, S.L., Forte, A., & Bruckman, A. (2005). Becoming Wikipedian: Transformation of participation in a collaborative online encyclopedia.

    Kittur, A., Chi, E., Pendleton, B. A., Suh, B., & Mytkowicz, T.
(n.d.) Power of the Few vs. Wisdom of the Crowd: Wikipedia and the Rise of the Bourgeoisie
World Wide Web, Vol. 1, No. 2.

    Matei, Sorin Adam and Caius Dobrescu. Wikipedia’s “Neutral Point of View”: Settling conflict through ambiguity. in press. The information society.

  • November 19, 2012 at 11:44 am

    Wikipedia is one of the archetypes in my primary research interest of online collaboration, so I was very interested in the readings this week. One thing that I found lacking from the readings was a discussion of how unexpected Wikipedia was (with the exception of Bryant et al., 2005). Knowledge creation and distribution has always been costly, both on the production side and the consumption side. The most recent (and final) printed version of the Encylopaedia Brittanica sold for $1400 (Kearney, 2012). Having an encyclopedia in your home was not only a measure of your devotion to knowledge, but a measure of wealth.

    The idea that a similar resource could be produced by volunteers – anonymous volunteers, no less – and distributed for free – is almost ludicrous. In fact, Wikipedia’s designers did not even think it would work. They didn’t create it as a stand-alone project, but thought that articles would need to be vetted by professionals. Only when it took off, and produced articles of surprising quality and number did they start to see it as potentially viable (Lih, 2009). Our knowledge about human nature and motivations just did not predict that something like this would be successful, and certainly not at this scale. I think that it is helpful to remind ourselves of that, to see Wikipedia as the shock – the near-miracle – that it is.

    It is from this perspective that I want to discuss the readings. I find Internet research interesting precisely because I think that things like Wikipedia reveal unexpected things, forcing us to rethink our assumptions. First, I think that we have to recognize that people have a deep desire to be a part of something important. Preece and Shneidermann touch on this. As people start on the periphery of Wikipedia, their participation is motivated by selfish interests – they are seeking information. Some then start making minor edits on pages that they are interested in, and eventually see themselves as part of a community, and focus their edits on supporting the community and its goals, rather than on specific content (Preece and Shneidermann, 2009).

    Another interesting finding, at least to me, is that Wikipedia (and similar projects) are deeply embedded in a social structure. The content is a product of both logical discussions and group politics, with all of the backbiting and power plays that are a part of existing in a group (Kriplean et al., 2007). It is the norms, particularly the codified norms (i.e., policies) which help to both create/enforce power structures, and also to negotiate through them to build the content (Kriplean et al., 2007; Matei & Dobrescu, 2010?).

    Lastly, I think that it’s worth mentioning that Kittur et al. article is somewhat dated (2007). Recent research has shown that, at least for the English language Wikipedia, participation has started to wane, perhaps due to the fact that it is nearing “completion”, and has matured to the point where increasing participants are no longer needed (Crowston et al., 2012). An analysis of which roles are declining, similar to the Kittur et al. paper, would be very interesting.

    References Not from Readings
    Crowston et al. (2012). Is Wikipedia Inefficient? Modelling Effort and Participation in Wikipedia. SSRN. Retrieved from

    Kearney, Christine. (2012, March 14). Encyclopaedia Britannica: After 244 years in print, only digital copies sold. Retrieved from

    Lih, A. (2009). The Wikipedia revolution: How a bunch of nobodies created the world’s greatest encyclopedia. New York: Hyperion.

  • November 19, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    Great crop of comments. One caveat: Wikipedia is driven by power games and power seeking and has become more centralized in its last days that what Kittur et al believe…

  • November 19, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    ​Wikipedia should never have existed, or so said critics of the early Wikipedia, which has since grown by leaps and bounds to become a valuable resource. Many critics argued that Wikipedia would have massive problems in credibility and managability, but through various regulations and other norms in place, Wikipedia is now an excellent encylopedia that is extremely well organised, with information seen to be almost as credible as the Britannica. (Niederer, van Dijck, 2010)

    ​I am interested in how the platform has facilitated online collaboration to such a large extent, and why the contributors to the system are so motivated to do so.

    ​ Bryant et. al (2005) touched briefly on these motivations, but focussed largely on the evolution of the user from novice to expert Wikipedian. Preece and Schneiderman (2009) also suggest a Reader-to-Leader Framework, and posit that as users of a group consistently interact, they evolve to become contributors, to collaborators, and finally leaders. However, what makes readers take the first step?

    ​Niederer and van Dijck (2010) argue that it is becoming increasingly simple for inexperienced users to begin their contributions, thanks to a “technomanagerial system” which implements a “strict hierarchical content management system”. They also comment that ironically, thanks to a strict system of norms and social controls, Wikipedia becomes a “warm and friendly” space, modulated by protocols, “agreement, organised implementation […] and directed participation”. (Galloway, 2004) This might be one of the triggers to induce readers to take the first step, because they are able to take small steps to “wet their feet”, so to speak.

    ​With regards to motivations, Malone et al (2009) suggest a set of collaborative “genes”, which can then form “genomes”. These genes define the who, what, why and how of a system that harnesses collective or collaborative intelligence. In their article, they define the “Love” gene as a key reason why contributors take part so actively in Wikipedia. They are motivated largely by intrinsic enjoyment, opportunities to socialise, and because they feel they are contributing to a cause that is larger than themselves. Another gene that Malone et al identifies is that of “Glory”, where contributors contribute because they are motivated by the promise of recognition. Preece and Schneiderman (2009) also mention that several design elements of Wikipedia also promote contributions via visibility of login names.

    ​I think it will be interesting to examine how Wikipedia manages to trigger in each person to take the next step in Bryant’s Reader to Leader Framework, and using such triggers in other contexts may generate more interactivity and collaboration in other online communities.

    ​References (outside of class readings):

    ​Galloway A (2004) Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralisation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

    ​Malone, T, Laubacher R, Dellarocas C. (2009) Harnessing Crowds: Matching the genome of collective intelligence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

    ​Niderer, S., van Dijck, J. (2010) ‘Wisdom of the crowd or technicity of content? Wikipedia as a sociotechnical system.’, New Media & Society.


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